In her years on the Chicago art scene, curator Jenny Lam had never seen a large-scale exhibit that focused on local Asian American art. “So I figured I should be the one to do it,” she said.
After putting out an open call to Chicago and the surrounding Midwest, Lam chose thirty-nine Asian American artists to participate in the exhibit “SLAYSIAN.” The show was scheduled to run at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, beginning Saturday, March 20.
But on March 15, as Lam was in the gallery assigning spots to the artworks, she heard Governor J.B. Pritzker on the radio pleading for Illinoisans to stay home. It was St. Patrick’s Day weekend, there were 3,000 known coronavirus cases in the U.S., and hosting a large gathering for an art show opening felt irresponsible.
Lam and her staff made the call to postpone the in-person show indefinitely and to move the exhibition online. The digital version of “SLAYSIAN,” like the in-person show, aims to shine a light on the presence of Asian American art in and around Chicago. Spanning neighborhoods, ethnicities, and mediums, “SLAYSIAN” showcases a subset of artists that have always been part of the city’s art scene, but rarely acknowledged as a collective.
The online exhibition presents each artist’s works alongside an introduction written by the artist. These texts often reflect how Asian Americans code each other and themselves in degrees of foreignness: when and at what age you immigrated, whether you speak your “native” language, your artistic and media influences, and your diasporic or biracial identities.
Some artists, such as Eddie Yeung and Nini Kao, specifically name the Asian influences they riff upon, like the art of Hayao Miyazaki and the foods eaten at Chinese New Year. Others, such as Priscilla Huang, paint city scenes recognizable to many Chicagoans, like a Wednesday afternoon lounging in a city park.
On Bumjin Kim’s page, two of his computer-aided drawings highlight the spectrum of foreignness and localness that is implicitly read into Asian American work. In the drawing “Morning,” he depicts a bowl of rice with each grain articulated, complete with a pair of slanted chopsticks. In “Evening,” a drawing of the same series, he portrays happy-hour ease by sliding an Intelligentsia coffee cup holder over a can of Goose Island 312 beer. Juxtaposed side by side, he manifests distinctly Chicagoan and perpetually Asian tastes over the course of a single day.
Taiwanese American artist Kaitlyn Hwang also grapples with the idea of foreignness in her painting “Where Are You From.” The oil-on-canvas painting is a self-portrait of Hwang in a traditional Chinese qipao with her daughter in a Superman costume. Hwang uses the figures in the portrait to contrast her immigrant upbringing with that of her half-Asian and more Americanized daughter: “I’m thinking, what kinds of traditions can I still teach her that she’ll remember so she can keep true to herself? I just wanted to think about the future for her, and my past, and how we can come together, how we can both exist.”
Two of Hwang’s watercolors portray her hope that political engagement can build a better world for her daughters. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Hwang became involved with the Women’s March and local activist groups in her Oak Park community, and her paintings depict young families marching on Washington. “I actually took my girls canvassing a couple of times to get people aware of how important their vote is,” Hwang said. “I’m not sure if they will remember because they were only five and seven at the time, but that’s something I will remember.”
Eric Mah’s work with locally reclaimed wood highlights the deep roots of Asian American artists. Born and raised in Chicago, Mah first began woodworking in a class at Lane Tech High School and has continued the hobby over the years, mostly giving away pieces to friends and family.
Two of his wood-turned bowls—one cherry and one walnut—were selected for the exhibit. Working out of his Evanston studio, he trades for the wood with other artists throughout Chicago and the Midwest. While adapting to the online format for his first-ever art show, Mah said he found that there are elements of his medium that can only be appreciated in person. “When you handle the bowl, there’s a certain chatoyance in the wood that you really can’t pick up in photographs,” he said. “But if you pick it up and turn it around in the light, different angles will bring out different qualities in the wood.”
“SLAYSIAN” also examines how artists can value their identity while refusing to be pigeonholed by it. Screenprinter Alex Kostiw said she was drawn to the exhibit’s open call because it did not specify that artists of Asian descent must discuss racial identity.
Kostiw’s prints focus on intergalactic communication between an observer on Earth and a space explorer, and implicitly question why an Asian American artist must explore Asia or America, and not the broader galaxy. Created during her time as an artist-in-residence at Sputnik Press in West Town, Kostiw’s prints uses celestial distance to explore “the particular language that develops between two people the longer they know each other—how certain words or phrases take on specific meaning.”
Kostiw compares the layers of screenprinting to words assembled into a sentence, with experimentation conducted through iterating and re-combining the layers. She hopes that the viewer’s “reading” experience is one that can continue at a distance in the midst of the pandemic. “When you’re in person looking at the work, you have a chance to sort of let yourself sit with it in a space,” Kostiw said. “I think that’s something you can still achieve with a computer screen—hopefully you get to sit with it and let it sink in.”
A number of the artists selected for “SLAYSIAN” developed their relationships with art and with Chicago through educational institutions including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, and the University of Illinois system. Their work raises questions of what it means to inhabit spaces designed specifically for artists to grow, but where the Asian American experience may still be sidelined.
