Renowned portrait artist Steve Pyke has said that he is interested in the story each face has to tell, the story that is etched into the landscape of our faces. In 2011 the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC debuted its first Asian American exhibition, Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter (the Gallery was established in 1856). The National Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story, through images that captures the spirit of the person. Accordingly, Portraits of Encounter offers visual representations beyond the stereotypes that obscure the reality of being Asian in America.
The exhibition is filled with experimental images of great complexity, challenging the very notion of a portrait and is well worth visiting in my opinion, especially since six of the seven artists are women. I also learned recently that seven writers, David Henry Hwang, Garrett Hongo, Bao Phi, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, Marianne Villanueva, Kazim Ali, and Anna Kazumi Stahl were commissioned by the Asian American Literary Review to compose literary responses to the portraits by the seven contemporary artists, Tam Tran, Satomi Shirai, Roger Shimomura, CYJO, Hye Yeon Nam, Hong Chun Zhang, and Shizu Saldamando. A one-day symposium at the Gallery, which I was lucky enough to attend, staged the encounters while aptly demonstrating how portraiture and its interpretations are not just a means of depicting people, but are a way to express and contain complicated themes of cultural interaction and conflict in one’s particular mode of expression.
For this column, I focused on two women from the symposium, both of Japanese descent and with remarkably mirrored stories, whose work worry away at the heart of displacement and cultural conflict, of being a 20th century immigrant.
I. The writer: Anna Kazumi Stahl responding to Shizu Saldamando’s Cat and Carm
“So many layers go unspoken, unwritten, untold. We are more than meets the eye yet so committed to systems of meaning that work like grids: neat, even, linear…letters on paper. Papel. Kami. A portraitist shows a face. Cara. Kao. But the artwork uses more to reach us than just the composed still-life. Naturaleza muerta. Seibutsu. There is also the background. Fondo. Haikei. This is what catches my eye, directs my gaze…”
—Anna Kazumi Stahl
Born to a Japanese mother and a father of German ancestry at a time when the state of Louisiana did not recognize interracial marriages, Stahl is particularly attuned to the peculiar displacements of history—including the post-Internment migration of many Japanese Americans, her family among them, to the American South and with defying our language and culture’s fixities and points of reference. Stahl deftly absorbs three countries at once, and it was evident that the confluence of language drives every sentence. Stahl writes in Spanish, English and Japanese in varigated ways, challenging herself and her audience to interrogate the purity of the words we choose by offering a multiplicity of vocabularies. Her counter-desire to free us from easy interpretation was evident from the very beginning as she stated, “I inflicted a foreign language upon you [the audience] rather than a bilingual piece, oh…because I think we’re ready.”
The genesis and content of her writing are clearly predicated with themes of transnationalism and multiraciality, reminding us that “navigating multicultural waters doesn’t have to be a labyrinth or a mine field or any of these negative metaphors, after all, we do it, and raise our children to do it.” Although she didn’t communicate with the artist whose work she was responding to, she was instantly struck by the power and beauty of Saldamando’s paintings and her mixed racial heritage. “Cat and Carm is a portrait, yet the two women of the title are slightly off-center. My gaze goes simultaneously to them and away from them, to the wide expanse of gold-leaf sheen… I begin to sense this piece speaking—via its layered effect and its play of arrangement and displacements—of identity as not fixed but fluid, as a practice rather than a product.”
II. The artist: Satomi Shirai’s Itch, the basis of a response by poet Garret Hongo
According to Shirai, the genesis of her photograph was her apartment in Queens, New York. Looking around the room, she first decided that she wanted to photography the messiness, a space she had created filled with the objects she’d brought with her from Japan in an attempt to create “home”. “My relocation to New York is not about overcoming a culture that is distinct, but about encountering and understanding cultural difference and similarity.” One senses from the intense scratching, clawing and twisting in the photograph that she is trying to ease that terrible, persistent itch in her life, that she isn’t yet comfortable in her environment, even if in the privacy of her own bedroom. Shirai uses herself as the subject of her photographs, using an old shutter timer which allows her only ten seconds to pose. She also conceals or obscures her face from the camera in order to capture her nuance of the scene without making it too documentary. The results are vivid, often hilarious, and fraught with a sense of nervous tension. “What’s inside my apartment and what I want to keep and save is also like a portrait of Asian America.”
As David Ward, one of the exhibition curators said, “while scholars like categories and neat analytical frameworks and tidy conclusions, artists are subversives, haring off after their own idiosyncratic vision in a way that suits them and with a language of their own devising—not anyone else, and certainly not scholars. Scholars make rules, artists break them. It is always thus and we should delight in the consequences.” So such consequences were invited into the room from the very start. The sheer diversity of literary genres present (which included translators, poets, prose writers, memoirists, playwrights, novelists and short story writers) added to the experimental notion of writers responding to artworks, in which the portraits were minutely fractured through literary techniques, linguistic complications and distortions, and the workings of the imagination. “It was an artistic production of bodily delight,” claims Asian American Literary Review’s Gerald Maa, “demonstrating how the imagination is pleasing when you use it. We hope that from this experiment of word and image, more discussions will ripple out, valences of thought and conversation.”
The Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter was originally on exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution from August 12, 2011 through October 14, 2012. The symposium was a collaboration of the Asian American Literary Review, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, and the National Portrait Gallery and was held on April 14, 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery.
The ground-breaking group exhibition will travel to the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, CA this spring, where it will be on view to the public from May 11 to September 22, 2013. For more information about the exhibition, visit http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/encounter/index.html.
* This article was originally published on The Rafu Shimpo on April 19, 2012.