Art

Echoes of Identity Across the Work of Two Asian-American Artists

Artists Tommy Kha and Meena Hasan map not only the ethnic dimensions of their background but also the public and private ones.

Installation view of Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha, Other Echoes Inhabit The Garden at LAUNCH F18, New York (image courtesy of the artists and LAUNCH F18)

The echo — a sound wave returning to its source, doubling back through space and time — can be an apt metaphor for diasporic experiences and familial legacy. This metaphor is apparent throughout Other Echoes Inhabit the Garden, a small two-person exhibition of paintings, photographs, and sculptures made of paper by artists Tommy Kha and Meena Hasan. Both graduates of Yale’s MFA program, Kha and Hasan developed a dialogue as students about their Asian American identities. In Other Echoes Inhabit the Garden, the artworks formally and conceptually echo one another at the intersections of the body, race, and place.

Born in Memphis to immigrants from China and Vietnam, Kha’s work plays with ideas of self-portraiture to capture shifting relationships to home, identity, and sexuality, often in the American South. He has photographed print-outs of himself in different landscapes and staged photographs with both family members and strangers. Hasan, a New York native born to Bangladeshi immigrants, makes familiar objects unfamiliar or strange in her paintings, on handmade papers and textiles she selects based on their cultural histories.

Tommy Kha, “May (With her half self-portrait)” (2017), archival inkjet on vinyl, 40 x 32 in. “Canada (May in Door Frame)” (1984), archival inkjet on vinyl, 3.5 x 5 in. “Canada (Jane with Flowers)” (1984), archival inkjet on vinyl, 6 x 4 in. (image courtesy of the artists and LAUNCH F18)

In Hasan’s version of an 1868 painting by John Everett Millais the face and hands of the central figure fade into a shadowy background, as the artist focuses instead on her dress, made of chintz. A hand-dyed printed cotton fabric, chintz was made in India to European tastes before British factories reproduced the patterns en masse. In Hasan’s painting, vivid yellow, red, and green pigments writhe across the surface, forming an intricate floral pattern. The layered opacity of the pattern evokes the textile’s history of displacement and appropriation.

Imperialism catalyzed such cultural collisions, but it also classified people into exclusive categories, notably including race. As Edward Said argues in his text Culture and Imperialism, one way of resisting such hierarchies among cultures is to unearth the connections between our origins, and to listen to the “other echoes that inhabit the garden.” The title’s reference to Said’s phrase (borrowed from T. S. Eliot) points to the connections between the political instability that prompted the artists’ families to flee their home countries and the legacies of imperialism. Yet, these geographies remain spectral in the artworks themselves. The connection pulses most strongly in the mundane, between bodies at home, clothing, and skin.

Meena Hasan, “Putting on Bangles” (2019), oil, acrylic, and flashe paint on panel, 48 x 40 in. (image courtesy of the artists and LAUNCH F18)

“Putting on Bangles” (2019) plunges us into Hasan’s own disorienting viewpoint. As she slips on gold jewelry, her hands seem to be as large as tree trunks projected into their own landscape. Frenzied brushstrokes and slivers of collaged paper give the painted textiles around her seated body a sense of depth. Looking at the patterns is like peering into a lake as shadows commingle with shimmering reflections of the world above. The painting invites us to slip into its skin and almost sense cool metal hitting warm wrists.

Kha’s photography offers a personal perspective. He juxtaposes his portraits of his mother in his childhood home in Memphis with photos she took in Canada in the summer of 1984, en route from Vietnam to Tennessee. In “May (with Her Half-Self-Portrait)” (2017), Kha and his mother recline on the floor and couch, their gazes wandering elsewhere. Both comforting and intrusive, the couch’s spine consumes most of an off-kilter frame that offers barely enough room for mother and son. The central fold further divides the two but also creates a space for them to face each other. 

In his titles, Kha refers to himself as a half-self-portrait of his mother, citing genetics and his desire to understand his past. Blurring vernacular and art photography, photos of his mother and late aunt from the Canada album are collaged at the edges of the large portraits. The images of Kha and these women echo each other indirectly across space and time, creating a multiplied vision of the self, which is characteristic of his work.

Installation view of Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha, Other Echoes Inhabit The Garden at LAUNCH F18, New York (image courtesy of the artists and LAUNCH F18)

“Nape (Ambereen in her kitchen)” (2019), Hasan’s portrait of her mother, is similarly oblique: she’s turned away from us, but the compressed perspective highlights details like the greying hairs in her ponytail. Both artists seem to enmesh proximity and distance in their family portraits. Kha and Hasan do not so much present their subject’s intimate lives as address how they, and we, access that intimacy. As our gaze lingers on paper, fabric, and skin, we can contemplate the act of looking as an exchange between our presence and that of another person. The artworks in the show map not only the ethnic dimensions of identity but also the public and private ones: the parts of ourselves we choose to hide and reveal, especially to those closest to us.

When a largely white art world expects biographical content from Asian American artists, the personal can be both fraught and political territory. Indeed, the growing field of Asian American art history has critiqued a Western canon in which race and ethnicity exclude artists of color or flatten interpretations of their work. Yet this show emphasizes the dialogues and differences among Asian American artists and their chosen or biological kin. As many art-world professionals debate over whether identity-based curation pigeonholes artists of color, Kha and Hasan seem to use their exhibition to bring out resonances in their work without having to define it.

Other Echoes Inhabit the Garden continues at Launch F18 (373 Broadway Suite F18, Tribeca, Manhattan) through June 22. The exhibition was curated by the artists Tommy Kha and Meena Hasan. 

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