Art and Identity by Dit Wah Deng
With our minds we create the world. In every new situation we encounter, we are bound by our particular perspective. True objectivity does not exist. Direct knowledge of the world is masked by the filter of our history and cultural context. This being the case, how can we ever hope to bring together differing points of view? How can we truly create peace on our streets and in the world?

We all wear masks – contrived, created, constructed by our imaginations and experiences or postulated, prejudged, and presumed by others. How well these masks confine or define us depends on our conception of identity and of our place in the world.

When I look at my own multicultural, multi-layered identity, it's hard to choose who or what I really am. Philadelphian, American, Asian, Chinese, Shanghainese, Macauan, Hong Kongese, British (a one-time subject if not citizen), artist, chef, engineer, husband, father, cancer-survivor, youth mentor, Buddhist, Unitarian, optimist. Nationality, ethnicity, occupation, lifestyle, experience, and belief blend to create the me that other people see.

On the surface, my identity is fluid. I can slip conveniently from one identifier to another – changing faces, changing masks – whether to forge an alliance or to keep my guard. These markers of my history and memory are useful tools as daily I face a world of uncertainty. Still, I want to look beyond the masks and understand what lies at the core.

We all long to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Without such a connection, we suffer in isolation. Unfortunately, all too often what connects us to some, masks us from others. Cultural conceits, belief systems, even sports team favoritisms divide as much as they gratify.

So what truly connects us to each other? Where are the critical junctures: the concepts, struggles, cares and hopes that we have in common? And how best may we seize these points of convergence – of possible reconciliation – to create positive change in our own lives and for our communities?

A Chinese sage once said, “Break down the walls and be surrounded by the garden.” In our incessant, insistent labeling of people, places, and contexts, we’ve lost sight of the whole. We play at democracy, inclusiveness, but, in truth, we are only a cacophony of separate voices, each promoting our individual wants and desires. We can advocate, instigate, and/or legislate for justice. But ultimately, all lasting change first occurs within oneself. It is up to each of us, alone, to overcome the masks.

I believe that we are saved or condemned, both as individuals and collectively, by the degree to which we give ourselves in service to others. Consider this: such service begins with truly seeing, if only for a moment, each person you meet as a tragic and heroic spirit, a singular consciousness emanating from the same source as your own. Such service continues with honest dialogue that freely reveals and dissects the masks – stereotypes and our responsibility for them – and honors all those participating. Finally, based on my years of collaborative work with people all around the world, such service is renewed again and again in creative community action.

The ultimate art is insight, our one true connection to each other and to our common birthright as children of the universe. So it is with our minds – and open hearts and willing hands – we create the world.

Philip Dit Wah Deng Tang (1953-2006) was an interdisciplinary artist working for cultural change in Philadelphia neighborhoods and co-founder of COSACOSA art at large, Inc. His projects include Connection, an 80' x 5' ceramic mural at the Philadelphia International Airport, created as a city-wide collaboration among Philadelphia youth to explore their common needs and hopes; three acclaimed films created with North Philadelphia youth for National Learn and Serve America; Mask and Metaphor, a year-long project exploring cross-cultural and community identity; and numerous public art works for our Healing Art Project.

Artolatry bread image after Salvadore Dalí's Basket of Bread (1926).