Expressions of Hybrid Identity in Works by Diasporic Female Artists from Asia

Natalia Lebedinskaia

In the past several years, a number of large museums in North America have challenged themselves by curating exhibitions centered on the issue of diasporic experience and identity. The National Gallery of Canada organized Crossings in 1998, which was devoted to the exploration of relationships between landscape and trans-cultural identity [1]. An exhibition entitled Across the Pacific, which took place at the Queens Museum in New York, was devoted to works by Korean-American artists [2], and the Canadian Museum of Civilization organized Lands Within Me, assembling the work of twenty-six Canadian artists of Arab origin who all explore themes of immigrant experience in their work [3]. The majority of artists presenting their work at these exhibitions center their production around issues of identity-formation and the nature of the diasporic self, liking these processes with the political and social contexts in which they take place [4].

Much of the feminist work presented in these exhibitions focused on negotiating the female diasporic identity with issues of traditionally established gender roles. As a result, a number of Asian-American female artists, such as Hung Liu, Yong Soon-Min, and Jin-me Yoon, have made their art into a form of political activism; they share in the goal of placing the female Asian-American body back into history from which it has traditionally been excluded [5]. This essay will explore strategies through which these women counter roles imposed on them by society, and how they emerge as successful cultural critics and role-models for both their homeland and the Western audience. As such, their artworks function as acts of resistance to oppression, both against discrimination in the West, as well as the male-oriented traditions from which they emerge [6]. The fundamental tenets of Confucianism have shaped the lives of most Koreans and must be examined in order to understand how Korean female artists oppose misogynist views in their work. According to Hwa Young Choi Caruso’s essay “Art as a Political Act”:

The Confucian cultural heritage is deeply rooted and saturated in the daily lives of Koreans. It provides political, social, and cultural meanings and functions in contemporary South Korea… The Korean moral fabric, woven together by family, school, and government, has a cohesive structure of Confucian ethics, which affects the vertical and horizontal relationships in the social network [7].

Despite having brought about a persistently high standard of education, social harmony and high cohesiveness in family values, it also perpetrated strongly male-oriented views. Traditionally, Confucianism assumes the superiority of Men over Women, the laters only role being reproduction and home-making [8]. Female identity under Confucianism is seen as fully dependent on the identity of her husband and his family. The influence of Confucian values has been diminished by industrialization and globalization. According to Choi Caruso, many modern Korean women have a higher educated and are capable of economic independence as a result of these changes. However, as in many large-scale social changes the process is gradual and in this case Confucian values are still persistent in form of ongoing gender discrimination among families and at the workplace. Confucianism, in this altered form, still serves as the fundamental philosophy for most Korean families, as well as Korean immigrant communities abroad [9].

Many women who have resisted traditional values have been branded as “bad women” for their transgressions. Elaine Kim, in her article „“Bad Women”: Asian American Visual Artists Han Thi Pham, Hung Liu, and Yong Soon Min” highlights that the Asian society “does not recognize female sexual desires; condemns single motherhood, especially among unmarried women; discourages the woman who runs away from an abusive husband, and criticizes the woman who wants to live alone or focus on her work” [10]. All these views are based on traditional Confucianism. Throughout history, many women have acted against these values and were consequently punished for their decisions. Many of them immigrated to the United States and Canada to start new lives and to escape the stigmatization they were facing at home. Many picture brides, for example, abandoned their lives in Korea and Japan to move to an unknown country, meet strange men, and live in cities where they could not speak the language [11]. More recently, families have been researching the pasts of many of these women and their histories have slowly been surfacing, allowing them to reclaim their lives in Asia [12].

Hung Liu is one of many artists who infiltrating stories of these Asian bad women into their art in order to slowly saturate them into history. Instead of stigmatizing their actions, Liu sees them as role models and martyrs who were capable of resisting oppression, and whose histories need to be shared in the process of forming a cohesive Asian-American identity. Her 1991 exhibit in San Francisco, Bad Women, consists of a series of paintings depicting Chinese prostitutes from the early 20th century [13]. She discovered these images while going through the Beijing archives in search of reference material for her work. While many documents and family photographs were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, photographs of prostitutes were preserved as historic documentation of the periods fashion trends. They are arranged into two catalogues tailored to wealthy male customers, advertising girls in stylish Western and Chinese gowns. The women are shyly posed against staged backdrops that are meant to evoke feelings of sophistication and modernity: telephones, ships, cars, and Victorian couches [14].

