What is a homeland: six AAPI artists from the collection
The collection of Asian art is indeed rich and robust, spanning nearly five millennia and encompassing all the main artistic traditions of the continent. But driven by the recent escalation of hate assaults on Asians nationwide during the pandemic and by my own immigrant experience, I broadened my research to other departments, curious to look beyond the arts of ‘Asia to study the work, contemporary and unique diaspora stories of other Asian American and Pacific Islander artists and explore their lived experiences. I wanted to better understand how they anchored their sense of belonging and home in their homeland, despite hardships such as forced return, incarceration and exile, despite being targeted for their cultural identities, ethnic and racial.
Throughout my research, I have encountered many remarkable works of art – many of which are rarely exhibited due to their sensitive mediums – and have discovered great nuance and variety in the way artists have used art as a tool to illuminate their individual and shared cultural experiences. With that in mind, I look forward to sharing the works of six of these artists, whose works come from the Photography and Media, Prints and Drawings, and Modern and Contemporary Art departments.
Although born in San Francisco in 1921, Japanese-American photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto grew up in Japan. He returned to the United States as a student, intending to study agriculture, but during World War II he was sent to the Amachi internment camp in Colorado. After the war, he moved to Chicago to study architecture.
In Chicago, Ishimoto studied photography at the Institute of Design with photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. He began to photograph the streets of the city: children playing in dilapidated neighborhoods or yards, passengers waiting at the bus stop, desolate cityscapes of the city center. His images evoke the unique scenes of where he lived and, like the city’s vast population, the place he hoped to call home. His works create a feeling of both intimacy and detachment, the work of someone born here and yet who carried the burden of being labeled a stranger and a threat.
Around the same time Ishimoto was capturing Chicago scenes, Chinese-American photographer Benjamen Chinn was pointing his camera at the streets of his home in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Born in 1921, Chinn, like all Chinese immigrants at the time, lived under the oppressive shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted in 1882. It was the first and remains the only federal law passed in the United States to to suspend the immigration of a specific nationality.
There are two photographs of Chinn in the museum’s collection: one captures two well-dressed men from waist to toe standing at a crossroads; the other captures a Chinese restaurant, Sun Hung Heung, which still operates to this day, but under a new name. The two demonstrate Chinn’s deep connection as an insider who knew Chinatown from the inside out. These photos, taken just five years after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Law, ending exclusionary laws against the Chinese people, evoke a shared experience: the life of a community very united whose foreign status had perhaps forced them to stay. so tight.
Roger Shimomura’s experience in the internment camp as a young child left a deep mark on him. The Japanese-American artist, born in 1939, spent several years in an Idaho internment camp as a preschool boy when his family was moved from their home in Seattle. After a brief stint in Chicago, where they had to relocate to get out of the Japanese West Coast Exclusion Zone, her family finally returned home.
But his early experiences in internment camps prompted him to return continually – physically while traveling in Idaho and symbolically through his artistic exploration from 1978 onwards. He tackled this forced incarceration by visualizing scenes from daily camp life in a handmade paperback book. he created in 1999. One of the pages, pictured above, is an all black print. The title says it all.
Martin Wong, a third-generation Chinese-American immigrant artist, lived in a neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A transplant from San Francisco, where Wong was born and trained as a ceramist, he found his new community in Loisaida (the Spanish name for parts of the East Village and Lower East once dominated by black immigrants and Puerto Ricans).
Immersed in various cultural influences, this mostly self-taught artist has developed a solid bond with the multi-ethnic community of this region. Eventually, he turned his creative energy exclusively towards painting, becoming an influential figure in the 1980s and early 1990s as an artist, gay activist, and street art collector. Large format painting Sweet forgetfulness depicts a series of towering but decaying apartment buildings surrounded by rubble and urban ruins. Despite the ruins, the obsessively rendered masonry and stylized interpretations of American Sign Language in the sky give his paintings a certain beauty and magic. It was, after all, the place where he lived. It seems he knew it was only a matter of time before he and his neighbors were displaced by the forces of gentrification.
An-My Lê felt obliged to retrace the beginnings of her diaspora in order to understand how she arrived at her artistic practice. Born in Saigon in 1960, the photographer was just a child when her family fled her home during the last year of the Vietnam War and found themselves a political refugee in the United States. In 1994, Lê returned for the first time to her hometown, where she began a series exploring her childhood memories.
“When I took the first photos in Vietnam,” she said, “I was not ready for war. Being able to return to Vietnam was a way of reconnecting with a homeland, or with the idea of what a homeland is and with the idea of returning home.
His photographs, like Untitled (Ho Chi Minh City) show tiny boats on a vast and calm river, billboards in the distance, and tiny figures and kites flying in the air, all reveal the activities of people in the contemporary landscape of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) . Finally, as seen in Small wars, his work came to focus on the impact of war on people and the place of his birth.
What happens when there is nowhere to return? The American artist of Indian origin Zarina delves into a complex and nuanced concept of what the house is. In 1947, 10 years after he was born into a Muslim family in India, the country was divided between the independent nations of predominantly Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan, marking the end of the British Empire in India. Zarina and her family were among the millions of Muslims displaced in Pakistan as a result of this major change. She then left India to live and study in Bangkok, Paris and Tokyo, among others, before settling in New York, where she worked for almost 40 years.
Exploiting personal, geographic, national, spiritual and family territory, Zarina uses a traditionally inspired engraving technique to create a home through art that evokes her past. The trio titled Retrace the steps, composed of deeply ink-stained paper and three layers of foil with collages in the shape of gold foil, squares and triangles, invites viewers to interpret semi-abstract imagery and calligraphy through the experience of dispossession and exile.
As we combed through the works of AAPI artists in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, several common themes emerged: interconnected transnational immigration experiences, the desire to feel at home, and the desire to reconcile East and West. These shared themes provide a catalyst for the movement towards precise contextualization and interpretation, a multiethnic perspective that reveals and celebrates our shared humanity, as well as a commitment to ensuring that neglected stories are studied and understood instead of being repeated again. and even.
—Yi Cao, Director of Curatorial Administration, Arts of Asia