Wordless Discourses:  Art on Race for Wing Luke’s Under My Skin Exhibit

By Minh Nguyen
IE Contributor

In the first chapter of his book, “How Music Works,” David Byrne of the Talking Heads writes that “context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung or performed.” He makes this statement as a counterpoint to what he believes to be the popular notion that “creation emerges out of some interior emotion” or a solipsistic artistic vacuum. The context of race is the external condition inspiring a lively visual dialogue at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in the exhibit “Under My Skin: Artists Explore Race in the 21st Century,” which opens May 9th.

Under My Skin showcases work by 26 artists spanning a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, generations and media. Artists featured include photographers Canh Solo and Carina A. del Rosario, and mixed-media artist Fumi Matsumoto. What yokes the pieces together is the shared theme of race, and how the artists explore this topic as it pertains to them and others in contemporary American society.

For some, race is a ubiquitous and deeply nuanced presence in everyday life, and the exhibit, during the submission process, provided a few goals and recommendations to which the artists could grapple with, such as “exploring the unique ways race plays out in the Pacific Northwest” and “providing a space for frank, innovate artwork that provokes active responses to difficult questions.”

Unsurprisingly, the exhibit received a notably high volume of submissions, out of which the final 26 were selected, including Canh Nguyen’s photographic series “Portraits of My Father.” The series displays, in the striking monochromic contrast of black and white print, various images of Solo’s father and relics from his life as a Vietnam War veteran.

When asked why he preferred the medium of photography, Nguyen responded: “Photography has a relationship to truth that other mediums don’t necessarily have, that can facilitate a social dialogue.”

And Nguyen’s photographs achieve just that, providing ways to visually detangle the complex subject of race and its hand on immigration, citizenship and war. When looking at them, you not only get a glimpse into the life of a Vietnamese war refugee, but of the son standing behind the camera, framing his father through his lens.

The exhibit also features mixed-media sculptures by Fumi Matsumoto “Minidoka Interlude” and “Ibara no Michi” (Pathway of Thorns), both prompted by the Japanese internment camp experience during World War II. For Matsumoto, born in Japan, much of her artwork is influenced by her Japanese culture and heritage. “Minidoka Interlude” features an assemblage of artifacts within a wired cage, including a photo of a young, uniformed Nisei soldier, a bone and shall, a map of an internment camp, a page from the internment camp yearbook, “The Minidoka Interlude” and a scroll with the names of the Minidoka internees in Japanese.

Creating the thorny “Ibara no Michi” connected Matsumoto to those still managing to find and create beauty during internment.

“The thorns would draw blood when I pricked my fingers as I wove them into a lattice,” she recalls. The process made me think about the Japanese people who made beautiful works of art while they were incarcerated in the internment camps during World War II. I felt like we were kindred spirits from a different time and circumstance.”

Discourse about art and discourse about race can seem polarizing – art may lack the urgency and sobriety that social and political issues demand, and discourse about these issues are often deemed bereft of creative expression.

To photographer Carina A. del Rosario, this decision is left up to the individual artist.

“Whenever anyone is creating art, one is channeling one’s experiences,” she says. “It’s a matter of whether artists regard their experiences with a racial or political framework.”

As an immigrant who emigrated from the Philippines at 6, del Rosario has “always been concerned with [ideas of] belonging”.  She presents for the exhibit “Passport Series,” which features four passports from self-identified transgender people of color that revise and subvert the standard passport with fill-in-the-blanks rather than check boxes.

For Nguyen, “race thoughts existed way before art-making was involved, and art was a way for me to have a conversation with other people, and most importantly, myself.” Nguyen laments that “young Asian Americans are creative, but there are forces that suppress that internally and externally.  That’s why places like the Wing Luke are important.”

“Under My Skin: Artists Explore Race in the 21st Century” opens May 9th and runs through November 17th.

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