The act of painting from photographs is immensely important for Liu. The goal of her art is to rediscover and recreate lives of anonymous women from pre-Communist China, as well as to deconstruct the series of gazes implicit in such artwork. These photographs fascinated Liu because the implication the Western gaze was so influential among these Chinese prostitutes [15]. The act of painting from photographs highlights these layers of illusion and gaze. Simultaneously, it reinterprets and gives new life to these forgotten women, whose names are abbreviated into Little Apple, White Lily, Sweet Orchid, etc. [16]

Liu adds wooden altars underneath her paintings, housing vases with little glass flowers or shoes, an emblem for bound feet. Combining these sculptural elements with the paintings emphasizes their flatness, as well as the artifice of the women’s poses, often resembling icons of Western paintings such as Manet’s Olympia, Goya’s The Naked Maja, or Ingres’s Odalisque [17]. These images embody Chinese patriarchy, while simultaneously showing the depersonalizing construction of Western Orientalism.  All of Liu’s art concerns itself with reconstructing her own identity as a Chinese woman by recovering elements that have been lost in history. For example, her infatuation with anonymous old photographs lies within their new context, which charges them with a newly discovered meaning [18].

When Liu first moved to America, she viewed herself as a Chinese artist working abroad. As time went by, however, she realized that her artwork was the distinct style of a hybrid Chinese-American, as she would have never painted that way in China [19]. Following this realization, the focus of her art production shifted to highlight her cross-cultural identity. For example, her piece Jiu Jin Shan (Old Gold Mountain) focuses specifically on Chinese America. A mountain of fortune cookies is crossed by railroads, evoking the history of the railroad construction, where many Chinese immigrants lost their lives [20].

In her discussion of “bad women”, Elaine Kim also mentions a Vietnamese artist, Hanh Thi Pham, who explores many similar themes as Liu. Hanh‟s work deals with the image of “bad women”, but in a directly autobiographical way. Hanh came to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 at the age of twenty-one. She lived the life of a model housewife for twelve years, trying to appease the high expectations of her family while simultaneously hiding her sexuality. When the pretense became unbearable, Hanh confronted her family with her homosexuality [21]. Reflecting the shocked reaction of her family, all Hanh’s consequent artwork explores her sexuality in the context of political tensions between Vietnam and America.

In Misbegotten No More, which was a part of a nine-piece photographic installation titled Khong La Nguoi (Expatriate Consciousness), Hanh flexes her arm in an “up yours” gesture, against overlying images of Buffalo Bill, Vietnamese poetry, newspaper clippings and handwriting [22]. The text that accompanies the piece states: “not the person who lives here”, which in Vietnamese is the same as stating that she is no longer a servant belonging to a master [23]. She is addressing both her Vietnamese upbringing, as well as the stereotypical identity American society has imposed upon her. It is an act of feminist self-empowerment, a statement of political protest in which personal becomes political.

Many artists place themselves and their personal histories into their work, both as means of reconstructing their own identities as Asian-Americans, as well as defining a larger community of Asian-American women to which they belong. In “Art as a Political Act”, Hwa Young Choi Caruso argues that immigrants develop a new racial ideology, and often modify their ethnic concepts, creating new cultural forms [24]. Art, in this context, becomes an important tool in representing their political and cultural power, as well as constructing new ways of representing the world. It is a vehicle through which they can dispute traditional values and establish new ones, giving fresh meaning to their own experiences. It is an act of defining oneself as a part of a larger community, and an empowering voice which creates solidarity.

One such voice is Yong Soon Min. Min immigrated to America at the age of seven, and later received her art education from the University of California, where she developed her style of creating large multimedia installations around her experience as a Korean immigrant. Since the 1980’s, she has been activist for the emerging multiculturalist and decolonial art movement, having become a renowned scholar and a curator, while continuing to exhibit her artwork worldwide [25].

Min’s theories and artwork share their characteristic qualities with both Liu’s and Hanh’s pieces. Like Liu, she consistently mentions Korean history and identity in her work, while relating it to her own female body in American society. Similar to Hanh, Min creates installations that are both autobiographical and political, and that often include text and photography in an act of “creating a culture of resistance” [26], which draws parallels between all groups who have suffered oppression from the West.

Yong Soon Min was born at the end of the Korean War. She uses this coincidence as the basis for her autobiographical piece Defining Moments, in which she connects historical moments in Korean history with important dates of her own life. These dates are written on Min‟s nude body, swirling out from her navel [27], literally embodying the concept of “personal is political”. Min‟s body becomes the canvas onto which history is written, while simultaneously placing herself in that history by including her autobiography of these events. The first date is July 1953, her birth and the end of the Korean War, followed by the 19th of April, 1960, when she witnessed the Student Revolution in Seoul as a young girl. May 1980, the date of the Gwangju Massacre in Korea, doubles as the birthdate of her personal political consciousness. Superimposed onto her face are images from these political events, once again merging her physical and political self. The final image in the series visualizes the possibility of reunification between North and South Korea, marked by the mythical birthplace of the Korean people on the Paektu Mountain in North Korea [28].  Similarly to Defining Moments, Min’s other work also explores themes of diaspora and history, while relating them to her own personal experiences. For example, in DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) Xing, she highlights the suffering of Southeast Asian refugees in Connecticut. In the writing accompanying her piece, Min says: “for those of us whose histories have been marginalized, or who have been colonized or displaced, or have lost a heartland, memories are all we have” [29]. Thus, pieces created by diasporic artists often serve the purpose of recovering those lost memories, both personal and communal, and making them a part of history.

