A Self-Portrait of Asian America

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From left: Artists Hye Yeon Nam, Shizu Saldamando and CYJO.

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

“Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter,” featuring the work of seven artists from different backgrounds, is on view at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo through Sept. 22.

Three of the seven artists and representatives of the Smithsonian, which is co-presenting the exhibition, spoke at an opening reception on May 9. JANM CEO Greg Kimura gave opening remarks.

Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, said the exhibition represents “a wonderful collaboration” between his department, the National Portrait Gallery and JANM.

The purpose of “Portraiture Now,” he said, is to start a conversation about the term “Asian American” — “what that might mean historically, what that might means in terms of notions of diaspora or transnationalism. It’s meant to question who we are, and I think by questioning that we get to understand ourselves deeper.”

Ng added, “JANM has got a special place and a special role to play … on the West Coast. The fact that this show is opening here alongside another Smithsonian show, the ‘American Heroes’ show, the tour of the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Japanese American veterans of World War II; the fact that there’s also a show about mixed-race identity as it’s experienced through Asian Americans; the fact that all of this is happening here in this building tells me that there is something vibrant and engaging going on that’s worth listening to.”

David S. Ward, National Portrait Gallery historian and one of the curators of the exhibition, acknowledged, “For a long time we didn’t ask the right questions … We tended to deal with … the politically powerful, the famous. When we closed for renovation between 2000 and 2006, we changed the way that we did business, and one of the things we did was to represent people who’d been previously unrepresented. We allowed people to speak who previously were silent in our museum.

“One of the other things that we did is by concentrating on portraiture as well as history, we dealt with an intersection of art, culture and remembrance. So we’re very pleased to have this exhibition here at this site of remembrance.”

Taking guests on a tour of the gallery, Ward pointed out Roger Shimomura’s “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware,” which has just been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery. He noted that the artist is a Sansei whose grandparents immigrated from Japan in the 1890s, but is still asked how long he has been in this country. Based on the 1851 painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” Shimomura’s version shows the artist in a boat with a samurai crew.

“Roger has a really good sense of humor,” Ward said, “but he also has sense of the tension between ethnicity, particularly Japanese ethnicity, and Americanness … There’s a constant theme in Roger’s work about the insiders and outsiders … marginality … ostracism, and his resistance to it artistically.”

JANM CEO Greg Kimura with Shizu Saldamando in front of her painting “Carm’s Crew” (2009), gold leaf and oil on wood.

Another painting, “American vs. Japs 2,” shows Shimomura fighting caricatures of Japanese as depicted in World War II propaganda.

Like Shimomura, Satomi Shirai depicts herself in her artwork, but she has a different perspective, Ward said. “Satomi is 40 years old and she’s from Tokyo. She has been living in Queens, N.Y. … getting a master’s degree and starting her career. She does not consider herself Japanese American; she considers herself Japanese living in America. She’s a sojourner … We have a whole variety of reactions to the circumstances of American life.”

Shirai was fond of a cherry tree in her neighborhood and was shocked when someone cut it down. “What Satomi did was construct this whole series of photographs based on the concept of home … a small, protected space … almost claustrophobic clutter that Satomi creates for herself … a haven in a harsh world,” Ward explained.

CYJO, who was born in Seoul and raised in the U.S., was on hand to discuss her piece, “Kyopo.” “It’s a Korean term that describes an individual of Korean ancestry that lives outside of the peninsula,” she said. “It’s a term that I grew up being called by native Korean individuals when I traveled to visit relatives or when my relatives came to visit me.”

The project, which consists of hundreds of portraits, was created from 2004 to 2009, starting with a stranger that she met at a museum. “He turned out to be an MIT professor … He ended up recommending others, they recommended others. There were chance meetings with individuals that came from Denmark, people that were raised in Norway, that came from Japan … A project that was about the Korean American identity grew to encompass so many other cultures, including the African American culture, the Irish culture, the Jewish culture, the French culture.”

The subjects, who included public figures like actor Daniel Dae Kim and news anchor Juju Chang, also answered questions about their identity. “Some individuals were incredibly close to their ethnicity and were very comfortable with it … Some were not so close,” CYJO said, adding, “The complexities probably answer some questions but probably develop more questions.”

Hye Yeon Nam’s videos symbolize the difficulty of adjusting to a new culture.

Shizu Saldamando is of Japanese and Mexican descent, grew up in San Francisco, and attended UCLA and California Institute of the Arts. She asks friends to pose for her paintings, which are often done on wood. “I appreciate wood grain more so than my canvas,” she said. “I appreciate negative space as well. I think for me the wood grain sort of functions as … a ready-made landscape or context, so it’s more depth to the actual composition.”

For Saldamando, what the subjects wear or the way they style their hair is more important than having a detailed background. “You don’t really need it in order to figure out who people are and what they’re about. I find a lot of people, in a weird way, kind of transcend their context.”

Hye Yeon Nam, a native of Korea, showed her four-part video self-portrait, “Walking, Drinking, Eating, and Sitting,” which shows the artist having trouble carrying out everyday activities. She tries to drink orange juice out of a glass with a hole in it, and to eat cherry tomatoes using a ruler.

Some of the tasks — sitting in a chair whose front legs have been shortened and walking with planks strapped to her feet — were done in public. There were people all around, but “nobody cares …  nobody interested,” Nam said.

The videos symbolize the difficulty of adjusting to a new culture. “Sometimes you struggle,” she said, but sometimes the goal can be achieved “if you don’t give up.”

The other featured artists are Zhang Chun Hong, a native of China who references her identity through disembodied images of long, straight, black hair; and Tam Tran — born in South Vietnam, raised in the American South — whose photographs investigate identity and gender.  

For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

David Ward of the National Portrait Gallery discusses a painting by Roger Shimomura.

Visitors examine CYJO’s photographs of people of Korean descent.

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1 Comment

  1. RightCowLeftCoast on

    At yet the Invisible Minority is left out again. Filipino Americans, including multiracial FilAms, are the second largest Asian American population in the United States, and the largest group of Asian Americans in California. This article has zero Filipino American representation, and only gives a brief mention of the large Vietnamese American population, and no mention at all of Hmong Americans.
    Reminds me of that awful line from King of the Hill “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” Asian Americans are not only those people with ethnic origins from East Asia.

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