Museums

Mixing Racial Messages

by Ryan Wong on October 30, 2013

Debra Yepa-Pappan, Live Long and Prosper (Spock Was a Half-Breed), 2008

Debra Yepa-Pappan, Live Long and Prosper (Spock Was a Half-Breed), 2008. All photos courtesy of the Wing Luke Museum.

Starting with its title, the group exhibition War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art  at Seattle’s Wing Luke museum asks a provocative question: how do those seen by Americans as products of either colonial domination or subversive desire move past those categories? How do they escape, as the curators put it, an “identity defined by their parentage,” “fixed in the status of infants or children”?

Paradoxically, War Baby/Love Child begins with that parentage in order to make room for the artist to grow past it. Organized by Laura Kina and Wei Ming Dariotis, it is the most significant exhibition on the subject since Kip Fulbeck’s groundbreaking Hapa Project, which began in 2002. In the decade since, we have seen America’s multiracial population grow a third, to 9 million, not to mention the election of our first mixed race President.

Kip Fulbeck, Selection from The Hapa Project, 2006. Courtesy of the Wing Luke Museum.

Kip Fulbeck, Selection from The Hapa Project, 2006.

The Hapa Project, which is also featured in the War Baby/Love Child exhibition, was a simple and needed act of naming: the exhibition and book displayed photographs of people of mixed race from the shoulder up, along with their heritage and the subject’s hand-written response to the oft-asked question, “What are you?” In the same vein, the wall labels in War Baby/Love Child note the artist’s heritage and offer an artist statement.

Most exhibitions are defined by a single lens: formal similarities or conceptual underpinnings. War Baby/Love Child is alternately a survey, an act of “outing,” a socio-cultural exploration; the artworks range from documentary to street to surrealist to pop.

Debra Yepa-Pappan’s Live Long and Prosper (Spock was a Half-Breed) juxtaposes an Edward Curtis image of a Native American woman with images from Star Trek. It has the sensibility of an earlier moment of identity politics, an in-your-face medley that re-appropriates the exoticism of both pop and Curtis, asking the viewer to consider an “alien” culture.

Louie Gong, Custom Painted Shoes, 2000s.

Louie Gong, in a similar act, hand-decorates Vans sneakers with motifs from Coast Salish art.  He openly identifies with an experience “powerfully shaped by moving back and forth between communities” as someone of Nooksack, Squamish, Chinese, French, and Scottish descent. The works are catchy, an artist reconciling Native pride and and urban cool.

Other artists in the exhibition, like Laurel Nakadate and Amanda Ross-Ho, only obliquely address their identity in their work. Nakadate’s Greater New York mixes clips of her individual video works, among them the infamous series where she invites ‘collaborators’ — generally older white men she doesn’t know — to dance with her. Identity, for her, is a personal matter rather than a socio-political statement; anything beyond that is up to the viewer.

War Baby/ Love Child Installation View

War Baby/ Love Child Installation View.

Amanda Ross-Ho’s ANYTHING’S O.K. AS LONG AS IT’S EXTREME is a site-specific rework of her 2008 tribute to her father, the artist Ruyell Ho. It is a work of archive-as-installation, where scans of her father’s notebooks and work are played on screens with photographs of the artist. Again, Ross-Ho does not see her Chineseness as central to her work, but in the act of (literally) unpacking her father’s work it is there alongside the themes of family, memory, Americanness, and the scope of an artistic career.

To their credit, the curators do not force any single stance on identity, which is the natural temptation in an undertaking like this. The diversity of artistic modes and practices fittingly matches the diversity of heritages represented. Just as the artists in the landmark Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture did not necessarily foreground their sexual identity, the artists in War Baby/Love Child are always positioned on the border of assimilation and otherness. Identity never left the art world, but has become, like the best artist’s substances, multifarious and malleable.

War Baby/Love Child is a traveling exhibition currently at the Wing Luke Museum (719 South King Street, Seattle) through January 19.

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