The term “Asian American” was born in 1968 at UC Berkeley when a Chinese American and Japanese American couple recruited members for their unprecedented coalition the Asian American Pacific Alliance (AAPA), flipping through the campus directory and contacting everyone whose last name sounded Asian enough. Little surprise, then, that half a century later the integrity of the category is undergoing a reckoning. Cathy Park Hong, whose acclaimed memoiristic essay collection Minor Feelings landed her on the cover of last year’s Time 100 issue, deemed Asian Americans “so nonspecific” that she “wondered if there was any shared language between us.” New York Times Magazine staff writer Jay Caspian Kang recently grappled with the vacuity of Asian American identity in a set of essays grounded in his own family’s immigration to the United States, ruffling feathers for calling the category an “ultimately derivative” racial identity. In recent years, Asian American activist groups on college campuses have pushed for the disaggregation of admissions data so that underrepresented Southeast Asian and South Asian admits are not lumped in with their disproportionately East Asian peers. To the extent that people are talking about Asian American identity in 2022, many are questioning what use that label still has, if any at all — analytically, politically, or otherwise.
So it’s a tricky time for a gallery to open a show whose organizing principle is work by Asian American women and nonbinary artists. Yet this is the conceit of the landmark show Wonder Women at Jeffrey Deitch, curated by Kathy Huang and featuring the works of 30 artists. On one hand, a real skepticism nettles any attempt at Asian American myth-making. Would the group share any story at all if it discarded its most notorious ones, such as the “model minority myth” or the vaguely shared threat of being labeled a “virus” in public? (Recall the unfortunate slogan French Asians chose to rally behind, “Je Ne Suis Pas Un Virus”—“I’m not a virus”.) On the other hand, Asian diaspora artists — no less, those who do not identify as men — remain severely underrepresented in galleries and museum collections, just one instance of the broader desolation of Asian American representation in cultural production. This show may mark a milestone for Asian American women and nonbinary artists, who have rarely been given center stage in exhibitions of this caliber — a fact that a participating artist called “depressing,” “cool,” and, finally, settling for some synthesis of the two, “intense.” A sustained hunger for representation stares down a growing awareness of its limitations.
The show captures some of this problematic dynamic in its title, which put in my mind an image of busty, glistening, empowered DC Comics superheroines linked arm in arm. Huang wants viewers to make another association, though. The title quotes a 1981 poem by the San Franciscan poet Genny Lim. The poet stares “longingly” at women she will “never know” — “Japanese women tourists in European hats,” “Chinese grandmothers,” and “painted prostitutes.” “I look at them and wonder if / They are a part of me / I look in their eyes and wonder if / They share my dreams,” she writes. She feels solidarity with them that is rooted not in identity but in the unfamiliar. The word “wonder” acts as a precaution — you might not understand what you see — and a suggestion — to meet that non-understanding with interest and perhaps, awe.
I heeded that warning. In my first pass through the four galleries, much appeared strange and enigmatic. In one nook, a wooden chair stood improbably on pointe via a horse’s tibia, connected at its base to an unremarkable rock littered with cigarette butts in Catalina Ouyang’s “risk assessment (by what love have I)” (2020). On a wall adjacent, a pair of majestic red-eyed elephants, topped by sword-wielding militants dressed in flowing garb, stared head-on in Tammy Nguyen’s “Anno Domini 40, 1945, 1969” (2022). The chaotic vegetation in the marsh and the diagonal American flag cried Vietnam, but many details remained mysterious. On the same wall a room over, Dominique Fung’s “鄭氏 (Ching Shih) Piracy” (2022) depicts a brutish woman with imposing metallic headgear and blurred facial features posed in a power stance on her wooden vessel, brandishing the head of a man whom she had just decapitated with her sword. Who was this woman? Was she an oriental apparition or a historical hero?
Other paintings broached topics that were more recognizable. Susan Chen’s painting “Chinatown Block Watch” portrays the iconic corner of Chinatown occupied by Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a 15-minute walk from the gallery. Populating the painting are volunteers who established a community patrol group to forestall rising hate crimes at the start of the pandemic. Prominently featured among the volunteers is Karlin Chan, the founder of Chinatown Block Watch, gazing vigilantly off-canvas. Emblazoned on the street’s black asphalt is the “Stop Chinatown Jail” entreaty, a reference to activism opposing a controversial jail expansion plan. Much of the pleasure in viewing this painting lies in that immediate affinity of meeting someone from the same place as you. The allure of Chinatown lies in its promise of familiarity, delivered through hearty and cheap meals, fresh produce, and other people who speak the mother tongue. Chen’s painting is generous with these details: Candy-like lanterns dangle above the street, oranges roll out onto the curb, and mouth-watering buns and pastries present themselves for the taking.
