National Portrait Gallery Exhibits Asian American Artists

September 28, 2011

"My Life Strands" by Zhang Chun Hong

While I was distraught at having to leave my beloved Chicago for a job in DC, working in the nation’s capital definitely has its perks. For one, I got to experience the extremely unexpected East Coast earthquake. And for another, I am within walking distance of a number of museums, most notably the art museums. In college, I had dabbled a bit in oil painting and portraiture. Although I ended up majoring in English, I will always keep a special spot for art and artists, which is why I could barely contain my delight when the National Portrait Gallery opened its Asian American artists’ exhibition a scant month after my arrival.

Asian Americans! Art! Portraits! And I can write about it! Aaaahhhh!!!

The exhibit, called Portraiture Now: Portraits of Asian American Encounter, feature the works of seven contemporary Asian American artists: CYJO, Zhang Chun Hong, Hye Yeon Nam, Shizu Saldamando, Roger Shimomura, Satomi Shirai, and Tam Tran.

While the works are thought-provoking on their own, I decided to get more information from the folks who brought this exhibit to life: Konrad Ng, Director of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Program, and Brandon Fortune, Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery and leader of the Portraiture Now team.

“We wanted to curate a show that would start conversation. To challenge. This is not about preconceived notions,” Ng said. “For viewers, for people who walk through the show, we want them to question the identity category called ‘Asian American.’”

The idea in germination took about two years. After the gallery called for artist submissions, the exhibit took about a year to pull together. The team received a large number of submissions, and the artists who were picked were selected because of the quality of the work, diversity and the stage they are in their careers. The works are a mixed bag of traditional and non-traditional media, photography and film.

“The title of the show, Portraits of Encounter, means just that: it’s what the viewers are supposed to experience,” Ng explained. “It’s an encounter, with the unfamiliar and familiar. We want to avoid conclusions. Part of the wonderful aspects of being Asian American is that there is no foreclosure on meaning. We’re still defining, still struggling to make it meaningful.”

“The contemporary are very much about identity,” Fortune added. “Portraiture provides an accessible way into that conversation about identity. Artists, in terms of age and background, are so diverse. There is not one monolithic message expressed.”

Ng, a former professor of creative media at the University of Hawaii, said it’s always important to look at the history of Asian Americans. “We are central to American history, but there are interruptions,” he said. “The immigration acts, exclusion acts, stereotypes. All are relevant. It makes for a stronger sense of community. We’re in the right times now to be vehicles of empathy, to use our identity as outreach.”

For me, my favorite artist in the exhibit was Zhang Chun Hong and her huge charcoal drawings of hair. For whatever reason, hair is hugely important to women; I would argue that a woman’s hairstyle reflects as much of her personality and identity as her wardrobe. The long, straight black hair was an image that I immediately recognized from my own reflection, but its disembodiment from a physical form underneath it was deeply unsettling.

In other words, it was familiar -- and unfamiliar. What was hiding beneath the masses of slick black waves? Whose face would I find? Or was that all it was: hair? Is that all we are? Or are we the nothingness underneath?

How about that for questioning identity?

So if you are in the DC area this fall, I highly recommend that you check out the exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery. The show runs through October 14. Plus, it’s free.