In her page on the online exhibit, Hmong American artist Tshab Her includes a photo of “Reclaiming Existence,” an installation she created as a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). In the installation, Her painted the lobby of the UIC art building with a pattern borrowed from traditional Hmong clothing sewn by her grandmother. She hoped the bright colors of Hmong textiles would further highlight the invisibility of Hmong people in the U.S. “I created the work trying to claim a space, but since it’s not really our space, what does that look like? Over the semester, I sanded down the pattern so that it disappears…thinking about erasure, visibility, and invisibility for the Hmong body.”
As an artist whose work centers on the use of fabric and embroidery, Her worries that the digital exhibit may lose some of the craft’s detail. But she also hopes the online exhibit can provide a different kind of opportunity for visibility. “I’m always giving a historical context for people to understand the story of my work. So I think having it online, having it accessible—if people don’t know, I hope they do their own research if they’re not familiar with Hmong people,” Her said.
In addition to its role in educating and engaging with the broader Chicago community, much of “SLAYSIAN” reflects an inward-looking conversation among Asian Americans. Multiple artists wrote about their difficult choice to pursue art full-time, or revealed that they also hold a day job in a more “traditional” line of work, such as engineering or business. The act of pursuing their art grapples with internalized narratives about what is and is not possible for Asian Americans.
Within these narratives, the constraining forces of practicality and economic self-reliance are often represented by first-generation immigrant parents. For concert photographer Cindi Jean Zdrinc, her Taiwanese father’s impulse towards more conventional careers led her to originally study accounting. But she said that during a midterm her junior year, “I was looking down at these numbers and questions and was like, ‘I don’t care about any of the stuff that’s on this paper and I have to do this for the rest of my life?’ So I got up from my midterm and I took my teacher out into the hallway and I told him, ‘I don’t think this is what I want to do with my life.’ They wished me luck, and I walked out of my midterm.”
She applied and was accepted to DePaul University’s film program, where a prerequisite class in photography sparked her career. “When I finally faced my dad about [pursuing art], it was the most anti-climactic experience ever. He was like, ‘OK’…” Zdrinc laughs. “It was actually a happy ending on that front. I was very surprised by the lack of concern.”
Since then, Zdrinc has built her career around capturing ephemeral moments from shows, concerts, and music festivals throughout the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. “It’s a very honored place to be,” Zdrinc said of being in a concert photo pit. “I’m always having my one eye looking at the overall stage while I’m photographing with the other eye…just to make sure that I’m getting the most important or vibrant thing that’s going on.”
Zdrinc wanted the photos she submitted to represent a slice of the music world that many Asian Americans may not know of. “I thought having that passion displayed in the photos—capturing that essence of a live music environment—that just felt appropriate for such an exhibit that was called ‘SLAYSIAN.’”
The title of the exhibit pays homage to an idea that originated in the LGBTQ community. To slay is to do something spectacularly well; it is to succeed overwhelmingly. The word implies an added flair that goes beyond technical excellence or expertise—it evokes all that a human can do to endow an action with personality. “SLAYSIAN” embodies the aspiration that those at the outskirts of a society can redefine what success means for ourselves.
While Lam and the artists have been creating and building the online exhibit, the U.S. has witnessed a resurgence of anti-Asian racism, renewed by the coronavirus pandemic. Over the roughly six-week period since the exhibit started, Asian American advocacy groups have collected more than 2,000 reports detailing incidents of harassment and discrimination related to what the president has led in calling the “Chinese virus.” As Hwang said, “We have people who think that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners, [that] we are dirty and COVID-19 is another example of it.”
Hwang now sees “SLAYSIAN” as part of the work of building a counter-narrative. “The show gives a pause to recognize who are the people that make up our society, [and] what we have been contributing all along,” she said.
In the face of anti-Asian racism, Lam sees the idea of narrative plenitude, coined by Vietnamese American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, as one potential antidote to vitriol. Defining narrative plenitude as “an abundance of stories,” Lam highlights how the range and multitude of voices in “SLAYSIAN” can help to inoculate the public against any singular view of Asian Americans. “It just shows a different angle of our creativity and our resilience and our humanity. Just showing all these different stories humanizes us both as artists and also as Asian Americans.”
Narrative plenitude also includes the capacity for change. By allowing for a multitude of stories, Asian American artists can now practice a freedom long enjoyed by their white peers. Instead of being locked into one narrative as victim or immigrant, their art is allowed to grow with the times.
On June 4, nearly three months after “SLAYSIAN” was slated to open, Lam shared a new call for Chicago-area artists. Originating from For the People Artist Collective, the call asks for “Asian artists who are available to create artwork around Asian-Black unity in response to anti-Black racism in our neighborhoods.”
While it is still uncertain whether an in-person “SLAYSIAN” will ever convene, the exhibition showcases the determination of individuals to find their own answers to what the role of an Asian American artist is. As they grapple with new questions, a whole new set of artworks will be created to continue the conversation. For now, the digital forum offers the opportunity for at-home viewers to take part in this important work—to help these stories grow, evolve, and be seen.
“SLAYSIAN” is on view at artistsonthelam.com/slaysian.
Eileen Li grew up in Atlanta and attended the University of Chicago, where she was deputy news editor of the Chicago Maroon. This is her first contribution to the Weekly.