Thursday, April 25, 2013

'War Baby/Love Child' Exploring the Mixed-Race Asian American Experience Opens at DePaul University Art Museum

Art is "messy and complicated, just like life and issues of race," says visual artist and art professor Laura Kina.  Kina has teamed up with San Francisco State Asian American Studies professor Wei Ming Dariotis for the literary/art combo War Baby/ Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art.  While the book, published by the University of Washington, came out back in December, an exciting new exhibit opens today at Chicago's DePaul University that extends the publication's discourse into something tangible, yet not a total mirrored image of its literary counterpart.

War Baby/Love Child can be a difficult book to fully understand since cultural dynamics and history are very complex, especially if you know nothing about the mixed-heritage Asian experience in the United States.  Nonetheless, it is an opportunity to open your eyes to a whole new world. My multiculturalism lexicon includes Latinos and Native Americans.  I willingly admit I knew very little about the subject until I made contact with artist and activist Louie Gong, who is of Native American (Nooksack), Chinese, and Anglo descent.  Both he and Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez and Korean), an artist who's part of my New Mexico circle of friends, piqued my interest in the subject of mixed race by their involvement in the project.
Live Long and Prosper (Spock was a Half-Breed)
by Debra Yepa-Pappan (Korean/Jemez Pueblo)

The book is a perfect example of the chicken coming before the egg.  In 2008, its two editors met at a multiracial movement retreat in San Francisco.  The timing was perfect.  President Obama had been elected and the "post-racial rhetoric was also at a peek," as Laura Kina says.

"The mainstream media and even many voices within academia were saying we were supposed to be beyond race but of course that didn’t match up with many of our lived realities. We knew race still mattered."

What resulted from the meeting was a collaboration that yielded a proposal for an art exhibition broaching the subject of the mixed-race Asian American experience from the perspective of  the artist.  Kina is of  Okinawan (Hawaii) and Spanish-Basque/French, English, Scotch-Irish, and Dutch, while Dariotis' family is from the south, Tennessee and Texas, and California.

Some of the book was inspired by Kina's curiosity about how other mixed race Asians Americans across the U.S. were navigating issues of identity in a contemporary art world that had been dominated by a post-racial discourse.  She knew what was happening in her studio, but was interested to know what others' work looked like.   It was meant as a vehicle to become knowledgeable about the "mixed experience and history beyond the Asian/white discourse and beyond an 'exceptional' identity politics. What is our history?"

What makes the book engaging is the fact that it is split up into a series of Q & A's with 19 emerging, mid-career, and established mixed race/mixed heritage Asian American artists.  Kina and Dariotis intersperse artwork that supports the narrative.  In addition to the interviews, the editors have included wonderful scholarly essays exploring such topics as Vietnamese Amerasians, Korean transracial adoptions, and multiethnic Hawai‘i. As an increasingly ethnically ambiguous Asian American generation is coming of age in an era of “optional identity,” this collection brings together first-person perspectives and a wider scholarly context to shed light on changing Asian American cultures. Ultimately, the goal of the project was to map and contextualize the artists' individual narratives against larger transnational histories. After all, "it’s not just some accident that all of our parents happened to meet," says Kina.

"WarBaby/Love Child" the art exhibition opens tonight at the DePaul University Art Museum.  Why an art exhibit?  "Art is a great tool for telling stories," Kina says. 

"Sometimes we just see a fractured scene or glimpse into a larger world or we might see multiple times and spaces collapsed into a single image. Art can transcend language, speak to the spirit, the soul, affect…the possibilities are really endless."

Kina hopes that all people leave the exhibition understanding that they own this history as well.    

"I think too often we want to put histories in neat boxes… maybe we are lazy or just not so interested in things that we think don’t pertain to ourselves. So, if there is one take-away, I hope the 'average person' can walk away with a more complicated understanding that all this border crossing and mixing it up we are talking about is not a peripheral history, but rather an important lens through which to view U.S. history, contemporary art...,"  Kina notes.  She is hopeful it lends itself to expanding what is "Asian-American history."

"War Baby/Love Child" the art exhibition opens tonight at the DePaul University Art Museum with a reception and members preview from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. with a public opening from 6 p.m. to  8 p.m.  The show will be on exhibition through June 30, 2013 before traveling to Seattle's Wing Luke Museum of the Asian PacificAmerican Experience from August 9th through January 19, 2014.

In Bellingham, Washington, the book is available at Village Books in Fairhaven.

You can also get it on

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