In a welcome move, the National Portrait Gallery has invited the seven artists in its current show on Asian American portraits to give intimate talks about their artistic impulses right in front of their work.
On Friday morning the museum gathered the artists to conduct a test run of how the lecture series would work. It was lively as many of the artists were meeting each other for the first time. It was instructive as every artist explained how they searched for a way to portray their individualism, their dislocation and their personal battle against being labeled totally on their looks and identity.
After she moved from Japan in 2004, Satomi Shirai was appalled that a neighbor in Queens, N.Y., cut down a small cherry tree. “I realized I lived in a different culture,” said Shirai. She then set out to create staged photographs that showed differences and common ground. “Fortune Telling” is a large photograph with two women and dozens of apples. Some are peeled and cut , said Shirai, in the Japanese style, and others have been bitten, in the dominant U.S. style. “My interests include inhabited space and the intangibles of culture,” she said.
In another room Zhang Chun Hong explained her delicate depictions of long black hair, with the portrait realized from the back of the head. As she talked the notion that this was solely a tribute to beauty she and her sisters shared from their Chinese heritage faded away. “In the triptych, the middle one is my older sister, and the ones on the side are me and my twin sister,” Zhang said, adding the arrangement was symbolic. “The leader is in the center, with the cultural adviser on one side and the military adviser on the other. It has religious and cultural suggestions.”
Roger Shimomura, a third-generation American of Japanese descent, aims to destroy the stereotypes that have injured many Asian Americans. He inserts himself into the boldly colored narratives, including a take-off on the famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware. “Imagine if George Washington were a Japanese American. Imagine what a difference that would make,” said Shimomura.
“Portaiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter,” which is on view until October 14, 2012, was organized with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. “This is something we wish we could do all the time,” said the gallery’s director Martin Sullivan, adding jokingly, “unmediated by curators with fancy theories.”
The other artist led tours, all at 2 p.m., are:
October 15: Zhang Chun Hong
November 5: Satomi Shirai
January 7: Hye Yeon Nam
March 10: Roger Shimomura
April 7: Tam Tran
May 12: Shizu Saldamando