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Radical Return
Radical Return
Nov 20, 2021
Dec 20, 2021
Curated by
Mary Yang & Zhongkai Li

Presented by
Boston University Art Galleries
College of Fine Arts
November 8–December 12, 2021
Boston, Massachusetts, USA


November 20–December 20, 2021
Jing'an, Shanghai, China

Installation view, IS A GALLERY
Installation view, Boston University Art Galleries

Boston University Art Galleries and IS A GALLERY present in partnership Radical Return 激进回返, an exhibition that highlights Chinese and Chinese American graphic designers. Radical Return is co-curated by Mary Y. Yang, Assistant Professor of Art, Graphic Design at Boston University School of Visual Arts and Zhongkai Li, Director of IS A GALLERY. The exhibition will be on view simultaneously at BU Art Galleries in Boston, Massachusetts from November 8 to December 12 and at IS A GALLERY in Shanghai, China from November 20 to December 20, 2021.

Co-curators Mary Yang and Zhongkai Li are the founders of Radical Characters, a study group and curatorial project that explores the relationship between design and culture in the Chinese and Chinese American community. Radical Return is on view simultaneously at IS A GALLERY located at the site of the Shanghai Printing Technology Research Institute, the birthplace of modern Chinese fonts and one of the first type foundries in China and BU Art Galleries at the College of Fine Arts at Boston University, an urban campus situated within the heart of Boston. “We thought it would be appropriate to place the two galleries in conversation with one another considering their locations globally and the local and international audiences that they attract,” says Yang and Li. 

Drawing upon the history and origin of the site of IS A GALLERY, Yang and Li became interested in the ways in which designers can use Chinese typography as a point of inquiry to learn, innovate, and study graphic design from a non-linear approach. Each project initiated by Radical Characters is informed by a 汉字 Hanzi (Chinese character) and extends into the forms of exhibitions, publications, lectures, and workshops. As Chinese American and Chinese graphic designers interested in cultural exchange in their own practices, Yang and Li hope that each project serves as a way to decentralize the design canon and to co-build history and community by initiating dialogues through educational experiences.

The first project is Radical Return, an exhibition that draws inspiration from the Chinese character 回 hui, which means to return, to turn around, to circle or to reply. To return implies movement, but the one who is returning must choose the direction. Why does one return to something, someone, or somewhere? An international call for submissions prompted participants to use 回 as a grid—visually and conceptually—to frame their response to the exhibition theme. Radical Return urges participants to consider a path they seek to retrace as Chinese or Chinese American artists. The selected work features 36 Chinese and Chinese American artists and graphic designers who explore acts of return through language, tradition, memory, identity, and history. This group of artists works across a range of media to embrace, challenge, and expand what it means to “return” in their artistic practice and in relation to their positions in the world today. The exhibition opens up a collective space to probe our societal traditions and cultures. Radical Characters acknowledges that the works by no means form a complete picture of the multifaceted and complex narratives experienced by Chinese and Chinese American designers, but rather shape an in-progress collection site for building knowledge through the exchange of graphic design and culture.

BU Art Galleries and IS A GALLERY work in parallel to place the works in conversation with one another through the curatorial plan and exhibition design—within each gallery and across the two countries and time zones. At BU Art Galleries the exhibition serves as an educational space displaying the works by the artists and the research that informed 回, the exhibition theme. The works are sequenced in conversation with one another—both complementary and at times contradictory—revealing a myriad of perspectives. Educational materials such as Chinese graphic design and typography books sit at the center of the gallery space on a square table, encouraging visitors to participate in the learning process. “Hosting the exhibition at an art gallery within a top research institution naturally created an opportunity to connect students in our BFA and MFA School of Visual Arts Graphic Design programs—as well as students at other universities—with leading professionals in the field,” says Yang.

