What is Asian American Art?

Alyse Blachly

The first couple classes I discovered a lot about how the US government and general public treats and views Asian Americans historically and presently through the films, documentary, and readings. Mimura, especially instilled the fact that although many Asian Americans have been here for generations and generations and played an integral role in building this country, they are not only perpetually seen as foreigners, but are not credited for their contributions. They are invisible in many aspects of the US. As we began to look at more art and film pieces, I found myself wondering if there are certain requirements that constitute art labeled Asian American— can the subject matter focus on anything as long as it is created by someone who is considered Asian American? Or does it have to be art about the Asian American culture or experience? If so, can anyone produce Asian American art?

As I got to thinking about these questions, Margo Machida really opened up my view about a lot of things regarding Asian American identity in her book, Unsettled Visions. In the first chapter, “A Play of Positionalities” she talks about the concept of positionality, which basically refers to the fact that we all have a certain relationship and position in our communities that become the basis for our realm of knowledge and choice of action. Our “positionality” is determined by physical location and history (ie. a Vietnam artist who grew up in the US only seeing images of the Vietnam War to connect to his own personal history), our resources and power, and our context or personal experiences that can be different for everyone. For example, the Cambodian Americans who had established their lives in Long Beach, LA, San Diego, and other parts of the US each had different personal experiences that were not necessarily considered “Asian American.” They lived typical “American” lives, and many admitted they did not feel any connection to their Cambodian heritage. Yet, their viewpoint is equally important as someone who identifies strongly with the culture of their history/family. Each person has a different positionality, and point of reference, but because Asian Americans are grouped together and viewed in such a way, they inevitably will experience similar outside forces.

Machida talks about the predicament of grouping people of various cultural, ethnic, and social backgrounds together into a group called “Asian Americans.” It is a “process of subjectification” and does not represent a “stable or self-identical status.” This creates several problems such as stigmatization and generalization of Asians (ie. instead of casting a Chinese woman as Chinese, she is simply referred to as “Asian Girl #1, expecting to fit into every quality deemed “Asian”); however she argues that it is also a positive thing. Besides galvanizing groups of Asian Americans that are discriminated against together, it solidifies the goal of Asian American art, which is to challenge the dominant social, political, and economic norms of US society surrounding Asian Americans. With this in mind, the requirements of Asian American art broaden significantly from what my preconceived notion of what they were before this reading.

Using the example of the film submitted to My Asian America contest with the Cambodian deportees, Asian American art has the power to challenge norms, but also bring up salient issues that are affecting the Asian American community. Many try to silence these types of responses, calling them “victim art” or below criticism according to Machida, but this just shows how uncomfortable people get when their way of viewing the world is challenged. While art is very personal and relates to how you experience the world, Asian American art is more than expressing one person’s pain or “victimhood.” It gives agency to those who may have a similar experience but cannot speak for themselves.

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