Ryan Lee Wong: You were giving a tour of Serve the People—the exhibition I organized on Asian American movements—and you held up one of the folios from Yellow Pearl. You said that, in the early 70s, it was very hard to find any representations of Asian people that were not either stereotypical or degrading. So you had to source magazines from Asia to create this image. Can you talk a little bit about that realization? And that need you felt to create a certain kind of image?
Tomie Arai: Creating these images of Asians probably came out of a desire to fill an absence that I recognized was damaging or misinformed. To show real human lives that reflected my community was something that I wanted to create out of love, to address out of love. To correct the misconceptions out there around who Asians were, what their lives amounted to.
In those early days, I felt like I was really part of a movement, younger people who really believed in the importance of celebrating themselves, their lives, their families, their histories. Portraiture was just one way of celebrating all those people that I valued. And the fact that I couldn’t find those images represented truthfully gave me even more purpose, to create those images for myself.
Why are we asking these questions again now? Why is it important to establish whether there is or isn’t Asian American art? What concerns me is the way that people are talking about visibility, and correcting stereotypes, and educating people about our histories as an answer to Asian hate. I feel that pushing back against Asian hate doesn’t lie in creating images and celebrating ourselves, but really looking at the root causes for this anger and this violence against Asians.
Why do you think that people are asking this question?
Wong: I agree. “Asian American” as a political formation has existed about 50 years, and I think that’s quite young in terms of what it means to articulate a shared history and a shared vision for the future. Right now, we’re just scratching the surface. An example of root causes: a few people pointed out how the Atlanta shootings are connected to labor and gender, to the migration patterns that are the direct result of the Korean War, and military bases in South Korea, and marriages between American GIs and Korean women. We’re only just starting to understand how these histories are alive today, and how to articulate why these attacks are not random, but are the direct result of very deliberate policies and laws and cultural artifacts.
Arai: It feels like we’re very young, but at the same time, I feel like we’re somehow stuck in narratives. We havent really arrived at a meaning. Karen Ishizuka said that she felt that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II was a foundational narrative for Japanese in America, and we are all dealing with that trauma to this day. I think the migration experiences and the discrimination that Asians have felt have been foundational narratives for so many Asians who live here. Not to make light of all the work that historians and all these wonderful writers have done to amplify all the contributions that Asian American artists have made, but after going through the 60s and 70s, it feels like just such a small part of the story.
For me, the defining moment was 9-11. I really saw America through a very different lens. Up until that point, it always felt like what we shared in common was not so much that we were Asian, but our experience here in America. And all the racism, all the ways that we had had resettled here through the generations and contributed to the history of this country, all those things that needed to be documented, or needed art and songs and to communicate—at that moment, 9-11, I saw we’d forgotten that we were part of the world. I saw America was perceived in almost every other country in the world very differently from how we were looking at it. It made me think that we really need to have more of a global narrative.
So the idea of Asian American art really changed for me at that point. I’d really only measured my experience in terms of my family, my street, my neighborhood, the city I lived in, and not beyond that. It seemed unbelievable. I need to understand where we are in the context of a much larger story, and perhaps the idea of an Asian American art, in and of itself, seems like not enough.
Wong: So taking the “American” out of “Asian American art,” and looking more globally.
Arai: Yes. At the same time, there’s all this discussion now about whether or not Asian American as a term is accurate or not. I still believe that it’s a term that connects us, and for that reason alone, I think there’s value in using it. What we’re facing, as citizens in this country, is just so horrific—the amount of violence that’s inflicted on people of color, and the ways that we’re intentionally divided.
Solidarity is important, but only emphasizing what we share in common seems misdirected and unhelpful when it comes to facing the complicated issues of race and class in America. And labeling “Asian American art” as art only made by Asian Americans—is that really enough? Emphasizing what we have in common seems to me misdirected. To think about “Asian American art” as art that’s made by Asian Americans—is that really enough? The work that’s made by Asian Americans now is very different from what was made 50 years ago, 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. It does seem constantly evolving. So trying to define it seems self-defeating.
Wong: To return it to the first question, what’s interesting about that moment when you found those magazines printed in Asia, is that it took looking beyond America to change your consciousness about yourself. And I wonder what that might look like today. Where do we need to look in order to actually see ourselves more clearly?
Arai: Getting used to the idea that everything is in flux and changing and nothing is fixed is very hard. As an artist, you’re trying to fix things in a moment, perhaps as a way of bearing witness, saying, “This is important to me at this moment in time, and I want you to see it.” There were these reliable resources to always fall back on: Asian American history, the stories of immigration, these heroes that we look up to, these models of activism that can show us a way forward. Those are things I find very comforting. But things are constantly changing, so looking beyond that is always a challenge.
When I first began to do these portraits, I discovered places and people and sources that were unfamiliar to me. It makes sense now that everything was so fragmented, because we needed to make new stories, new identities for ourselves. We needed to find meaning and validation in ourselves and in our shared past. What would you say about the “American” in “Asian American”?
Wong: The common story of Asian migration to America is that we come, and eventually we become assimilated. But more and more, I realize it’s not that simple, that there are ancestral parts of myself that were dormant or not acknowledged or articulated. For example, my job is administrating a Zen temple, and I also write novels. This is kind of funny, because it’s so much like the old, old model of the Chinese scholar-artist or bureaucrat-poet. I even divide my time between the city and the country. The Chinese intelligentsia would have their work and life in the city, then they retreat to the misty mountains.
This goes against the idea that you come to America and leave behind who you were, the culture you had. This is a very challenging idea to America’s conception of itself. Many of us actually carry our histories and change America from within in more profound ways than we might realize.
Arai: I know that when I was in Basement Workshop, we were trying so desperately to put behind all the things that we were raised to believe, how we were raised to behave. Part of that was denying our relationships with our family and our past and our parents. And now we’ve become those people! In my older years, I am so amazed at how much of what I was brought up to believe was the way to be in the world is still so much a part of me. I don’t know how much of that gets erased when you’re here for as long as we have.
Bearing witness is really what artists do. If we can reflect the incredible complexity of our lives in our work, I think we are taking part in something that’s very important, and I would be happy to define that as Asian American art. Something that is constantly evolving and changing with every generation, with every new experience. Not something that you can define as a mix of tradition and contemporary work—there’s no one defining aesthetic, there’s no one defining story. And that would be, for me, a good definition.