The gallery lightbox window at BU Art Galleries features a large mind map, designed by Danielle Chang (Exhibition & Design Assistant and a Junior at BU School of Visual Arts, Graphic Design), that makes conceptual connections to acts of returning. At night, the window is activated by a lightbox and directs the viewer’s attention to IS A GALLERY. Yang and Li add, “There’s something exciting about having the exhibitions in two locations. Technically, the show is open all day due to the thirteen hour time difference. As one gallery closes for the day, the other one opens.” At IS A GALLERY, the works are displayed on the ground, creating a maze-like path that encourages visitors to create their own path through the gallery. This gives viewers the option to view the work from any direction and to make their own connections among the works—tracing their individual path around the work as well as returning back to their initial position in the gallery.

“We’re looking forward to seeing how this community grows and exploring more ways to gather and share collective knowledge within and beyond the Chinese and Chinese American community.”


This exhibition includes work by contemporary artists and designers: Evelyn Bi, Elias Chen, Weiyun Chen, Xing Cheung, Muyuan He, Gene Hua, Oliver Hua, Howsem Huang, Felix Huang, Daedalus Guoning Li, Cecily Li, Qiuwen Li, Jay Li, Angela Lian, Guang Qin Lin, Leslie Liu, Chen Luo, Yuedi Lyu, Maya Man, Candice Ng, Zhengzhong Pan, Desmond Pang, Tongji Philip Qian, Jiang Shan, Karen Tian, Zihao Wang, Mac (Naiqian) Wang, Yufei Weng, Bin Wu, Boyang Xia, Spencer Yujia Yan, Nina Jun Yuchi, Zhang Zhan, Eager Zhang, Dan Zhang, and Zipeng Zhu.

Curated and organized by Mary Y. Yang, Assistant Professor of Art, Graphic Design at Boston University, and Zhongkai Li, Director of IS A GALLERY. Exhibition Design: Open Rehearsal. Exhibition & Design Assistant: Danielle Chang. Editors: Lucy Yan (English) and Yao Meng (Chinese).

Radical Return is on view simultaneously at BU Art Galleries and IS A GALLERY. BU Art Galleries is a part of the College of Fine Arts at Boston University in two locations on the University campus—the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery and 808 Gallery (808 is currently closed due to the pandemic). The galleries offer temporary exhibitions that focus on contemporary international, national, and regional art developments as well as exhibiting faculty-led projects and student thesis exhibitions. IS A GALLERY is located at the site of the Shanghai Printing Technology Research Institute, the birthplace of modern Chinese fonts and one of the first type foundries in China. IS A GALLERY supports different modes of design, artistic, scholarly, and educational work through different platforms for public engagement.

2D composition leads to pathways in 3D space based on the Hanzi character 回, which means to return, to turn around, to circle, or to reply.
Design work is arranged on the floor in square units, encouraging visitors to make their own pathway in the gallery.


The Boston University Art Galleries, which includes two locations on the Boston University campus – the Faye G., Jo, and James Stone Gallery and 808 Gallery – is located at 855 Commonwealth Avenue inside the College of Fine Arts. Dedicated to serving the Boston University community as well as the greater Boston and New England public, the Boston University Art Galleries is located on the Boston University campus (BU West T stop on the “B” Green Line). Gallery hours are Tuesday – Saturday from 11am–5pm, (closed Sundays, Mondays, and holidays.) For more information, visit bu.edu/art.


Founded in 1839, Boston University is an internationally recognized institution of higher education and research. With more than 34,000 students, it is the fourth-largest independent university in the United States. BU consists of 17 schools and colleges, along with a number of multi-disciplinary centers and institutes integral to the University’s research and teaching mission. In 2012, BU joined the Association of American Universities (AAU), a consortium of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada. Learn more at bu.edu.


Established in 1954, Boston University College of Fine Arts (CFA) is a community of artist-scholars and scholar artists who are passionate about the fine and performing arts, committed to diversity and inclusion, and determined to improve the lives of others through art. With programs in Music, Theatre, and Visual Arts, CFA prepares students for a meaningful creative life by developing their intellectual capacity to create art, shift perspective, think broadly, and master relevant 21st-century skills. CFA offers a wide array of undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs, as well as a range of online degrees and certificates. Learn more at bu.edu/cfa.

Exhibition Assistant
Danielle Chang
Exhibition Design
Open Rehearsal
Editorial Team
Jay Li, Angela Lian, Anni Qingyang Yu
Exhibition Photography
Junli Chen, Tony Luong