There’s a mini-revolution going on at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana, and it’s decidedly not quiet.
The multidisciplinary group exhibition “Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents in Asian American Art,” which opened Dec. 3 and runs through Dec. 17, features seven Asian American artists who are reflecting on and sharing their takes on the contemporary Asian American experience. The exhibit is presented by the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA), which is also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
According to curator Thuy N.D. Tran, the show was conceived as a response to the recent rise in hate crimes and rhetoric against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). In its 2021 Orange County Hate Crimes Report, the OC Human Relations Commission noted a 43% increase in AAPI hate crimes and a 164% increase in anti-AAPI hate incidents from 2020 to 2021.
“We want to create a space for Asian American creatives, to insert them into the discussion,” said Tran, who curated the group show, “Marvelous Metaphors: Art as Visual Poetry” for VAALA in 2011. “That’s how I connect to these issues and process, is through creative work. We had a lack of that down here (compared to the Bay Area and New York).
“But being such a populated, huge Asian American demographic, it was strange. We are almost a majority in a lot of cities. It affects all of us.”
“Yellow Submarine Rising” is organized in four themed galleries: Cultural Legacies, Belonging_Home, Elevating Empowerment and Transferences and Futures.
As Tran states in her exhibition introduction, the submarine is “a metaphor for our capacity to reform the tide of a hegemonic American consciousness. As fellow shipmates of diverse ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, if we mobilize in solidarity of heart and openness, then together we can ascend above this crisis.”
Special Events During the Exhibition
- Saturday, Dec. 10, 1-3 p.m.: Family Day event will include children’s author panel and children’s book readings with award-winning authors Muon Thi Van, Van Hoang and Rene Colato Laine. Programming includes family-friendly craft activities. RSVP here.
- Saturday, Dec. 17, 2-3 p.m.: Conversation with artist Binh Danh, discussing his artistic practice and new monograph, “Binh Danh: The Enigma of Belonging” (Radius Books, 2022). RSVP here.
“Yellow Submarine” is also a direct reference to the 1966 Beatles hit of the same name.
“The song is about shipmates living in harmony, accepting one another despite their differences, despite generational and cultural gaps,” said Tran, an art historian who focuses on the Asian diaspora and postcolonial modernism. She’s a doctoral candidate in art history at UC Santa Barbara.
“It is a recollection of the ‘60s for us,” she said, “which reminds us of an era of great social progress. That’s the first time the term ‘Asian American’ was being used.”
Voice of OC caught up with all of the artists in the exhibition. Here’s some background on each, as well as some points and ideas each artist wanted to share.
Antonius-Tin Bui is a poly-disciplinary Vietnamese American artist who has three different bodies of work in the show: “Do not laminate this card,” “Not Sorry for the Trouble” and two portraits. These works each speak to the intergenerational and stereotypical challenges experienced by AAPI folks, as well as Bui’s expression of subversive beauty through the common medium of paper.
“Do not laminate this card” is a series of laminated collages combining the Vietnam War era images and ancestral burning paper or joss paper. Bui started this project in 2017 after their first trip to Vietnam, where they were scolded by a U.S. government worker for having laminated their security card. (Voice of OC is using Bui’s preferred pronouns of “they/them.”)
“I was just reminded of how my parents laminated all of our paperwork and I just think it says a lot about the precarity they feel, the displacement and treasuring these sheets of paper that legitimize them as human beings in America. So paper is a very common thread within my body of work,” Bui said.
“Not Sorry for the Trouble” is a series Bui started during the 2016 election by combining pre-existing Asian cut paper designs with loud text phrases such as “Year of the Queer,” “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” and “Yes Asians, Yes Femmes.”
“Yes Asians, Yes Femmes” is a response to stereotypes Bui observed in the queer dating space, and was created to affirm Bui’s own Asianness and femininity, especially as someone who is gender expansive and oftentimes read as trans or a cis woman.
“I find it particularly difficult to understand in which spaces I’m considered sexy, beautiful, desirable and so that piece was a way to remind myself regardless of what anyone thinks, I know my self-worth and will continue to exist in this very queer liminal body,” Bui said.
The third body of work,made from hand-cut paper, is two life-size paper portraits of queer and trans AAPI folks, friends, colleagues and collaborators. Its names are “Khanh Aiden Nguyễn” and “Stay with me / Hold my hand / There’s no need / To be brave,” which are lyrics from the song “I Will” by the Japanese American singer-songwriter, Mitski Miyawaki (better known as Mitski).
Bui thinks of the creation process for this work as a metaphor for history – that by carving into the sheets, they could create spaces for the narratives that are often silenced, erased and forgotten. As POC, queer and trans artists gain visibility, Bui is more skeptical of institutions’ virtual signaling inclusivity without committing to uplift the voices of these oppressed communities.
This exhibition, however, is an example of what that commitment looks like in action. According to Bui, the exhibition features artists with a diverse array of approaches when it comes to identity activism, from abstraction to figuration to unapologetic text.
“Tran did a really good job dividing up the exhibition into very pertinent themes,” Bui said.