Chen has also painted members of the “Yang Gang” canvassing outside Radio City Music Hall and a #StopAsianHate rally in Manhattan. “I don’t really see myself as an activist or a feminist,” she told Hyperallergic. But when she reviews the work she’s produced, she thinks, “maybe I am. I feel more like a sociologist than an activist, because I’m mostly curious about what motivates people to come together. What motivates people to walk together, or form communities?”
Lying on the floor in the same room is an oil on jute painting. Without really looking at it, I could sense that it wanted attention, a tendency in art I’ve learned to treat as a red flag. I breezed past it, smug that I had refused to give it what it wanted. But when I ascended to where I could get an aerial view, I had to admit that the carpet had won the day. A nude woman — the artist herself — lies on a Persian rug, her fingers massaging her clitoris. A tiger, spotted deer, and peacock surrounding her act as her proxies, gazing at the viewer on her behalf.
The piece, titled “Brown Jouissance on a Carpet from Sultanabad in the Yale Center for British Arts,” is by Yale School of Art MFA student Bhasha Chakrabarti. The carpet is a rendition of the massive one that lines the hardwood floors of the Louis Kahn-designed modernist building at Yale housing Paul Mellon’s extensive British art collection, the largest outside the United Kingdom. The paintings in that museum, Chakrabarti says, “are pretty mediocre.” The aura of colonial grandeur and empire pervades the museum, she notes, as if it wants visitors to know that prodigious resources are still committed to its perpetuation.
“I cry when I’m in that museum really regularly. Not because any of the work is any good, but because of really feeling that history in that space,” she said.
She explained that the Yale Center for British Art is one of the highest-funded institutions at the university, while the Yale School of Art is one the lowest-funded. “A lot of my classmates are really invested in undoing colonial violence,” she continued. “To have an institution like this right next to a school where we’re trying to do that kind of work — it brings the counterproductiveness of the whole endeavor to the fore.”
Her title borrows from Amber Jamilla Musser’s Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance. Chakrabarti is compelled by the book’s argument that people can resist objectification by accepting their own objecthood and taking pleasure in it. “So you objectify me — you as in the White man, objectifies the oriental and brown-bodied woman as exotic and hypersexualized — and rather than resisting that position, what would it mean to lean into that position and begin to take that as a point of pleasure? How can that become a point of resistance?”
Pivoting away from the defiant rug, I was attracted to the austere solitude of Joeun Kim Aatchim’s “My Inability to finish writing, my extraordinary ability to continue writing” (2022), a portrait of the artist (an avid writer) before a circular table in a minimalist room of her own, her hands cradling her face, seemingly in a state of agony. It is an ode to women throughout history who have found themselves crouched in that position before their own thoughts. The ethereal painting, done on silk with translucent and overlapping lines and shapes, is like a time-lapse snapshot of the artist. “The transparency embodies both the sincerity of [the writer’s] voice and the lightness of her existence that she is fighting against,” Aatchim wrote in a brief artist’s statement on the piece. She began working with the over 2,000-year-old medium of silk to impose a challenge on her art practice, but she later remembered with glee that her grandmother had been a silk merchant.
Aatchim’s painting is not the only one in the show to render the artist in the midst of self-examination. Sally J. Han’s “Slumber” is a bird’s-eye view of the artist sitting collapsed on a window ledge, a cup of tea and Kōbō Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes near her. The ominously dark cerulean tone of the plants that frame her body is a hint of what might be masqueraded by the tidiness of the room: the existential terror explored in Abe’s novel. Jiab Prachakul’s “Purpose” is a stunning portrait of the artist viewing herself in a mirror before her bookshelf, lined with books on Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, European aesthetics, and the Bauhaus. Running horizontally and vertically, rejigged through the mirror, the words on the spines appear to be in free play, to be rearranged by the artist at her own discretion.
With all of this vastly dissimilar work, what is the show’s narrative? Susan Chen tells me, “I could be painting political stuff, or I could be painting an apple. But it will always be political because of who I am. That’s not in my control, and there’s frustration that comes with that.” She overheard dealers at the opening remarking on the fact that Asian figuration would be trending soon, falling in the footsteps of Black figuration. “It weirds me out a little,” she comments.
The essential thing, then, is to keep the field of Asian American figuration an open-ended one without a coherent narrative for as long as possible, to preserve its historical contingency and arbitrariness. Chakrabarti, who admits that she has gotten a lot of criticism for her piece (for example, some accused her of self-orientalism), says, “there is a really long history of erasure and lack of representation of Black, brown, and oriental women in Western art history. There is a lot of pressure put on contemporary artists to be remedying that gap.” She adds, “If everyone is expected to make the same kind of work in response to a particular history, then then we’re no more free than we were before.”
Wonder Women continues at Jeffrey Deitch gallery (18 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan) through June 25. The exhibition was curated by Kathy Huang.