At Queens’s Noguchi Museum, banners of Asian artists address racism

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The legacy of modernist sculptor and architect Isamu Noguchi in the history of art is unshakeable. However, as a Japanese American who lived through World War II and its aftermath, a period of rising anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States and distrust of Americans in Japan, he finds himself often felt without rooting in his identity. He is said to have found refuge in the natural world, a lifelong love story that has given his works their sensual and biomorphic quality.

As reports of incidents of bias and hate crimes against people of Asian descent have increased in the United States and elsewhere over the past year, fueled by racism and xenophobia exacerbated by pandemic misinformation, the museum The artist’s eponymous in New York sought to send a message of solidarity. This summer, the Noguchi Museum in Queens launched an open call to turn its outdoor banners into anti-racist symbols that would greet the building’s various passers-by, even if they didn’t walk through its doors.

Artist Chemin Hsiao, winner of the Noguchi Museum Open Call for Artist Banners, with his banners now on display at the Queens institution. (photos by Katherine Abbott © The Noguchi Museum / ARS)

The criteria: Applicants had to be emerging artists from Asia and the Pacific Islands (AAPI), and they had to work or reside in Queens, a neighborhood heavily populated by immigrants whose undeniable wealth of creative prowess is sometimes eclipsed by neighbors Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“At first, when we were discussing the parameters of the project, we thought about opening it up to all of New York, but we decided we wanted to hear specifically from our local Queens-based AAPI artists,” Katie Korns, museum administrative associate , said Hyperallergic. “We knew it would shrink the pool, but it was important because I feel like a lot of times the Queens artist community is kind of overlooked.”

The winning banners, designed by Taiwanese artist Chemin Hsiao, were unveiled this week to coincide with the 117th anniversary of Noguchi’s birth on November 17. Finalists Woomin Kim and Mo Kong were also celebrated in a ceremony on Tuesday, their works reproduced in the museum lobby.

Artists Chemin Hsiao, Woomin Kim and Mo Kong and museum employee Katie Korns with the Hsiao banners. (photo by Valentina Di Liscia for Hyperallergic)

Hsiao describes his proposal, “Dandelions Know” (2021), as a “visual essay,” with each sequential banner conveying a narrative of support and hope rendered in meditative watercolors. The spider imagery in the first two banners conjures up the seemingly unavoidable web that racism can weave, but in the third, a masked figure “cuts the loop” of hatred. The other designs, printed on the back, represent dandelions, origami cranes and hugging gestures.

After reading the story of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai man who was put to death in San Francisco this summer, Hsiao felt helpless. The incident was part of an alarming and deadly wave of attacks that alerted the country to rising anti-Asian violence.

“It is so difficult to approach this problem, because our work cannot help these people who have already suffered, whose family is gone,” Hsiao said in an interview between the artists and Hyperallergic at the museum. “The only way to approach this was to ask myself, as an Asian living here, how I felt. “

“In an article, [Ratanapakdee’s] his son-in-law spoke of wishing he could forgive this person who pushed his father, ”continued Hsiao. “In one of the banners there is a man looking at the spiders. Instead of punishing, I wish we could examine the fear that caused this. And maybe think about what we can do about it.

“As Asians, we can be dandelions,” Hsiao said. “So when you fall, we try to catch up with you. “

Hsiao also drew on Noguchi’s personal experience as a Nisei, a second generation Japanese American. During World War II, the sculptor voluntarily entered the Poston War relocation camp in the Arizona desert. As a New York resident, Noguchi was exempted from a cruel executive decree that forced more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent to internment, but he chose to stay in Poston in hopes of improving living conditions in the camp. During this time, he observed how others like him navigated their culture and backgrounds.

“At camp, he found out that all of the Nisei were going through what he called a ‘special tragedy’: they didn’t feel American enough for America, and not Japanese enough for Japan,” he said. Hsiao told Hyperallergic. “He said the Nisei were ‘an intermediate people with no common ground.'”

Design by Mo Kong finalist for the banner competition, “Still Life of an Asian Household’s Fridge” (2021) (courtesy Noguchi Museum)

Noguchi’s insight resonates poignantly against the backdrop of Queens, the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world, where immigrants make up almost half of the population and over 100 languages ​​are spoken.

“I think a lot of immigrants share this experience,” said Kong, one of the two finalists, who was born and raised in Shanxi, China. “There’s even a fluidity between being Asian and Asian American – I’m never going to be Asian American, because I’m not, I’m from a different country. I will always be in the middle. Kong’s banner design, “Still Life of an Asian Household’s Fridge” (2021), features photographs of sculptural installations they made inside their refrigerators using ingredients found in Asian grocery stores, many of which have lost customers and have been forced to close during the pandemic. A box of SPAM and ginger root are interspersed with objects that speak of Kong’s immigrant identity, mixing humor and serious thought.

“Food is muscle memory that brings you back to the first time you ate it. And I think in general Asian cultures talk a lot about food, ”the artist told Hyperallergic. “What we eat can tell people where we come from and their background as an immigrant.”

“I think over the last couple of years I’ve really been thinking about art institutions,” added Kong, who has worked with Kindergarten to Grade 12 students in Queens Public Schools to create their own “facilities. of refrigerators “. With their banner proposal, they said, “I just want to say to the people who pass through, who are not from the artistic community, that they can have access to it, even if they are immigrants, even if they are children. “

Finalist Woomin Kim’s banner design, “Shijang Project” (2021) (courtesy Noguchi Museum)

Food and other cultural markers also anchor Woomin Kim’s banner design, “Shijang Project” (2021), a series of kaleidoscopic collage-like quilts inspired by his memories of Korea. shijang street markets.

“I have always recognized how this kind of life experience that is very important to Asians is often very inaccurately described in Western contexts like Hollywood movies,” she told Hyperallergic. “It’s usually too fictionalized or told from a very xenophobic point of view.” During the pandemic, she became more attentive to “how Western narratives have caused violent consequences for Asian communities”.

“It’s the place I went to all the time growing up. And every time I visit Korea, it’s one of the first places I go,” Kim added. “In my quilts I describe the different types of merchants, stores and assemblies of materials that you can see in these types of outdoor markets. It’s such a busy place, with a fish market next to a fabric market and all kinds of energies She wanted to show this landscape from her point of view: a thrilling environment of exchange, richness and celebration.

The banners of the three artists are presented with descriptive texts in the hall of the museum. (photo by Katherine-Abbott; courtesy of the Noguchi Museum)

Submissions for the open call for the banner were evaluated by members of two local partner organizations, the Queens Council on the Arts and the Asian American Arts Alliance; the organizing committee of the Noguchi Museum; and, in particular, its own employees. In a statement, the institution described an “interdepartmental and intergenerational group of volunteer staff” who had a say in the selection of winners.

Isamu Noguchi during an interview in Pietrasanta, Italy. (photo by Arnold Eagle, circa 1970. Archives of the Noguchi Museum, © INFGM / ARS)

This week, the museum also announced an expansion of its Isamu Noguchi Archives, an already impressive treasure trove of manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, ephemeral exhibitions, architectural drawings, and more. of the artist. Newly digitized films of Noguchi working and giving lectures as well as previously unseen audiovisual material have now been added to the public digital collection.

The museum plans to make the initiative an annual competition. “I hope this opens people up to investigate because previously it was just our logo banners,” Korns told Hyperallergic. “I think the public art aspect of the banners is something that Noguchi would have really embraced. Because he wanted his work to be shown around the world.

Hsiao’s banners will remain visible outside the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, Queens, until spring 2022.

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