Installation view of WIFREDO LAM’s “The EY Exhibition” at Tate Modern, London, 2016. Courtesy Tate Modern. 

WIFREDO LAMUntitled also known as Portrait of H.H., 1943, oil paint on paper, dimensions unavailable. Courtesy Tate Modern, London. 

WIFREDO LAM, The Sombre Malembo, God of the Crossroads, 1943, oil paint on canvas, dimensions unavailable. Courtesy Tate Modern, London.

Jul 11 2017

Out of Sync: Where Asia meets the Americas

by Hyunjee Nicole Kim

In 2008, the scholars Evelyn Hu-DeHart and Kathleen López noted in an article in Afro-Hispanic Review that the academy generally divided the study of Latin America and the Caribbean into indigenous, European/white and African/black categories, neglecting to recognize the region’s unique cultural and political relationship with the Asian diaspora. Ironic, considering the encounter that brought into fruition “the Americas” as we presently understand it:

“Columbus persisted in his illusion that he had indeed reached Asia, and gave the native peoples he encountered the enduring misnomer of ‘Indians’—a constant reminder, it would seem, that the idea of Asia in the invention of America was fixed at America’s inception.”

Though migratory patterns between these regions began in the 16th century and continued steadily through the 20th century, scholarship on this particular intersection has only recently begun to acknowledge their shared histories in a postcolonial framework. Modern and contemporary art and artists, too, have showcased the inevitable creolization of such cultures. In the upcoming fall season, the Pacific Standard Time curatorial initiative will open three shows dedicated to these Asian–Latin American–Caribbean interstices, including the two-part exhibition “Circles and Circuits: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diapora,” at the California African American Museum and the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, as well as “Winds from Fusang: Cultural Dialogues between Mexican and Chinese Artists” at the University of Southern California’s Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena.

East Asian immigration to the Western hemisphere intensified in the last two centuries, attempting to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution. Due to the decline of slavery, Asian migrants became a source of cheap—if undesirable—labor, accommodating the “expansion and development of world markets for New World cash crops, minerals and other raw materials, which in turn required infrastructural improvements such as railroads and shipping,” Hu-DeHart and López noted. Chinese labor that constituted the “coolie trade” (la trata amarilla) brought hundreds of thousands of mostly male workers to Cuba and Peru in the mid-19th century. In the early 20th century, migration patterns shifted from the North America to South America when further restrictions were placed on Asian immigration—already curbed by such similar limiting measures like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in the United States.

The father of artist Wifredo Lam (1902–1982), Enrique Lam-Yam, emigrated from China to Cuba in this period. A survey dedicated to Lam was mounted in 2008 at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California, and an international traveling retrospective was organized by the Centre Pompidou, in collaboration with Tate Modern and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia from 2015 through 2017. Reviewers casually dismissed Lam as a protégé of Picasso, taking note of his palette of “hot, tropical colours” to differentiate the Afro-Caribbean modernist from the European master. Simple formalist critiques merely wrote off Lam as stylistically derivative, and the multitudinous facets of identity become essentializing points. The art historian Lowery Stokes Sims, however, took time to analyze the varied and interlocking cultural symbols that Lam utilized, noting in Master Drawings that his interaction with European modernist painting “liberate[d] his imagery . . . in effect, marr[ying] the symbols and signs associated with the Caribbean—specifically from its Afro-Cuban culture—with the formalism of cubism and the invention of surrealism.”

In the 1940s, Lam began to incorporate symbols of Santería, the syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion that culls from the region’s history to slavery as well as Catholic ritual. Santería has been employed by other artists such as the Cuban conceptualist Ana Mendieta (1948–1985) and photographer Albert Chong (b. 1958), who also practices Rastafarianism. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Chong immigrated to New York in 1977 and resided in Brooklyn until 1988. The artist processed and transmuted the multigenerational layers of the immigrant experience—showing how tradition and ritual retain cultural value despite geographical displacement. Chong also incorporated reggae music into his performance.

Installation view of MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS’s (left) My Mother Told Me I Am Chinese. China Porcelain, 2008 and (right) My Mother Told Me I Am Chinese. The Painting Lesson, 2008, at “Theorem: You Simply Destroy the Image I Always Had of Myself,” Mana Contemporary, New Jersey, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Mana Contemporary.
Installation view of MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONS’s (left) My Mother Told Me I Am Chinese. China Porcelain, 2008 and (right) My Mother Told Me I Am Chinese. The Painting Lesson, 2008, at “Theorem: You Simply Destroy the Image I Always Had of Myself,” Mana Contemporary, New Jersey, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Mana Contemporary.

Like many others who are pushed and pulled into the chaos of identity politics, María Magdalena Campos-Pons (b. 1959) saw the compartmentalization of one’s identity as a potential trap. As she noted in Afro-Hispanic Reviewshe preferred to perceive her mother country Cuba as “a place of encounters,” or a land of “merging ideas, merging of ethnicities, merging of traditions.” By placing importance on the mélange over one’s specific racial-ethnic makeup, Campos-Pons highlighted the swirling effects of colonization, migration and labor that have fueled the narratives coming from the region. In her 2010 installation Sugar / Bittersweet, Campos-Pons simultaneously touches upon the painful history of sugar harvest in the Caribbean, the translatlantic slave trade, and Chinese indentured servitude in Cuba. In her work My Mother Told Me I Am Chinese. The Painting Lesson (2008), Campos-Pons places a figure in Chinese dress in the center of the panel, which consists of 21 large-format Polaroid prints arranged in three rows of seven, forming a long rectangle. The prints that surround the figure are fractured ideograms and shards, implying the discontinuity in not only cultural heritage but also a language.

MARIA MAGDALENA CAMPOS-PONSSugar / Bittersweet, 2010, mixed media installation of wood, glass, raw sugar, metal, video and stereo sound, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Tufts University Art Gallery, Massachusetts.

With Pacific Standard Time, the greater Los Angeles area—like other coastal immigration metropolis-hubs in the Americas—seems to be the appropriate locale in thinking about these how these cultures have productively mingled in our present globalized context. The Los Angeles-based curator Toro Castaño pointed out the unstable nature of identity and an understanding now that one does not necessarily have to subscribe to a dominant culture. Castaño’s research of street art has encompassed the practices of artists who occupy multiracial identities and pursue practices that absorb urban contexts. In this city, where racial segregation greatly charts the geography of the sprawl, the fragmentation of identity (from numerous causes) can be somewhat reconciled through hybrid cultural production. Shizu Saldamando (b. 1978), a Los Angeles-based artist, pursued tattoo art, training at a parlor in East Los Angeles where Chicano culture has developed and thrived for generations. Vernacular art forms become conduits of creolization.

The German-born Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer wrote that “‘Out of synch’ may be as good a description for living in diaspora as many others. Synchronization here can only be effected among those who are locked into the same place.” The dominant, often Eurocentric, trajectory of art history can neglect those who are “out of synch” and, like the scholars who pointedly considered how Asian migration affected Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a responsibility of curators and archivists to be caretakers of this history and address the gap that written history has failed to record. Presently, Latin America and the Caribbean is the recipient of “massive capital investment from China, Japan, and Korea,” which have emerged as global economic powers in the 21st century. As East Asian countries harbor accusations of neo-imperialism, perhaps we should also take into account these evermore rapid migratory patterns, spinning into well-trodden territories with familiar agendas, changing physical and psychical domains that may result in further ruptured histories.

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