The following is a guest post by Adam Silvia, Curator of Photography, and Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints in the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
In honor of this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month (May 1-31) the Prints & Photographs Division would like to share with you a selection of compelling photographs and graphic artworks by Asian American creators.
One such creator is An Rong Xu. Born in China and raised in New York City, Xu is traveling across the United States photographing fellow Asian Americans. His photos, like that showing the Crimson Kings marching band in New York’s Chinatown, capture beauty in the everyday, as the subjects pursue their own American dream.
The image by Xu makes us think about a drypoint by Kakyoung Lee that depicts a steady flow of pedestrians moving through Grand Army Plaza in another part of New York City. Lee animated the images and added atmospheric noises. “My moving images are lyrically poetic first person stories,” says Lee. “Trying to locate my identity, I seek it in the different geographic and cultural milieus through which I have passed.”
While New York’s Chinatown and New York City as a whole occupy a prominent position in American visual culture, Xu’s photography in the American West challenges us to broaden our thinking about Asian Americans. One photo shows Ryan Takemiya, a Japanese American actor, wearing a cowboy hat and smoking a cigarette, like John Wayne. Xu photographed him looking out into the Arizona sunrise.
Similarly, artist prints by Roger Shimomura and Chiura Obata speak to Asian American experiences in the American heartland and the American West. Using humor and satire, Shimomura comments on his hybrid heritage by presenting himself as a Kansas Samurai. “[My] move to Kansas… underscored my ethnic and cultural difference…” states Shimomura. “The images in Kansas Samurai are meant to metaphorically represent that sense of rejection that can be experienced by those who are not members of the majority culture.” The print by Obata was inspired by his visit to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevadas in 1927. Like Shimomura’s, Obata’s experience in America was not always pleasant. As a Japanese American during World War II, Obata and his family were incarcerated at Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah.
Further west on his journey, Xu photographed a portrait hanging inside a photography studio owned by Asian Americans in San Francisco, California.
Chinese American artist Hung Liu, who grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, often references historical pictures by Chinese photographers in her paintings and prints. In her lithograph, The Maiden, she adds layers of drips, washes and imagery to selectively veil and reveal, complicating notions of historical and documentary authenticity.
The photographs and the graphic artworks described above reflect the multidimensional and complex nature of Asian American culture. Xu again conveys this in a photo that shows a collage of inspirational and aspirational images (performers costumed as lions or dragons, a large boat, President Barack Obama) taped to the door window of a business owned by Asian Americans in Brooklyn.
Helen Oji, a California-born, New York artist of Japanese heritage, likewise encapsulates this message in her offset lithograph, Cultural Exchange. “The title… was inspired by a group of paintings that utilized images of diamonds and eyes (in many forms) representing multiculturalism,” explains Oji. “The diamond is a universal symbol of luminous being, light, brilliance, and life. Eyes are the stars, eyes of the night, knowledge, the intelligence of the spirit, then the process of seeing represents a spiritual act and symbolizes understanding.”
- Join the authors of this post on Wed., May 19th at 3:00 pm EDT for a Prints & Photographs Virtual Orientation on the subject of Asian Americans & Visual Culture. Register here. The virtual orientation is free and open to the public.
- May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. Visit the Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month portal website, where the Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success.
- Learn more about Asian American and Pacific Islander related materials in the collections of the Library of Congress through these research guides:
- View video presentations on Asian American heritage and history from the Library of Congress.