Six Asian American Artists: Our Own Words

Powerful images and quotes from contemporary Asian Pacific American artists in the collection of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

This story pairs quotes and works of art of six artists: Osamu James Nakagawa, Shahzia Sikander, Roger Shimomura, Gohar Dashti, Ambreen Butt, and Lan-Chiann Wu. Through distinct practices and relationships to identity, these artists work through the past and cultivate space for survival and growth.

Okinawa 001 (2008) by Osamu James NakagawaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Osamu James Nakagawa, Okinawa 001

Once the shutter is released, the photographed event becomes historical.

How can one visualize moments that precede their lived experiences and memory?

Seventy-five years ago, 1500 US battleships fired 200,000 tons of bombs during 90 days of battle at Okinawa. While history is written by those with power; the landscape is an objective witness. 

Along the Banta cliffs, the land is marked by the sacrifices made by those who lost their lives there. Through the creation of historically loaded, hyper-real photographs, the viewer is affected by the sense of embodied and temporal vertigo that the large-scale immersive photographic prints inspire.  

—Osamu James Nakagawa

I Am or Am I Not My Own Enemy (2011) by Shahzia SikanderThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Shahzia Sikander, I Am or Am I Not My Own Enemy

Language and geography remain charged notions of inclusion and exclusion, always in flux. Entwined between the linguistic history of English and Urdu, lies the interstice, the narrow space of translation, a metaphor for the colonized, the immigrant and the artist whose job is to locate freedom within confinement. 

The multi meaning Urdu phrase, an excerpt from Ghalib’s poetry, is repeated and layered. A play on rote, I was questioning the paradox of learning against the enigma of incompletion. Future resides in overlapping diasporas.

Imagination is needed to cross boundaries. For me, lack of imagination is literally death.

Because what are we? What is real? When you think in terms of narratives, and how history is determined through narrative, how real is that narrative? The pursuit of truth is so fleeting when it is held hostage to authenticity. Our recent histories are all about redactions, and so everything starts to emerge in a space that is in flux.  

Imagination is very much about taking ownership of the narrative; it is a fundamentally political stance. 

—Shahzia Sikander

Kabuki Party (1988) by Roger Yukata ShimomuraThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Roger Shimomura, Kabuki Party

...when I got to Kansas for my first teaching job, all of a sudden, I was in foreign country. 

All of a sudden, I was Japanese again and people were asking me, "How did you come to speaking the language so well? Where are you from?" All of those clichéd responses that any Asian American would tell you happens to them anyplace off of the West Coast. That's when I did my first painting that looked Japanese. 

But at the same time, I saw it as another pop painting because the Japanese art that I knew about, or had seen, were all Japanese wood block prints, and those were very pop. It was just a stylistic step sideways really. 

— Roger Shimomura

Today's Life and War 6 (2008) by Gohar DashtiThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Gohar Dashti, Today's Life and War 6

When the horrific nature of war becomes normal, it takes on a surreal form. The series “Today’s Life and War” emerged from my experiences during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. This conflict has had a strong symbolic influence on the emotional life of my generation. Although we may be safe within the walls of our homes, the war continues to reach us through newspapers, television, and the Internet.

This body of work represents war and its legacy, the ways in which it permeates all aspects of contemporary society. I capture moments that reference the ongoing duality of life and war without precluding hope. In a fictionalized battlefield, I show a couple in a series of everyday activities: eating breakfast, watching television, and celebrating their wedding. 

Though they do not visibly express emotion, the man and woman embody the power of perseverance, determination, and survival. 

— Gohar Dashti

My Divergence is My Convergence (2016) by Ambreen ButtThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Ambreen Butt, My Divergence is My Convergence

It is a female figure projected in multiple silhouettes that are seen engaged in a self-destructive ritual. With a leash in her hand, one of the figures is riding on the back of the other as if to gain control, while aiming to pick and destroy the third at the tip of her sword. In this apparently violent and brutal narrative she seems to have conquered the art of balancing. 

It is a metaphor that there is no way of growth without having to go through destruction of the self. 

— Ambreen Butt

Before the Storm (2015) by Wu Lan-ChiannThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Lan-Chiann Wu, Before the Storm

In this painting, each leaf has its own cycle, has its unique shape and intensity, and has its own path through the air, and will touch the earth in its own way.

The leaves represent human beings; each has a different upbringing, life experience, and destiny. I painted some leaves clearly and some vaguely; others are rendered complete and yet others damaged. 

Some have a clear direction, but others are hurt and lost; some lives are peaceful and others are turbulent, all captured in one painting. 

—Lan-Chiann Wu

Credits: Story

Images and text courtesy of the artists.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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