Binh Danh is a photographic artist who has gained a national reputation for his work. His images investigate his Vietnamese heritage and our collective memory of war.
One of his best-known techniques is embedding photographic images via chlorophyll into leaves through the action of photosynthesis.
The “Yellow Submarine Rising” show features selections from “Xanh, LÁ,” a recent series of photographs taken in east New Orleans, where a large Vietnamese immigrant community lives. Most of the subjects are posing proudly in front of their gardens.
Danh uses the traditional daguerreotype process in creating these images, covering them with glass, so viewers can literally see their own reflections in the work.
“I think the idea was to talk about – a lot of these Vietnamese people, after the Vietnam War, they go wherever they’re assigned to go,” Danh said. “Because of resettlement policy, there’s pockets of Vietnamese throughout the country. Because of those pockets, they also revitalize those cities.”
Danh said the tropical climate in New Orleans East “allows Asian folks to plant food, crops in their cooking. I saw these gardens, and it was very familiar to me. They all have gardens. They’re working within the land, and they all have property. They come from agrarian beginnings, and they’re able to grow food that you can eat and feed your family with.”
Danh lives and works in San Jose, and is a photography professor at San Jose State University. His work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the DeYoung Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Orange County Museum of Art.
Upon accepting Tran’s invitation in June to participate in “Yellow Submarine Rising,” Alison Ho knew she wanted to create new pieces for the show, since her most recent piece of work was already five years old.
As a Chinese American interdisciplinary artist, Ho is interested in exploring identity politics, specifically Asian American identity politics, and what it means to be an Asian American woman in society. Ho pushes the boundaries of identity politics more deeply through her exploration of Asian American experiences outside the context of immigration as well.
In exhibiting her two pieces “Rock the Boat” and “Lasting Damage,” Ho hopes to reflect the struggles she faced to people who might be going through the same painful experience, whether that be racism, sexism or both.
“I think that when I experienced microaggressions within the workplace, I felt really lonely and very isolated. Like, this thing is a real thing and it hurts and it is a really painful experience to go through,” Ho said. “And I think I’m hoping also for other people to realize that this experience is real and that it should be acknowledged, and it should be talked about, too.”
“Lasting Damage” is a two-minute video addressing the workplace harassment and microaggressions Ho experienced as a working professional in America. This piece highlights how Ho’s experiences have shifted since the pandemic as working remotely became the norm, which was the case for her.
“I also play with this idea of public and private details for my life,” Ho said. “I like to kind of flex those boundaries by revealing personal details of my life in a public space to start talking about specific issues that I face.”
The video takes on a Zoom call aesthetic, demonstrating how the workplace microaggressions permeated the physical boundaries of her personal space through a video conferencing platform, causing an immediate sense of violation or invasiveness.
The video ends with Ho saying, “I implore you to re-examine your actions so you do not continue to inflict pain onto others. Racism is not merely rudeness or an inconvenience. It is not something to sweep under a rug or ignore because it is too uncomfortable to confront. That is not how racism works. Racism is felt within my bones. Racism permeates my every thought and feeling. Racism is traumatic and there is lasting damage.”
On the flip side, Ho also examined how this pandemic has increased the use of a virtual space for healing through telehealth. In that respect, Ho argues that these platforms, on which she’s experienced hurtful microaggressions, can also be used to reclaim power and heal.
Her second piece, “Rock the Boat,” is made of pink mylar balloon letters that spell out its title. It is an incitement of radical change, directly in opposition to those who favor the status quo, or in other words, those who say, “Don’t rock the boat.”
While Ho had the option to use one of her old works for this exhibition, she wanted to create something that would be more relevant to her life now, and also fit within the themes of this curation.
“As artists and people, we’re constantly growing and changing,” Ho said. “The person that you are a few years ago, or even a year ago, is different from the person that you are today. And so, because you are taking in information, you’re just becoming different as you learn more and experience more.”
Bonnie Huang was born in China, and raised in New Zealand and San Francisco. She offers two untitled pieces in the exhibition, both of which are tapestries that represent the places Huang has lived in since 2020.
While both tapestries are made from the same material – hand-spun yarn Huang dyed herself – each piece is specific to the place she was at the time, like a geographical diary.
Untitled 1is a tapestry Huang made out of sheep wool and hand-spun casein fiber when she was at an artist-in-residence in Wisconsin at the Wormfarm Institute back in 2020. Huang used local plants, hairy vetch and hawkweed to dye the wool brown, white, gray and green, resulting in the tapestry’s final patterned look.
Untitled 2 was made from hand-spun alpaca wool in Sequim, Washington. This tapestry depicts imagery of a sky of clouds, and was dyed with a Japanese indigo Huang grew herself. Huang extracted the dye by harvesting, drying and heating the leaves in a fructose and pickling lime solution. She then re-dipped certain fibers to create the different shades of blue observed in the finished tapestry.
Tran initially approached Huang to be in the show with the intention of exhibiting Huang’s older college work, displayed on her website.
“I actually threw them all away. So that’s how we started considering what I kind of was working on at the time and never really expected to show or to go anywhere,” Huang said. “They were the two things that I worked on in the last few years; so the smaller weaving came first. And then the bigger blue one came second.”