The theme of linking personal stories with political concerns runs strongly through Jin-me Yoon artwork, another Korea-born Canadian artist. In Bojagi/Imagining Communities, Yoon explores how cultural displacement affects one’s self-definition, and the construction of cultural identities. Using images of herself and her mother in Korea, passport photographs, as well as photographs of events from Korean history, she weaves together her personal history and that of her homeland. She hides parts of these images behind thin pieces of cloth called bojagi, which are traditionally used in Korea for wrapping and carrying objects, such as books and clothes [30]. Unlike suitcases, they take on the shape of the objects which they contain; Yoon sees this adaptation of shape as a metaphor for displacement and the diasporic community [31]. There is also an online element in the exhibition, where Yoon collected viewers’ comments on issues of community, family and identity [32]. These comments were later displayed on light boxes as a part of the exhibition space, literally including her community of viewers into her work.

The theme of reinserting the Korean immigrant history into the Canadian narrative runs through Yoon’s most famous work called A Group of Sixty-Seven, in which she superimposes images of Korean immigrants onto reproductions of paintings by the Group of Seven [33]. Her subjects are repeated twice, once facing the landscape and once facing the viewer [34]. She invites the viewers to first see the landscapes from the point of view of the immigrant community, and then turns around and sees the same landscape with a new set of eyes – away from territoriality and nationalism that the Group of Seven represents. These pieces highlight the exclusion of immigrant histories from the Canadian national identity, simultaneously proposing a model in which those stories populate and enrich it with their multiplicity [35].

By critically referencing such strongly nationalist vocabulary as the Group of Seven, she incites us to continue questioning patriotic imagery, while demonstrating how the true Canadian landscape is populated with diversity. In Imagining Communities, as well as Group of Sixty-Seven, Yoon takes it ones step further from a just a political statement about immigration. Together with other artists, such as Min and Liu, they propose that art can provide resolutions to the problems many immigrants face, such as the acute sense of estrangement and isolation in a foreign land. Their art establishes a sense of a wider diasporic community in the West, fostering feelings of belonging to a new home.  In her article “On Diasporic Intimacy: Ilya Kabakov‟s Installations and Immigrant Homes,” Svetlana Boym proposes a theoretical state of diasporic intimacy, which can be seen as one of the goals that many of these immigrant artists share in their work. Boym describes this state as a “mutual enchantment of two immigrants from different parts of the world or as the sense of the fragile coziness of a foreign home…a pang of intimate recognition, a hope that sneaks in through the back door, punctuating the habitual estrangement of everyday life abroad” [36]. Despite its transient nature, diasporic intimacy gives hope that a new sense of home is possible, a renewed belonging shaped by the common experience of dislocation [37].

Overall, artworks such as Yoon’s Imagining Communities or Liu’s Bad Women are expressions of diasporic intimacy with their viewers. They achieve it through establishing environments in which shared vocabularies of old photographs and familiar cultural objects transform gallery spaces into sites of belonging. While these artists express their critique of both Western and Eastern society through their work, they do not place themselves outside of it. They use their art to establish a separate space that belongs to both worlds, proposing a transnational and hybrid identity.

This ideal is central to Carol Becker’s discussion of the Second Johannesburg Biennale in her article “The Romance of Nomadism”. The Biennale was titled Trade Routes: History and Geography, and aimed at raising issues about diasporic artists who function as global citizens [38]. She offers trans-nationalism as a postmodern utopia, in which we are no longer able to locate ourselves in definite cultural or political space, thus transcending the apparatus of the state [39]. Becker views artists and curators at the Biennale as working outside the boundaries of society, and existing in a neutral non-space of the gallery setting. Comparing her ideas to those of the trans-cultural artists such as Yoon or Liu highlights the utopian nature of Becker’s theory. Artwork by Jin-me Yoon, Yong Soon Min, and others may share the same postmodern ideal of a transnational existence, but it is grounded in stark reality of the immigrant experience. The numbers of artists who choose to share their stories demonstrate the relevancy of their work and dire need for a dialogue about the social and political issues they raise.

