One of the never-ending questions in our culture is: What is the American identity?
In a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, the question becomes “What is an Asian American?” Here, the quest to capture Asian Americans’ experiences is depicted in photographs, charcoal sketches, video and painting. The interpretations, and some answers, are funny, poetic, sensual and complicated.
Roger Shimomura is the eldest of the seven artists represented in “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter.” A Japanese-American who grew up in Seattle but has lived in the Midwest for 40 years, Shimomura paints playful, colorful canvases. He inserts himself as George Washington in “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware.” In another painting, with his legs raised high in a karate kick, Shimomura fights stereotypes, such as a Japanese man with oversized teeth. In “American vs. Disney Stereotypes,” the artist is trying to destroy all the Disney characters, including Donald Duck wearing a conical Asian hat.
He is not the only artist to use humor to defuse an image. Hye Yeon Nam, a Korean American, has chosen video art to show the awkwardness a newcomer feels. In one video, she attaches planks to a pair of sandals and trips around New York City. In another she repeatedly pours orange juice into a glass that has a hole. She continues to pour and drink, licking her hands, signaling her confusion.
Much more somber are Vietnamese-born Tam Tran’s self photographs. The artist wears mostly black dresses in the photographs, but every facial expression and pose is different. Many times she looks blank, even daring. In “My Call to Arms” she wears a black strapless dress, her arms hidden behind her, a sassy, model-like stare on her face.
Some address an aspect of their culture. Hong Chun Zhang has chosen her family’s long black hair to symbolize beauty. The artist’s hair and that of her two sisters are depicted in charcoal on unfolding scrolls. Yet there’s some humor here too. Zhang lives in Lawrence, Kan., and she has drawn a twist of hair like a cyclone.
In her direct and lyrical portraits, Satomi Shirai grapples with living in Queens after Japan. Her photographs depict friends who are also searching; one stands in a suitcase with magazines and clothes strewn around. Another photo shows two women peeling lots of apples and looking for their fortune.
A corridor outside the main galleries of the show is dedicated to the portrait project of Cindy Hwang, who goes by the professional moniker CYJO. Hwang is a Korean American photographer who grew up in suburban Maryland. Since 2004 she has photographed members of the Korean diaspora, known as Kyopo, in the same space against a white wall; her subjects include Washington choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess and actor Daniel Dae Kim.
Shizu Saldamando uses collage, often painting on gold leaf. Now living in Los Angeles, Saldamando grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of Japanese and Mexican parents. One of her subjects, with tattoos and a pierced nose, is mourning after a romantic breakup. Another shows the camaraderie of three women, all in black, mugging for the artist.
Only two of the artists have shown in Washington previously. Shirai was in the gallery’s 2009 Portrait Competition and Shimomura in a 1997 exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
All seven artists will be at the gallery during the duration of the show, beginning with a public talk by Hwang at 2 p.m., Sept. 17.
The show, on view through October 2012, is a joint project of the gallery and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.