In spring 1992, the LA Riots in Koreatown was one of the first times in American history (other than the Korean War), that the media focused on Korean people. During the LA Riots, Korean American businesses were under siege by arsonists, gangs, and looters who took advantage of the chaos in Los Angeles. The police and government defense teams restricted access to Koreatown and declined pleas for support, and so Korean Americans stood up for their rights as American citizens. They assembled their community through radio and protected storefronts wearing security uniforms and guns (a majority being BB guns or fake) to ward away the arsonists and looters. Most of Koreatown was destroyed. However, thanks to the bonds of community, a few were spared. Despite the racial tensions as well as government tensions, the LA Riots were followed by a peace protest conducted by the Korean American community, asking for harmony among all races.
When, nearly two decades later, I was exposed to the LA Riots, I was struck by how prevalent racism still was in our society. When I process the LA Riots, I see it as an event that represents the great Korean American struggle. I related to the event itself because my family, as Koreans, experienced oppression and violence in our everyday lives. In work, school and our neighborhood settings, my family members and I would be the only Asians, something that persisted for nearly ten years. There were times when we had to defend ourselves physically and verbally because of our race. Living as a marginalized race, makes feeling a sense of belonging difficult; my life experiences include moments of racism, violence, and tension. And so, the LA Riots were one of the events that made a significant impact on my artwork.
My visit to Korea has also influenced the content of my work. It showed me that despite being genetically Korean, I was not Korean enough. My speaking skills in Korean were not up to par and I lacked the ideal “look” of Korean women. A majority of the women in Seoul, the city of my mother’s birth, were products of the “Hallyu Wave” or pop culture revolution, which emerged in the 1990s [Vice Seoul Fashion Week]. With that Korea developed into one of the top plastic surgery centers of the world. The “ideal woman” in Korea was tall, had pale skin, a sloped nose, a tiny jawline and eye folds. I have none of these traits. So, ironically, I found myself being too “American” for Korea, but too “Korean” for America. This tension has become the subject of my work.
W.E.B. Dubois, coined the term “ Double Consciousness,” the idea that persons of color are always aware that they are marginalized. Such a person anticipates being placed in stereotypical categorizations that go against how the individual defines himself or herself as a person [Powell]. Despite the statistic that Asians are the largest population in the world, outside of Asian countries they are considered a “minority.” The term minority is more of a vernacular term, equating to the idea that people of color are still oppressed in society, because “majority” rules. That “majority” is still deeply routed in supremacy of White, male Anglo Saxon ideals.
Asians Americans have a slightly different experience in America than most marginalized peoples, because they will always be viewed as “foreigners,” whether they are fifth or more generation American immigrants. The questions and comments “Do you speak English?” or “ You speak English very well for an Asian” arise even if that Asian American has a doctorate in English. Asian culture is still today often described from a colonist’s perspective as “ exotic” or “ Oriental.” This fetishization of Asian culture thrives due to a lack of perspective and knowledge; this also contributes to hostility towards Asian cultures. Various Asian American artists have explored their own experiences with discrimination and presented work to bring these issues to the public.
Two artists whose work relates to the content of mine are Ken Chu and Eddie Huang. Both are Asian Americans who document their life experiences. Ken Chu is a Chinese American and gay artist who makes painted collages. Some of his paintings are Chinktown Killed My Father and I Need More Hair Gel [Machida]. As his titles suggest, Chu depicts events when he felt alienated or was verbally abused by strangers for being Chinese, as well as being gay. As an artist Chu is part of the Contemporary Asian American society in LA.
Eddie Huang is Taiwanese American lawyer, writer, producer and restaurateur and is famous for his 2013 book Fresh off the Boat, which was also the title of his 2015 family oriented TV adaption of the book. Both his book and show describe his life as an Asian American child in the 90s, but his experiences are set on the East Coast. On the East Coast, the history of Asian Americans is generally not part of our education system’s curriculum, in contrast the West Coast, where the history with Chinese Americans dates back to Chinese laborers working during the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. When Huang’s family moved from D.C. to Florida there were few if any Asians in his community. Both Chu’s and Huang’s interviews often address the lack of Asian American role models and for me provide perspectives from two American regions.
Eddie Huang mentioned in an interview with Vice magazine that the actress Margaret Cho was a role model for Asian Americans in her comedy All American Girl. However, the show did not effectively address Asian American issues in America and was too censored and more of a caricature of the Asian American identity. Chu and Huang felt the need to focus on their experiences in relation to their own lives. Similar to Chu and Huang, I see my work as part of the Asian American activist culture.
I make sewn drawings and sculptures. I use thread to limit my strokes and make myself more aware of each mark. The silk thread’s strength is also metaphorical for the drawing’s loaded content such as violence or intensely personal experiences. The process is slow and each mark is intentional, but this is better than making images faster with pencil or paint, which can lead to overworking images by over indulging in marks, tones and colors. Sewing is relatively new for me and because of this my images are raw and awkward, but because of that are more authentic. When I use muslin as a ground for my sewing, I physically penetrate the surface, unlike traditional painting where the paint sits on top of the ground. Sewing is a way for me to access the core of my experiences as opposed to making superficial representations or ego related representations of them.
When I make sewn drawings, I use stretcher bars instead of embroidery hoops because I am not interested in commenting on domesticity or creating work located in traditional ideas of craft. I see my work as a hybrid of fine art and home crafts. Embroidery hoops are associated with domesticity. I create using a craft method and display it as fine art. I use color to activate the space and the thread forms the structures and gestures of people. For example, I use only black hues hair for shadows and yellow to color headlights. Muslin is the basis of my artistic vocabulary; it is a neutral fabric devoid of distracting pattern, color or ornamentation. The color is off white, corresponding to my being neither black nor white but something ethnically in between.
