When Asian-American Artists Are Unburdened by Identity
STANFORD, Calif. — Currently on view at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University is the exhibition East of the Pacific: Making Histories of Asian American Art, curated by Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander. The exhibition is one of several inaugurating the Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI) at the Cantor.
Co-directed by curator Alexander and art historian Marci Kwon, the initiative launched in 2021. Its mission is to acquire, preserve, and exhibit work by Asian-American artists and to foster scholarship and research through education, digital documentation, and public programming.
A major part of East of the Pacific is dedicated to Executive Order 9066, which ordered the forced incarceration of Japanese and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast, and the effects of Japanese-American internment loom large over the exhibition. As I read the wall texts that recounted stories of artworks by Japanese Americans being lost or destroyed as a result of their forced incarceration during World War II, I couldn’t help but think also about the artists’ studios and teaching careers that were lost to or destroyed by the internment of Japanese Americans. What could have been possible were it not for the United States government’s racist policies?
At the same time I was heartened by the resilience of many of these artists — those who continued to teach and create and document their experiences in the camps. Several of the exhibition’s artists made work about the experience and conditions of being interned in these incarceration camps, including Henry Yuzuru Sugimoto, whose powerful black and white linocuts are on view. “Goodbye My Son” depicts the heartbreaking scene of an interned family saying goodbye to their son, who has been drafted or has volunteered to serve in the US army, to prove his loyalty to the country that has incarcerated him. Hanging directly below it is “My Son Hurt in Action,” which portrays a family (perhaps the same one) receiving the news that their son has been injured serving in the US military. These linocuts were donated by Patrick and Sandra Hayashi; Patrick himself is a survivor of an incarceration camp.
East of the Pacific also revisits Other Sources: An American Essay, an exhibition organized by the artist Carlos Villa in 1976, which, by focusing on Bay Area artists of color, was an unapologetic act of claiming space on the occasion of the US Bicentennial. This section includes a beautiful example of Leo Valledor’s signature-shaped canvases, this one called “Rothkokoro,” in which shimmering geometric angles and lines float in and out of a field of orange and connect its two canvases together. Other highlights are a small Abstract Expressionist painting by James Suzuki exemplary of his early compositions of orb-like forms floating in a field of gestural brushstrokes, and a large Bernice Bing painting that shows the influence of gestural abstraction, as a large area of blue provides a counterpoint to the rest of the craggy, cliff-like scaffolds of brushwork and color. On the more playful end of the spectrum are nonfunctional ceramic vessels by Toshiko Takaezu and a graphic grid of biomorphic pictograms by Takeshi Kawashima.
I appreciated the range of work that was in East of the Pacific, and, by extension, the collection that the AAAI is starting to amass, since the bulk of the exhibition was drawn from this collection. Many artworks responded to the natural beauty of the West Coast in various ways, such as a 1930 painting, “Coastal Scene,” by Teikichi Hikoyama, which depicts waves breaking over rocks in a typically Euro-American landscape painting style. In contrast, a breathtaking sumi-e painting by Chiura Obata called “Yosemite Falls” interprets the drama of the Yosemite landscape through traditional Japanese ink painting. Dong Kingman’s exquisite watercolor, “Chinatown, Clay and Grant,” from c. 1950 is mostly straightforward, while Martin Wong’s “Chinatown Dragon” is painted in his signature gritty blend of social realism and visionary art. Much of the exhibition didn’t engage explicitly with identity; this allowed for a range of expression not usually granted to Asian American artists — something especially refreshing in this rare moment of visibility, when it often seems that the only way to be an Asian American artist is to make work that is legibly about Asian-ness. It is especially disheartening to see shows, organizations, and galleries run by Asian Americans that fall into this trap and implicitly or explicitly promote this idea.