Huang decided not to title the pieces because she does not believe in naming her works just for the sake of giving them a name. For Huang, the tapestries are like memories, and memories don’t need a name to be beautiful, admired or remembered.
In addition to not having names, the two pieces share other similarities in that they are both artistic representations of a physical space, as well as her in that space, using raw materials found within the region.
Alina Kawai is a painter born in Hyōgo, Japan. In 2021, she received an MFA from UC Santa Barbara. Her BFA is from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. She currently lives in Pasadena and teaches students in elementary school and at East Los Angeles Community College.
Of the artists and works in “Yellow Submarine Rising,” Kawai’s work is the only abstract, non-representational art. Curator Tran said she intentionally placed Kawai’s work centrally because she “wanted a resting place for us to be introspective and reflect.”
“There’s some symbolism and imagery, but it’s more hidden,” Kawai said. “There’s Japanese moyo, which involves patterns and symbols. My work incorporates this idea of physical and emotional distance from home and family. I had some family members pass a few years ago.
“There are organic shapes – the presence of a person, solid objects within the image. But I want to convey invisible memory and the feeling of a person. That’s why I use abstraction and creating this space, an ambiance space. It’s a meditative, more quiet space within my work.”
Kawai said she was impressed with the opening reception of “Yellow Submarine Rising,” which drew about 800 people, organizers said.
“I think (the exhibition) is really community oriented and centered,” she said. “I really felt that during the opening. With the Vietnamese American community being the backbone and support – it was a strong voice.”
Victo Ngai is an accomplished Los Angeles-based illustrator from Hong Kong. She was born in Guangdong Province in mainland China in 1988. She is an illustration graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.
Ngai is a “Forbes 30 Under 30” honoree in the art and style category, and Society of Illustrators New York gold medalist. Her first name, “Victo,” is not a typo or short for the boy’s name “Victor,” but a nickname derived from Victoria, which she sees as a leftover from the British colonization of Hong Kong.
For “Yellow Submarine Rising,” Ngai contributed works from two projects. The first is “Project Honor,” a series of fabric banners with families, friends and familiar Asian faces printed on them.
“The idea is to show a community of AAPI members being unapologetically proud and happy for who they are,” Ngai wrote in her artist’s statement. “The artwork is composed mainly of yellows and browns, and this is to take back the narrative of racial slurs which have derogated and vilified our skin colors. Not one of the background yellows or browns is of the same hue, just as every AAPI member is unique.”
The second series are giclee prints of works that illustrated a children’s book by Muon Thi Van titled “Wishes.” The book is an autobiographical tale of a family’s journey from Vietnam to Hong Kong, and eventually to a new city in America.
“Muon’s simple manuscript moved me immediately the first time I read it. There are only 75 words in total yet a substantial amount of story and emotion are packed in between the lines,” Ngai wrote in her artist’s statement for this book and series. “The third-person perspective speaks to the universality of wishing for hope in a sea of helplessness, relatable to anyone who has to leave their home in search for a better life.”
About being chosen to participate in “Yellow Submarine Rising,” Ngai said, “It’s a great honor to be included. I really enjoy the rest of the work. It’s really nicely curated the way the space is set up, and how the work is varied. The other artists reflect their own experience and their own struggle.”
Jave Yoshimoto is an artist and educator who was born in Japan to Chinese parents. He immigrated to the United States when he was 9 years old. He obtained a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara in studio art, an MFA in art therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and an MFA in painting from Syracuse University. He currently works as an associate professor of art at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He’s also a professional ax thrower.
Yoshimoto has contributed three images from his “Godzilla Invading the U.S. “ series, which were inspired by a childhood Godzilla toy.
“Godzilla kind of symbolizes the way I have moved around,” Yoshimoto said. Godzilla was “being attacked everywhere he went. He’s the loneliness figure in the world. He’s a symbol (representing) the way I have moved around in America. I’m using a pop culture icon that’s more accessible than just me painting myself.”
Yoshimoto also has a handful of his clever laser-carved woodcuts on display. “American Exclusion No. 80” (2018) is a replica of a 1942 poster that declared that all Japanese Americans would be incarcerated in camps throughout the Western U.S.
“The Shield” (2019) is a laser-cut wood badge that depicts an innocuous, bespectacled white woman, with the words “White Spouse: No Threat, Safe” around her.
“As an Asian American man living in the Midwest, the artist has encountered various levels of racism when first entering an establishment,” states the panel text next to the work. “That is, until his Caucasian partner appears by his side. This piece is a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the disarming sense of relief whenever he is no longer considered a threat.”
Regarding his involvement in the exhibition, Yoshimoto said, “It’s nice to be included in the show. There are nice works in there. Obviously, it’s for a cause.
“Although I feel somewhat distant from it, I’m happy to contribute any ways that I can – to have Asians be seen as human beings as opposed to symbols of blame.”
Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim Pham is a contributing writer for Voice of OC Arts & Culture. She can be reached at email@example.com.