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Combating Coronavirus-Related Racism Through Art

Elena Ohlander's "Not a Virus" is pictured from her "Xenophobia" collection.
Toni Smailagic
Elena Ohlander's "Not a Virus" is pictured from her "Xenophobia" collection.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a number of local projects on hold, including in the art world.

Credit Toni Smailagic
Artist Elena Ohlander

That’s been the case for Jacksonville-based artist Elena Ohlander, but she’s not letting the crisis slow her down.

Instead, it has inspired her to create a new body of work, “Xenophobia,” which is intended to help break down some of the stereotypes and fear surrounding the pandemic.


On Tuesday’s First Coast Connect with Meliss Ross, Ohlander explained:











“So, as this pandemic has unfolded, it's been an incredible source of uncertainty, anxiety and fear and as the rise in cases since it broke out in Wuhan, China, and statements such as 'Chinese Virus' have been used, there's been an escalation of discrimination, hate crimes and xenophobia toward people of Asian descent in America and around the world."


Credit Toni Smailagic
Ohlander's "Toxic: Made in Wuhan"

Ohlander continued, "So this body of work is an account of actual words used in discrimination against Asians shown in the media, in the news and in the news and personal accounts that have been sent to me and told to me by friends,and it's a reflection of that in the work.”

Related: Listen to the full interview with Ohlander

The artist, who is Chinese American, added that she has also experienced some of this racism first-hand:

In the beginning, around maybe early March...before the quarantine really started to take effect, I had gone to the grocery store and in passing, someone said to me, ‘go back to China.’ And I was, you know, kind of taken aback and I didn't engage with them. I just kind of, you know, kept my head down and kept moving forward. I've had someone say to me that I'm not wearing the proper mask, I need to be wearing an N 95 mask because I might have the virus.”

Related: Local, State, And National Coronavirus Coverage


She said that once it’s safe to do, she hopes to be able to exhibit her “Xenophobia” pieces, along with other related visual and verbal references, to help bring even more awareness to the issue.

Credit Toni Smailagic
Ohlander's "Not the Enemy."

In the meantime, people can view the artwork on her website and social media channels. Ohlander has also shifted her way of working - and is now creating and selling pieces using new mediums, such as stickers and clothing to support herself and her daughter, while her other projects - and sources of income - are on hold. And, she is engaging with her fans directly, via Instagram Live Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings at 6:30 p.m.

Ohlander said that the response to her efforts have been positive.

“People have been so supportive in the community and beyond. It's been really heartwarming.”


Heather Schatz can be reached at or on Twitter at @heatherschatz.