The structure of my work recalls memoirs such as Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and, when I incorporate text, my writing is similar to works by Lydia Davis in her Collected Stories. The memories and stories that are the content of my work go through a filter. The stories begin much like Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which depicts with lush details the grandeur of her mother’s adventures set in the past. I then transform them into drawings, and they become more like Cisneros’ writing, with stories evoking contours of people and places. When I incorporate text, my focus becomes solely on what is the minimum needed to tell a story and has a similarity to Davis’ story. My focus is on rhythm and word weight. The succinct nature of text makes it seem elliptical, so short that it feels cryptic but evokes meaning. I begin with events full of intensity that are seemingly larger than life and then reduced them to their most basic components. My end product is a story told in few words and an event drawn in few colors. Louise Bourgeois’ She Lost It, a very short text screen-printed on pink silk, in its succinct power has been an important influence.
My work is divided into three chapters, similar to Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which alternates Tan’s mother’s exciting past in China, her own experiences as an Chinese American child, and lastly her current experiences. My sewn drawings and sculptures are presented in three parts: family stories, the Koreatown experience of LA Riots and my personal experiences.
My family stories come from my family’s past in Korea. These reference the Korean side of my culture and establish the difference between my ancestors’ lifestyle in Korea and our lives in America. These works tend to evoke sense of nostalgia for my family’s past life in Korea. Examples of stories include times when my family was wealthy and owned more than 10,000 chestnut trees worth of land, or stories of romance between my grandfather and his mistresses. The work is the translation of a verbal story into a distilled and elliptical visual representation that attempts to capture the essence of the story. They Were So Rich references the past when my great grandmother was given bananas as a gift. Bananas were rare commodities in Korea and she had enough to fill a bathtub. My drawing depicts a wooden tub filled with bananas. Below the drawing is the text They were So Rich and in place of writing out bananas I substitute the word with a symbol of a banana. I do not explicitly say what they are but the symbol implies it. The image is simple yet it captures my family’s past success and how values of objects change. I use only brown for the tub and yellow for the bananas. The second chapter is the LA Riots. In Olympic Discount Store I draw scenes based on news clips of the LA Riots. I then reduce the drawings to contours of people and store buildings. My intent is not to draw out every detail of dirt, broken glass or smoke. It is to capture the moment, people and place. My sculptural piece Yellow Star represents my elementary school experience. The star shape of the work references name templates that children receive in kindergarten. The text “ Chink boy with a hairclip” is the name that I would be called as a child.
My sewn sculptures have the same characteristics as my works on stretcher bars with limited colors, black thread and short lines of text. The text provides an elliptical story to go along with the image. The sculptures are a means of offering audiences a tangible memory. They are three-dimensional and occupy a space and create a setting. The space is a representation of my mind, full of memory narratives. When my works take sculptural qualities, they tend to be from personal experiences from my childhood. These memories are not events I have just heard about. I have seen, smelled and experienced them. My three- dimensional works are objects, which are cryptic and contain painful moments of loss and disappointment. My family history narratives usually take on two-dimensional form, suggesting more of a distance. I myself was not there in those moments.
My primary concern is to provide another Asian American perspective to the world of art. When I learned about Ken Chu and Eddie Huang, I felt that my struggles were validated. Finding people with similar experiences made me feel comfortable with expressing myself. I believe it is important to make art about one’s heritage because it is the most effective way of achieving a sense of self. Also, it is vital for marginalized people to show the world their experiences and inform the public about struggles that are overlooked. It is my hope that my honest, raw, yet elliptical envisioning of my life experience will engage and empower and validate those who are in some way marginalized and will help sensitize others to a life experience they have not shared.
Works Cited and Consulted
“Action News 2 Broadcast Armed Korean Merchants & LA Riots”. Youtube. 12 April.2013. Web.
Bloom, Harold. Sandra Ciserno's The House on Mango Street. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003. Print.
Bourgeois, Louise, and Lawrence Rinder. Louise Bourgeois: Drawings & Observations. Berkeley: U Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, U of California, Berkeley;1995. Print.
Bourgeois, Louise, and Frances Morris. Louise Bourgeois. New York, N.Y.: Rizzoli, 2008. Print.
Chiu, Melissa, Karin M. Higa, and Susette S. Min. One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now. New Haven, CT: Asia Society with Yale UP, 2006. Print.
“'Clash Of Colors The 1992 Los Angeles Riots from the Korean American Perspective.” YouTube. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.
Davis, Lydia. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Print.
“Eddie Huang on Fresh Off the Boat and More: VICE Podcast 003.” YouTube. YouTube. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.
Khan, Nahnatchka, prod. Fresh off The Boat /Pilot. 4 Feb. 2015. Television.
“Louise Bourgeois: The Complete Prints & Books.” MoMA. Web. 11 Sept. 2015.
“Machida, Margo, Vishakha N. Desai, and John Kuo Wei. Tchen. Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art. New York, NY: Asia Society Galleries, 1994. Print.
“Margaret Cho All American Girl, Pilot (1/2).” YouTube. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.
Powell, Richard J. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 1997. Print.
SánchezGuzmán, “How To Read The Louise Bourgeois' Work From The Performativity.” Review Of Artistic Education 3/4 (2012): 152161. Art Source. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.
“Seoul Fashion Week KPop to Double Eyelid Surgery.” YouTube. YouTube. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.
Tan, Amy. The Bonesetter's Daughter. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.
"The LA Riots and Siege of Koreatown - ALL INVOLVED." The Lip Tv (Youtube channel), 1 Feb. 2016. Web.