To coincide with the inaugural exhibitions, the AAAI organized IMU UR2: Art, Aesthetics, and Asian America, a two-day symposium gathering prominent Asian and Asian American artists, curators, and scholars to share short presentations and participate in group discussions. This event was quite possibly the most important gathering of Asian American artists, historians, and scholars that has been organized in my lifetime, and certainly the most important one that I have personally attended. Each panelist — among them Margo Machida, Christine Y. Kim, Joan Kee, and John Yau — gave a 10-minute presentation on a single image related to the panel’s themes, highlighting the multiplicity of ideas and questions around Asian American art. During the session introducing the online Martin Wong catalogue raisonne, another of the AAAI’s inaugural projects, art historian Mark Dean Johnson noted that even the title of the symposium (named after a phrase by Wong) “is an expression of solidarity, and also difference and fragmentation at the same time.”
Several of the artists discussed their own work, such as Patty Chang, whose presentation focused on her recent collaborative project, Learning Endings, in which she observed a porpoise necropsy with wildlife pathologist Aleksija Neimanis and ecofeminist writer Astrida Neimanis, and raised questions about interspecies empathy and how that might open up questions of identity. Art historian Patrick Flores used a work by Anita Magsaysay-Ho to challenge the audience to take a more global and transnational view of Asian Americanism. Poet Dorothy Wang used a poem by Prageeta Sharma to warn against the dangers of feeling gratitude for crumbs of representation. Artist Arlan Huang’s presentation began with an often reproduced photo of Godzilla collective members from 1990 to provide a brief history of the group and discuss the different career and life paths the members have taken since that photo. At several points, younger artists and scholars mentioned the work and support of their elders, with whom they shared a stage, and thanked them. For me, this intergenerational camaraderie was the heart of the symposium. New York-based curator Howie Chen spoke about being invigorated by the legacies of the older generation that fought for recognition, and about viewing his own role as one of examining the contradictions and tensions that arise amid the pressure to make “Asian American” a stable and definable identity.
Before relocating to the West Coast from Brooklyn two years ago, I didn’t realize how greatly living in an area with a large Asian American population would affect me. California alone is home to nearly 30% of the nation’s Asian population, mostly concentrated in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. Since moving here, I’ve been volunteering with GYOPO, a collective of diasporic Korean cultural producers and arts professionals, which has perhaps allowed me to feel more fully seen and valued. Instead of feeling the pressure to either assimilate completely or perform Asian-ness, I’ve experienced a much larger range of what Asian Americans can say, look like, or create. I couldn’t help but think of this during the symposium, because it seems like a turning point for the Asian American art community.
As historian Gordon Chang noted during the Art and Activisms panel, the term “Asian American” was originally intended as a provocation, a critique of the white supremacist structures that have erased the histories, contributions, and lives of Asians living in America. Thanks to student-led protests in the Bay Area more than 50 years ago, as well as the efforts of our elders and ancestors, we have been able to reach a critical mass of historical scholarship, cultural analysis, and art making. As artist Arlan Huang said in his powerful remarks: “We have history. We stand on rich earth.” The keynote event, a conversation between poet Cathy Park Hong and artist Jen Liu, brought the symposium down to the human-to-human level, focusing on how their decades-long friendship has shaped their lives through mutual recognition and support, investment in each other’s careers, emotional intertwining, and collaborative growth. What I took from this frank and relaxed conversation was that friendship and deep relationships can be the fuel that keeps us going, whether or not larger institutions are paying attention.
One of the questions that East of the Pacific, IMU UR2, and the AAAI confronts is: How do we build upon the foundation that has been built for us without resorting to cheap visibility politics and without becoming victims or enablers of diversity management? Some of the panelists raised a version of this question during the symposium. “What project are we building together? Is it simply enough to see ourselves?” asked artist and filmmaker Tiffany Sia. Patty Chang asked, “What are ways beyond identification and definition to coalesce our group or movement?”
In Imagine Otherwise (Duke University Press, 2003), Kandice Chuh proposes that we can conceive of “Asian American studies as a field of collaborative antagonisms, collaborative in the doubled sense of working together and working subversively against, and antagonistic in the ways in which diverse approaches to knowledge critique and identify each other’s limits.” In this spirit, as exemplified by East of the Pacific and IM UR2, the AAAI is uniquely situated to support the field of Asian American art as a platform to celebrate and preserve our shared histories and legacies, to critique the structures that have historically failed and continue to fail us, and to challenge racial essentialism and visibility politics.