Celebrating Asian Pacific American Artists

Asian Pacific American Artists

Art encompasses a global perspective. With various artists from across the world who contribute to the arts, it is important to recognize the achievements of others. May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which recognizes and honors the achievements of Asian American and Pacific Islanders throughout the US. In an effort to celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, we are highlighting several Asian Pacific American artists who have had an impact in the art world and beyond.

Ruth Asawa (1926 – 2013)

Asian Pacific American Artists - Ruth Asawa
Source: RuthAsawa.com

Born in Norwalk, CA in 1923, Ruth Asawa was a Japanese-American artist who made her mark in the art world as a sculptor. In 1942, Asawa’s family as well as 80,000 Americans fell victim to the Japanese Internment camps which were symptomatic of the hysteria during WWII. Asawa’s father was arrested by the FBI and sent to a camp in New Mexico, and was not seen by their family for the next six years.

Asawa along with her mother and five siblings, were forced to live at the Santa Anita racetrack. Asawa graduated from high school while living at the camp, and went onto pursue a teaching degree at the Milwaukee State Teachers College. While studying in Milwaukee, Asawa traveled to Mexico. Here, she took part in an art class at the Universidad de Mexico and learned of the Black Mountain College.

She went onto to study at Black Mountain College under the tutelage of Josef Albers from 1946-49. While there, she began to experiment with different materials and techniques, engaging in an interdisciplinary approach to the art making process. Black Mountain is also where Asawa began to use wire in her sculptures.

The 1950s were also marked with more exploration for Asawa and her work. During this era, she began using crotchet and wire as way to make sculptures and also as a way to create 3D drawings. She picked this technique up while visiting Toluca, Mexico where she had witnessed locals utilizing this to make baskets. Asawa’s wire sculptures brought her notoriety landing her in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of Art and Sao Paulo Art Biennial.

Asian Pacific American Artists - Ruth Asawa Andrea
Ruth Asawa. Andrea. Source: National Museum of Women in the Arts

Over time Asawa’s work evolved and during the 1960s she began to experiment with tied wire sculpture and creating representational work. In 1968, she created a fountain of mermaids called “Andrea” along San Francisco’s waterfront. To create this piece, Asawa worked with 200 local school children and who create molds of the city in dough, that were later cast in iron. She went onto create other public works and over time, Asawa earned the title of the “fountain lady.”

Asawa became a fierce advocate for arts education and over the years did countless lobbying on behalf of this cause. She co-founded the Alvarado Arts Workshop which is now the San Francisco Arts Education Project. In 1982, a public arts high school was built, in part to Asawa’s efforts. In 2010, the school was renamed the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. She also served as a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco as well as on the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. Asawa died in 2013.

Nam June Paik (1932 – 2006)

Asian Pacific American Artists - Num June Paik
Source: Paik Studios

To many Nam June Paik, has been characterized as the father of video art. Paik’s work has had a profound effect on the art world. He worked in a variety of mediums and notably with the Fluxus and Neo-Dada art movements. Born in 1932 in Seoul, Paik’s family eventually fled due to the Korean War in 1950. As a child, Paik was trained as a classical pianist which in many ways effected his career in more ways than meets the eye. In 1956, he graduated from the University of Tokyo where he completed a thesis on the composer Arnold Schoenberg.

Upon finishing his undergraduate education, Paik found his way to Europe where he began to study music history at Munich University. Over the course of his studies, he met composer and conceptual artist John Cage as well as George Maciunas, Joseph Beuys and Wolf Vostell. Exposure to these artists greatly impacted Paik’s approach to his own work as well as adding a layer of conceptual complexity to it.

His interdisciplinary approach to video, film, media, teaching, creating and even performance art has resulted in an impressive body of work. Paik’s work has left a lasting impression on video art, TV and beyond. Paik really came into his own during the 1950s, 60s and 70s during the global rise of the anti-war movement which was reflected in the political and artistic realities of this era. Using advances being made in television and film at the time, Paik sought to investigate the moving image as a genre of art all its own. Paik made his professional art debut in 1963 as part of the Exposition of Music-Electronic Television.

The following year, Paik moved to New York City. Paik began to work with classically trained musician Charlotte Moorman. While working with Moorman, Paik’s work got pushed even further throughout the 20th century, the moving image and the advances being made surrounding this mode of art making became a very charged area to explore. Paik made many notable moves in this area, and would eventually be seen as the founder of the video art movement.

Asian Pacific American Artists - Num June Paik Cello
Charlotte Moorman performs wearing artist Nam June Paik’s “TV Cello” and “TV Glasses,” New York, 1971. Source: Medill Reports Chicago.

During the 1970s Paik’s work started to become more experimental. In 1971, he created a cello he made out of three TVs stacked on top of one another with strings. Paik even had a Moorman play his instrument. He also envisioned a community in which global viewers would use and engage with videos freely. Paik referred to this as the “Video Common Market.” In 1982, John HanHardt organized a retrospective of this work at the Whitney Museum. Over the course of his career, Paik exhibited at many intuitions and his work has become part of major collections worldwide. He died in 2006 due to a stroke.

Anida Yoeu Ali (1974 -)

Asian Pacific American Artists - Anida Yoeu Ali
Source: Studio Revolt

Another notable Asian Pacific American artist is Cambodian-American Anida Yoeu Ali. Ali’s work while is interdisciplinary in nature, is often site-specific. Working across performance, video, installation and sculpture, Ali’s work is truly multidisciplinary. Born in 1974 in Battambang, Cambodia, her family eventually left due to the war. They remained in a refugee camp in Thailand until 1979 until moving to Malaysia and eventually settling in the US.

Ali’s family settled in Chicago where she stayed until 2011. In 1996, she earned a BFA from the University of Illinois. She went onto receive an MFA from the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Asian Pacific American Artists - The Buddhist Bug
Anida Yoeu Ali, Offerings, The Buddhist Bug Series, Digital C print (2014). Source: Anidaali.com

Within Ali’s work, Buddhism is often a theme that is explored. In The Buddhist Bug series Ali used photographs, video and performance to explore the religion. In this work, the artist dresses in a caterpillar like costume that is purposefully hard to gender and label, resulting in a kind of hybrid. This notion of cultural hybridity/diaspora is also explored in other aspects of Ali’s work particularly stemming from her upbringing and travels.

Ali has been the recipient of several prestigious awards including the Sovereign Asian Prize, as winning a Fulbright in 2011, being the recipient pf an NEA grant as well as the Rockefeller Foundation. Ali was previously ab Artist-in-Residence at the University of Washington Bothell and has taught at other higher educational institutions. She is also a founding member of Studio Revolt, “an independent artist run media lab in Phnom Penh.”

Through these Asian Pacific American artists’ creative spirit, perseverance and forward thinking they helped level the playing field within the art world and beyond. Ali, Paik and Awasa contributed much to their communities and have left a lasting impression on public art, art education, video and the way that performance work is approached. By honoring their achievements, we are helping to keep their artwork and legacy alive.

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About the Author:

Anni Irish has been a contributing writer to several online publications including Boston based publication, The Dig, New York Arts Magazine, and ArteFuse among others. She holds a BFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University, an MA in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College, and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University.