US & Canada

Artists explore the Asian-American experience

Media captionThe seven artists chosen to exhibit display a range of work and styles

Nearly 15 million Americans claim Asian descent, and a new art exhibition at one of America's premier art museums explores the Asian-American experience and identity. The BBC's Jane O'Brien reports from Washington.

Roger Shimomura was born in Seattle at the start of World War II.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, he and his family were taken from their home and sent to an internment camp in Idaho.

They had lived in America for three generations - but the US government saw them first as Japanese and considered them a threat.

Now, he is one of seven artists exploring the nature of Asian-American identity in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.

"Far too many American-born citizens of Asian descent continue to be thought of as only 'American knock-offs,'" he writes in the introduction to his paintings, which focus on the challenges of being different in America.

He confronts stereotypes through self-portraits, placing his own likeness at the centre of popular cultural images.

'Humour and rage'

Shimomura takes the iconic 19th Century painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, for instance, and substitutes his own face for the president's.

"When I look at this picture I see both the humour and the rage that is at the heart of his work," says curator Frank Goodyear.

"There's a tension here between belonging and being outside that is essential to the Asian-American experience. In this work, Roger proclaims quite loudly that he is an American. His art is in a sense a kind of response to the experiences that he has felt living as an eternal foreigner."

That theme is mirrored in the work of 38-year-old CYJO, a self-described Kyopo - the Korean term for ethnic Koreans living abroad. Born in Seoul, raised in the US state of Maryland and now living in Beijing, she photographed more than 200 people, mainly from America's Kyopo community.

The scale and format of each portrait is identical - full length against a white background - a style that is in direct contrast to the subjects themselves, who share very few physiognomic features and reflect their differing social and cultural environments in the way they dress.

According to Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific Program, such depictions force viewers to confront their preconceived notions of what it means to be Asian American.

Clash of cultures

"The artists are asking what is that identity? Is it something I've inherited through heritage?" Mr Ng asks.

"Or is identity something I compose through choices of how I stand, how I dress, how I make choices in my profession? They're trying to engage a conversation."

Image caption The way fruit skins fall is said to reveal the future, in Shirai's account

As such, the exhibition Asian American Portraits of Encounter offers many different views but no conclusions.

In Fortune Telling, Satomi Shirai creates a photographic account of the clash of cultures she experienced when she moved from Japan to a neighbourhood in the Queens borough of New York City.

A young Asian woman sits on the bare floor of a cramped apartment littered with fruit peelings. The way the skins fall is said to reveal the name of a future spouse or determine how long somebody will live.

Shirai uses the image to explore how immigrant communities attempt to recreate their homeland in their new environment and whether the two can successfully coexist.

Two other artists, Chinese-born Zhang Chun Hong and Californian Shizu Saldamando, who has Japanese and Mexican parents, adapt traditional art techniques to create modern images.

Living in between

Zhang, who now lives in Kansas and has an international reputation, explores her identity through disembodied charcoal drawings of long black hair.

According to eastern culture, she says, a woman's hair is associated with life force, sexual energy, growth and beauty. Like a portrait, the image of hair can express personal feelings and emotions.

She presents her outsized drawings as traditional Chinese scroll paintings - but the themes they express are universal.

Salamando investigates Asian youth subcultures, portraying her friends at street parties and night clubs. But they are exquisitely rendered in gold leaf which, like her subjects, makes them hard to categorize.

It took more than a year to select the seven artists included in the exhibition.

"What's interesting is that their locations aren't bound to a particular place," says Mr Ng.

"We have artists who were born in the US; we have artists who were born in Asia; we have artists who live in between the two.

"The Asian-American experience that is depicted in the show is the sense of diaspora, transnationalism and heritage and how that plays out on a national and international scale."

He says the exhibition was conceived as a result of growing interest in Asian-American art and culture and reflects the growing diversity in the US.

"It shows we're very global and at the same time very local."

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