Sunday, January 12, 2014

2 Hapa Parents and 19 Hapa artists: Our Visit to War Baby / Love Child at the Wing Luke



War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian Art at the Wing Luke [image from warbabylovechild.com]

by Sharon H Chang

Cold, rain. Gray-stained morning. Husband and I are sitting in the car at 5 till, draining coffee dregs, waiting for Seattle's Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience to open. We're about to visit War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian Art before it closes in a week. We just dropped the kid off at preschool. It's taken us a full month to get here and many thwarted attempts. And now we finally made it, we're thrilled and stunned-awkward-silent at the same time. This is the unique challenge I think parents face in trying to raise their race-consciousness and by association, the race-savvy of their parenting (something our children desperately need). How in the world do you find: time to read books, childcare to get to places/events, opportunities to meet and converse with like-minded people/parents?? The truth is so often -- you just don't. Your kid is sick, abort mission. The babysitter cancelled or you can't find one at all, abort mission. You feel like you're gonna die from exhaustion, abort mission. The roof is leaking and your basement flooded, abort mission. So needless to say, this was a glorious triumphant morning for me and my partner. 2 Hapas with a Hapa son about to experience the art of 19 Hapa artists. That's a whole lot of kickbutt Hapa-ness.

 So you would suppose we'd have rushed in gushing and gooing all over the place right? And it's true, we did giggle gleefully like kids about to eat cupcakes climbing the stairs to the George Tsutakawa Gallery where the art is housed. But once we walked in those doors, heavy silence descended upon us. We instantly separated, quiet and thoughtful for the better part of an hour, and probably spoke no more than 20 words to each other. It was at once something we could share but also something we needed to process internally and privately. I finally asked my husband which pieces called to him the most. We were surprised, or maybe not so surprised, to find ourselves in total agreement on 2 in particular:

Forever, 2008, by Cristina Lei Rodriguez [image from War Baby / Love Child book]
In Forever we both, but myself in particular, experienced a beautiful dark-depthful embodiment of fetishization and exoticization -- central experiences for women of color and those who scan as Asian. Artist Cristina Lei Rodriguez describes her assembled floral sculpture as being about "the idealized frozen moment fake flowers capture." She is interested in "ideas of excess and visual pleasure and the constructed fantasy of exoticized tropical landscapes." For me, a woman who has been at the receiving end of fetish fantasies, my lived life and interactions with men around "ethnic beauty" aligned perfectly with this flower; at once bright, sparkly and gorgeous, but also fake, webbed, threading and drippy. There was something too in the way its face seemed forced down, away from the sky and sun, sinking or wilting from the pressure of an invisible weight.

 I've Always Wanted Your Nose, Dad, 2008, by Samia Mirza [image from War Baby / Love Child book]
In I've Always Wanted Your Nose, Dad, both of us right away lobbed onto something so hurtful and yet so underacknowledged in mixed race life -- how markers other than skin color are often used to qualify, quantify and measure. For example, the stigma around "Asian eye shape" is still only peripherally addressed. The desire for European (often long, straight) noses and revulsion towards flat, spread noses is barely ever addressed. Even writing about it I'm getting the chills. Yet I know there to be truth here as a mixed race woman who happened to inherit her nose from her mostly Eastern European mother and receives endless remarks about it to this day (it's one of the ways people scan and perceive me as more "white looking"). "I want to bring the underbelly of things upward," said artist Samia Mirza, "Things that are hidden in the dark,things that go bump in the night." Indeed my husband appreciated and loved Nose probably the most for this; for being so truthful, "visceral," "a gut-punch," and what race issues often become, "extremely ugly."

I'll say it. The exhibit was a profound experience for us. We are 2 mixed race Asians who were raised in predominantly white communities in the 80s/90s when (a) assimilative messages were still very strong and (b) not much if any attention was being paid to the multiracial American experience. That's a pretty empty, cavernous, vacuum sort-of-a-place to be trying to construct an ethnic/racial identity. In fact I think we'd both agree we basically didn't construct identities until much later in life, our mid-20s. And at that stage constructing an identity meant building around already 2 decades of invisibility, confusion, hurt and aimless wandering. Not exactly the healthiest starting point. But maybe a non-issue now that things are so different? I don't know. A lot of times I don't think so. For instance, many of the same conflicts are powerfully echoed by the artists of War Baby / Love Child:

Everything for me is always the experience of insider and outsider at the same time.
-- Adrienne Pao
I am a mix, and my identity is complex and exists with contradictions .
-- Cristina Lei Rodriguez
When I was younger, I would say...I'm half and half. I don't use that term anymore because...[blood quantum] is such a huge issue. Who is to say how much of a person you are?
-- Debra Yepa-Pappan

What I think this exhibit really points out is how important discussions about multiraciality are and continue to be. While War Baby / Love Child is a celebration, I felt also much (maybe more) pain and need; something edgy and uncomfortable. There's a lot we still don't know and are trying to figure out about being mixed race peoples. Case in point, after our hour was up (time to pick up kiddo) we were walking back down the stairs when my husband suddenly threw up his hands and said, "I don't even know how I identify anymore. I'm just confused." Then later, "Maybe that's an okay way to feel?" I realized for us the visit wasn't about getting answers, but allowing ourselves to keep asking the questions -- and you know I'm all about questioning because it keeps us sharp! This is something my husband and I needed, something we have needed for so long. But also something we know without a shadow of a doubt our son needs too and perhaps something that will never cease being needed: a multiracial space of mixed race peoples in which to wander, wonder, and continually ponder.

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1 comment :

  1. I would love to see that exhibit. And you're right about trying find like-minded people. In reality it's challenging because of the reasons you mentioned. That's why I'm glad we can connect online!

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