I posted a while ago about an exhibition of Asian-American art being held at the National Portrait Gallery in DC, and lamented that I wasn’t going to be around during the two months it was going to be showing. Well, it turns out that I misread the dates – “Portraiture Now! Asian American Portraits of Encounter” didn’t run for two months; it runs for a year and two months, closing Oct 14, 2012.
So, when I walked into the National Portrait Gallery / American Art Museum a week ago to see the Art of Video Games exhibition, I was extremely pleasantly surprised that I was going to get to see this great Asian-American art show. Sadly, I once again have no photos to share with you; but, even if I did, as is so often the case with artworks, there are significant elements of the experience of seeing the works in-person that just cannot be captured on digital film. Some of the pieces, such as Roger Shimomura’s Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, are quite large, and so have quite an impact by their size and scale. Others, such as Shizu Saldamando’s works, painted on bare wood, are so much more beautiful and intriguing when their varied textures are seen in person. There is something cooly beautiful about plain, bare wood, and as smooth as it may be, contrast with the sleek shine of oil paints and gold leaf brings out the slightly rough and matte texture of the wood.
Zhang Chun Hong, who I don’t believe I mentioned in my previous post on the exhibit, is represented by a series of works in charcoal on paper hanging scrolls. Each depicts the long, flowing tresses of an Asian(-American) woman, combining the aesthetics of traditional Chinese ink painting with an astonishing idealized realism, in the individual fine strands of hair, and careful attention to how light reflects off of it. One of these pieces, titled My Life Strands, is meant to suggest the twists of one’s hair as symbol or metaphor for the twisting path one takes through life, from youth into adulthood. Another is titled Cyclone, a reference to Hong’s current base of operations in Lawrence, Kansas; though we may joke about Kansas being the middle of nowhere, the University of Kansas, based in that same town of Lawrence, along with its on-campus museum, are actually known as a major center for studying Asian art. In fact, Roger Shimomura, another artist featured in this exhibit, is also based in Lawrence (and teaches at U of K).
A massive series of photos by Korean-American artist CYJO takes up the entirety of the corridor (for the length of the exhibit; other exhibits lay beyond). Her KYOPO Project consists of over 200 photographs, each depicting a Korean-American individual, simply standing in front of a plain, simple background. Each is accompanied by a short statement, excerpted from interviews with the individual, commenting on their personal relationship with their identity as “Korean-American” or “Korean & American.” Each photo individually is a rather plain piece, but in aggregate they provide a fascinating glimpse into the incredible diversity of the Korean-American community(ies) and complexity of individuals’ identities. And, of course, as one might expect, what these people relate is perfectly translatable to the experience of any one of us. It’s about the specifics of the Korean / Korean-American circumstance, sure, but nearly everything here is equally applicable whether you’re Greek-American, Vietnamese-American, or Armenian-American. All of us have a side to our identity that’s “American,” that makes us feel at home within an American cultural context, i.e. when surrounded by other Americans, yet which sets us apart as different when in the land (or culture) of our ancestors, whether it be Peru, France, or Korea. And all of us have a side of ourselves that sets us apart from other Americans, and which makes us feel at home within the specific cultural context of our heritage, whether that be in Chinatown, at a Russian Orthodox Church, at a Japan Society event, or at a relative’s quinceañera.
There was a time when my biggest wish was to be as “American” as I could. When looking different first became a source of rejection, in some ways I rejected my heritage. But now that I’ve grown and started to raise my own family, I feel an undeniable sense of gratitude to my parents and the values they worked so hard to instill in me, values shaped by a country half a world away. I’ll always be grateful to America for being a place where part of what it means to be a proud American is the ability to be openly proud of being Korean.
I wish I had taken more notes about individuals’ lives and messages, but I remember some of the general trends. I read about people who felt extremely close to their Korean identity, and others with more or less no connection to Korea. Many resented their parents for not being able to speak better English, and had little interest in Korean culture when they were young, thinking it strange, embarrassing, old-fashioned, or just plain lame insofar as that American popular culture was the very definition of “cool”; it was only when they were older that they came to appreciate the Korean side of their heritage and identity. Many regretted not speaking Korean more fluently, or lamented how being Korean-American means always being thought of as “Korean” when among [non-Korean-]Americans, being seen as “American” when in Korea, and never really fitting in in either place. These are stories that I think many of us can relate to; the stories of the many people pictured share many common threads, collectively weaving together a colorful picture of the Korean-American experience. But, there was great diversity as well. Some were blond; some were adopted. One gentleman was, if I remember correctly, African-American, but adopted and raised by white parents in Korea, making him, actually, much closer to Korea as his home and as his culture than many of the Americans of Korean descent raised in the United States. Korean-American Esther Park Goodhart is a comedian, and Hebrew teacher at four different schools, and describes herself in her statement as “Queen of the Jews.” And Jun Choi spoke about being elected mayor of Edison, NJ, a beautiful example of the diversity and ideals of America, in how a young Korean-American man can be elected mayor in a primarily white/black/Hispanic city with no sizable Korean community. (Edison was 1.63% Korean according to the 2000 Census.) I imagine that if I were more involved and connected with Korean-American communities, I might recognize more prominent figures amongst those featured here, but as is I was excited to see Greg Pak and Daniel Dae Kim.
CYJO’s installation reminds me of a video on display at the Center for Jewish History here in New York as part of an exhibition on the history of Jews in New York (until Dec 31, 2012). In it, we see interviews with a handful of members of the community sharing their thoughts on what it means to be a New York Jew. Personally, I thought this video, and indeed the whole exhibit, fascinating, though I wonder how many others would. Korean-Americans are perpetually seen as different, as immigrants, and while that in itself is a problem that I believe many of the artists in “Portraiture Now!” address, I do think that this makes the Korean-American experience an interesting one for many people. I don’t want to get into the discourses of the “model minority,” or the touchy political complexities of how Koreans might be viewed (in general / stereotypically) in American society, i.e. those things that make Korean-Americans, perhaps, a perfect group to show in this exhibition. But, I really wonder, if this series of photographs depicted Jewish-Americans rather than Korean-Americans, what kind of attention would the (Jewish-American) artist receive? What kind of response would the exhibit receive? Would it even be shown? This may be controversial, but I have a sense that people think the Jewish story has already been told, or that because we are (most of us) white, that our story doesn’t matter, or that we don’t have a story, or that purely by virtue of being white we are either not immigrants, or that we are part of the privileged minority and thus can’t be considered a “minority.” Then, too, of course, there are all the complexities added in by the political controversies regarding Israel, and the complex of anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews having too much power, too much money, too much influence. I don’t know how far anti-Korean sentiment might go here in the US, but I do know that there are whole swaths of society that would react negatively to the suggestion of anything asking them to identify with Jews, or to think the Jewish story worth hearing, or to think the Jewish story an integral part of the American story. … I see the connections. I look at Korean-American stories and think of my own stories. But as much as I would love to see an exhibition addressing the diversity of Jewish-American identity in this same way, I don’t think it can, or would, be shown, or would receive as positive (or at worst, neutral) a response as it being done with Korean-Americans, as part of an exhibit of Asian-American art. What do you think?
“Portraiture Now! Asian American Portraits of Encounter” shows at the National Portrait Gallery at Washington DC’s Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro stop until October 14, 2012. Admission is free.
More about this exhibit, here, within the next couple days.