If only this exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC) had opened a week or two earlier, I could have seen it in person. As I sit here at my desk at the East-West Center in Honolulu it seems crazy that just a week ago I was sitting at a desk in the Smithsonian.
“Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter” opens today at the National Portrait Gallery (not to be confused with the National Gallery of Art, which is not part of the Smithsonian), and runs through October 14. The exhibit features works by a small handful of Asian-American (or Asian residents in the US) contemporary artists, which touch upon questions of identity, especially as it pertains to being Asian or Asian-American in America.
Roger Shimomura is one artist I have discussed previously; during World War II, he and his family were interned in internment camps, purely for the “crime” of having been of the same ethnic descent as those who attacked our country on December 7, 1941, and with whom we were now at war. .. Like many who suffered that injustice, Shimomura continues to speak out, so to speak, through his art, about those events. I am not familiar with a broad range of his works, but a couple I mentioned in my post about Shimomura a few years ago stand out as particularly biting, and amusing, if I may use that word, in the jabs they make at the assumptions and attitudes behind the institution of that Japanese-American relocation. To take one example, a work titled “Shadow of the Enemy” depicts the shadow, against a shed, of a pigtailed girl playing jump-rope.
One of the works by Shimomura featured now in this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is a sort of spoof of the famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware. In it, Shimomura addresses a different, but strongly related, problem faced by Japanese-Americans (and Asian-Americans more broadly) in the United States. Namely, the idea of the Asian(-American) as the perpetual foreigner. I must admit that I too am guilty of perpetuating this discourse, that is, of having difficulty seeing people of Asian descent as being just as “American” as those of European descent. We see people with Asian features, and we, at the very least, think of them as Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, with the “-American” very much secondary in our subconscious (or conscious) assessment of who we think of them as. We may assume they don’t speak English, or even if we don’t quite make that assumption, we are surprised and a little thrown off when someone’s accent, speech patterns, body language, etc. are wholly American, no different from those of an American of non-Asian (read: white, European) ancestry.
Image from BBC News, (c) Roger Shimomura
So, in “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware,” the artist has the famous scene re-enacted in ukiyo-e style – bright colors, line drawing, a relatively flat description of space, not incorporating techniques of light & shadow, illusion of three-dimensionality, or linear perspective. The figures, in Colonial Revolutionary Army garb or the like in the original, are now kabuki characters copied from the style of Sharaku, with samurai top-knots and kimono. Washington himself is represented with a self-portrait of Shimomura, looking a bit like Colonel Sanders, but in any case, more to the point looking (presumably) rather like himself, dressed up as Washington. The piece, I suppose, presents an idea that Japanese(-Americans) are inherently so foreign that any situation they exist in is itself foreign as well. That Japanese(-Americans) do not exist in the same America that we do, that they don’t wear the same clothes, that they are somehow fundamentally different creatures. That they don’t even occupy the same world of linear perspective, light & shadow, and oil painting realism as “real” Americans, but instead perpetually belong to a world of a wholly different style and aesthetic – one of exaggerated features in line drawing with fields of bright color, etc.
However we wish to phrase precisely what it is the work does and how it does it – and I am sure that Mr. Shimomura, the NPG curators, and others, would each have a different way of expressing what is going on here – I think that the piece definitely does bring to the fore this issue of the perception of Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners. I’d be curious and interested to see a piece done in the opposite manner, incorporating Japanese faces and figures into the Washington piece just as it originally was – in oils, with colonial-era costume and all the standard techniques of realism – addressing the issue from the opposite point of view. Rather than painting the stereotype, and in doing so challenging it, what if Shimomura (or someone else) were to challenge it by painting against the stereotype, and depicting freedom fighters in the Revolution as including people of East Asian descent, suggesting the idea that we all hold equal claim to the heritage of the identity of being Americans? After all, my skin may be Caucasian peachy white, but I am myself the grandson of immigrants of Jewish Polish/Russian ancestry, not the descendant of English colonists, and I have been raised to feel fully and truly American; so if I can claim the Revolution as my own, as part of my identity, why do we continue to think, on some level, consciously or unconsciously, that those of Asian descent cannot?
The exhibition also includes works by Satomi Shirai and Shizu Saldamando, whom I had not previously heard of, along with a number of other artists who are new to me.
Photograph by Satomi Shirai. From satomishirai.com.
The works of Satomi Shirai, a zaibei (resident in the US) Japanese artist featured in the show, are mostly photographs of herself in presumably staged compositions, relating in one way or another to anxieties or feelings, or identity issues, she confronts after moving from Japan to New York City. Many depict a messy situation in her New York apartment, either piles of clothes in the bedroom, or piles of dishes and other things on the kitchen counters.
In several photographs, the subject (presumably Shirai herself, though I can’t be sure) is in a state of undress, or half-undressed, with her back to the camera, a pile of clothing nearby. Do the clothes represent trying on different identities, or dressing up to fit in? Her body language as she tries on a red dress seems to indicate uncertainty, as she looks downwards, either at herself in the dress, or at the pile of clothes beneath her. If the clothes represent taking on an American identity, or dressing up in American fashions, then perhaps she is uncertain about whether or not this suits her, whether she likes it, whether American identity “works” on her.
In many of the pieces, the subject’s face is not visible to the viewer – either the subject is facing away from the camera, as in this work, or their head is cropped out. This is not the case consistently for all of Shirai’s pieces, however, so I am not sure if anything can really be said about it as a conscious, meaningful, move.
All together, her pieces seem to simply document life in an apartment in Queens, and the effort to adapt to a new place, a new life. Some seem more staged and unreal, such as one in which fruit peels are scattered across the floor in what seems a perfectly staged, composed composition, and others are blatantly not scenes in New York, such as those in tatami-lined rooms. Were the beach photos taken in New York somewhere? (Coney Island, perhaps?)
I’m not sure what I have to say, what interpretations might be made of these works, but Shirai definitely seems to have a knack for making the everyday into an artistic composition. Scenes of her drilling to install shelves or just sitting around reading a book have a clarity and sharpness that you rarely see in truly amateur photography (e.g. my own point-and-shoot digital photography), and a sense of composition, with diagonals and foreground and background and such that one would expect to see in a perfectly planned out painting. I wish I could attend this exhibit and learn more about the artist, her process and techniques, and her ideas and intentions.
“Cat and Cam.” Shizu Saldamando. Oils and gold leaf on found screen.
Meanwhile, half-Japanese half-Mexican Shizu Saldamando produces highly detailed & realistic portraits of her friends and family, mainly in colored pencil or ballpoint pen. We see the fashions and lifestyle of a typical Hispanic neighborhood, seen in leather jackets, drinking liquor out of a plastic bag, tattoos, and souped-up cars. He makes use of glitter and holograms to reflect the aesthetics of the Quinceañera, something that I personally feel is way over the top in terms of makeup and dress and all the things surrounding it – not unlike Long Island Bar Mitzvahs.
But, anyway, what is of particular interest for me is the series of works in which she incorporates more Japanese themes. In “Cat and Carm,” part of her “Stay Gold” series, Saldamando portrays her friends in a highly realistic manner, in oil paints, against a gold leaf background – essentially exactly the background that would be used in a traditional Japanese folding screen painting. Another work from the series, “Carm’s Crew,” also uses gold leaf and oil paints, but incorporates as well the Rising Sun motif.
The works of these three artists alone do a great job of representing the diversity within the Japanese-American community, the diversity of experience for Japanese & Japanese-Americans in the US. Combined with the other artists in the exhibition, I’m sure it must be really something. If any of you get the chance to see it, report back and let me know what you thought of it.