Think tea ceremony and Tea Party; Silk road and corn silk and long silky hair. Replace in your mind the words “Amerasian” or “Asian-American” with the expression “Hapa" (HOP-ah), a hipper and more inclusive word borrowed from Hawaii. It is used to describe persons with mixed genes that include some Asian or Pacific island forebears.
Then, think of the value of tradition, applied to current issues. Think of the potential for awkward adjustments. These are some of the factors to be considered when viewing “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter,” which opened Nov. 9 at the Asia Society Texas Center. The exhibit originated as the first major showcase of Asian American portraiture by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. It includes the work of seven artists, only one of them male and over 40. Taken together they are “portals into the souls of the American experience, world cultures and their intersections,” said Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American program.
They are sometimes comical, sometimes very sad.
Some of the artists in the exhibit are U.S. born, some came from the East, like Tam Tran, whose family relocated from Vietnam to Memphis, Tennessee. Tran uses well-curated self-portraits in a variety of poses and dress that offer her viewers an answer to who she is.
Hye Jeon Nam, a Korean, offers four video self-portraits depicting outsider adjustments. She sips from a glass of orange juice, which she keeps refilling, even as the juice pours out through a hole in the bottom of the glass. She tries to eat cherry tomatoes with a ruler, tries to stay seated at lunch, though the chair’s front legs are notably shorter than its back legs. The effect is playful but also fraught with meaning.
One of the artists offers charcoal drawings of glossy hair, so meticulous as to suggest a photograph, beautiful pelts without the human who owns them.
From the lone male artist, Roger Shimomura, who was born and raised in the U.S. and spent two years “behind barbed wire,” when his Japanese-American family was sent to an internment camp during World War II, there is a cartoonish but political edge to his work that reflects his own sense of the insult to an American made to feel like an eternal outsider.
Though the Smithsonian did not plan to make this a traveling exhibit, representatives of Asia Society Texas talked them into it, says Patsy Brown, the center's communications director.
You will be happy it traveled here.
The difference between your assumptions about the art of Asia and the art presented here? There’s much more Cherry Coke than cherry blossoms. And the distinctions make for a bracing challenge for the viewer who is not Hapa. For those who are Hapa, it’s a chance to see how the American experience has been for others.
You do not have to know about the sociopolitical framework to enjoy the visit. You will no doubt see the sculpture by Mel Chin, a giant spider just inside the entrance of the Asia Society Texas building and you will find it entertaining even if you don’t “get” the meaning of the tea set contained within the spider’s body: colonialism and greed; English desire for tea and china dishes; Chinese desire for silver and the beginnings of the Opium Wars, as per Chin’s website. Either way, it’s a great spider. And the “Portraiture Now” exhibit is a great way to spend a bit of time in Houston’s newest Museum District gem.
The show will run through April 14, 2013, free for members and $5 for non-members. Asia Society Texas Center is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.