In addition to large-scale exhibitions and biennales, many artist-run centers aim to increase visibility of diasporic artists’ works. Artspeak in Vancouver, for example, was one of the spaces where Imagining Communities by Yong Soon-Min was shown. Such widespread exposure is integral to the goals that these artists are striving to achieve by sharing their stories with the public. They have given new meaning to their individual struggles, while exploring their identities as immigrant Asian-American women. Their works demonstrate how private moments of balancing conflicts of social, political, and personal interests can be used as brave acts of resistance to oppression. They emerge as a group of role models and cultural critics who create transient communities within their exhibition spaces, where the utopia of a transnational world seems possible.

Endnotes
1. Erin Manning, “I am Canadian. Identity, Territory and the Canadian National Landscape.” John Hopkins (University Press, 2000), Page 4
2. Eleanor Heartney, “Hybrid identities – Korean Art; various artists, Queens Museum, New York” (Brant Publications Inc) Found on: http://findarticles.com/p/artiles/mi_m1248/is_n9_v82/ai_15
3. Aida Kouk, “A Message from the Curator.” Found on: http://www.civilization.ca/cultur/cespays/payinte.html
4. Hwa Young Choi Caruso, “Art as a Political Act: Expression of Cultural Identity, Self-Identity, and Gender by Suk Nam Yun and Yong Soon Min.” in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall 2005. (University of Illinois). Page 7
5. Ibid., Page 72
6. Amy Mullin, “Art, Understanding, and Political Change” in Hypatia vol.15, no. 3 (Summer 2000) Page 114
7. Hwa Young Choi Caruso, “Art as a Political Act: Expression of Cultural Identity, Self-Identity, and Gender by Suk Nam Yun and Yong Soon Min.” in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall 2005. (University of Illinois.) Page 73
8. Ibid., Page 74
9. Ibid., Page 75-76
10. Elaine H. Kim, ““Bad Women”: Asian American visual artists Hanh Thi Pham, Hung Liu, and Yong Soon Min.” in Feminist Studies, Fall 96, Vol. 22, Issue 3. Page 2
11. Ibid., Page 3
12. Ibid., Page 5
13. Ibid., Page 6
14. Ibid., Page 7
15. Ibid., Page 8
16. Elaine H. Kim, “““Bad Women”: Asian American visual artists Hanh Thi Pham, Hung Liu, and Yong Soon Min.” in Feminist Studies, Fall 96, Vol. 22, Issue 3. Page 2
17. Ibid., Page 4
18. Ibid., Page 4
19. Ibid., Page 6
20. Elaine H. Kim, “““Bad Women”: Asian American visual artists Hanh Thi Pham, Hung Liu, and Yong Soon Min.” in Feminist Studies, Fall 96, Vol. 22, Issue 3. Page 8
21. Ibid., Page 8
22. Ibid., Page 9
23. Ibid., Page 8
24. Hwa Young Choi Caruso, “Art as a Political Act: Expression of Cultural Identity, Self-Identity, and Gender by Suk Nam Yun and Yong Soon Min.” in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 39, No. 3, Fall 2005. (University of Illinois.) Page 75
25. Alexandra Chang, “Yong Soon Min: Artist, Activist, Humanist”, Found on: http://asiancemagazine.com/mar_2007/yong_soon_min_artist_activist_humanist.
26. Ibid.
27. Elaine H. Kim, “““Bad Women”: Asian American visual artists Hanh Thi Pham, Hung Liu, and Yong Soon Min.” in Feminist Studies, Fall 96, Vol. 22, Issue 3. Page 11
28. Ibid., Page 11
29. Ibid., Page 12
30. Elaine H. Kim, “““Bad Women”: Asian American visual artists Hanh Thi Pham, Hung Liu, and Yong Soon Min.” in Feminist Studies, Fall 96, Vol. 22, Issue 3. Page 11
31. Ibid., Page 12
32. Alexandra Chang, “Yong Soon Min: Artist, Activist, Humanist”, Found on: http://asiancemagazine.com/mar_2007/yong_soon_min_artist_activist_humanist.
33. Erin Manning, “I am Canadian. Identity, Territory and the Canadian National Landscape.” (John Hopkins University Press, 2000), Page 4
34. Ibid., Page 5
35. Ibid., Page 6
36. Svetlana Boym, “On Diasporic Intimacy: Ilya Kabakov‟s Installations and Immigrant Homes” in Critical Iquiry, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter 1998, Page 504
37. Ibid., Page 505
38. Carol Becker, “The Romance of Nomadism: A Series of Reflections.” in Art Journal, Vol. 58, No. 2 (Summer 1999), Page 21
39. Ibid., Page 22