Empowerment Through Art
Growing up as an Asian-American female in a predominantly Caucasian city like Myrtle Beach, featured artist Kelly Lu felt a larger burden in securing her self-identity than most adolescents. Fortunately for us all, Lu has used her artwork as a means of self-expression and self-discovery. Her work is not only appealing to look at but also challenges the viewer to consider what commentary on racism, feminism, and youth culture lie at its roots. Lu particularly finds inspiration in Japanese art, tattoo artists, youth culture, and social media. Personal convictions about feminism and cultural appropriation are evident in her work, as well as themes of violence, death, war, identity, and rebellion. Lu’s achievements thus far are all the more impressive considering her young age and status as a female, Asian-American artist.
One of Lu’s main inspirations is Yayoi Kusama. Kusama was widely influential in the pop art movement, inspiring big-name artists such as Andy Warhol. Her role in the movement, however, was largely underappreciated until recently. Yayoi Kusama is now recognized as one of Japan’s most well known artists and one of the most popular artists in the world at large. At 87 years old, Kusama has experienced a recent career resurgence and it is evident she has no plans of slowing down any time soon. Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art recently displayed a retrospective of Kusama’s sixty-year long career, from her early drawings and sketchbooks to her iconic installations (Dezeen). Her work has been exhibited at two solo shows at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery since May and will be up through July. Kusama’s work will also show in Connecticut, with an exhibition that will stay up through November at the Philip Johnson’s Glass House (W magazine).
New female Asian-Americans are making waves in the art scene as well. Los Angeles-based artist Kristen Liu-Wong is gaining recognition for her unabashedly taboo, “NSFW” inspired artwork. With 32,390 followers on Instagram, Liu-Wong is achieving online success with her Asian erotic art, portraying scenes of sex and violence, which are both horrifying and humorous. She is inspired by 90’s Nickelodeon cartoons, American folk art, Native American pottery, and artist Alex Katz, who was inspired himself by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro (Hifructose).
Asian-American females like Olivia Park and Esther Fan of “Sad Asian Girls” art collective are doing their part to open the narrative of gender and race issues and stereotypes. Park and Fan, juniors at Rhode Island School of Design, founded “Sad Asian Girls Club” with the goal of breaking down the “culture of passiveness and silence through discussions of racism and feminism” and “providing more representation for Asian girls of all types and backgrounds around the world.” Park and Fan have developed a large online community and a strong following via Tumblr, Instagram, and YouTube. They have chosen to use the internet simply because it is “where you can find vitriol and hate in abundance” and are opting to use its powers for good instead of evil to “find empathy and solidarity from people who’ve had the same experiences” (Huffington Post).
The “Asian Sad Girl” is “any Asian individual identifying as female who is struggling to fit into some kind of mold perpetrated by both Western society and Asian society.” Park says “being sad is a taboo, as if it should be something you hide and deal with yourself” but the art collective strives to open dialogue by embracing the image of a sad, oppressed group and thereby empowering themselves. As artists, Park and Fan believe it is their duty to use their resources and abilities to involve themselves in such issues (Huffington Post). Throughout Kelly Lu’s collection, we also see the motif of a “sad girl” and expressionless females, which provide commentary on the modern expectation of women to suppress their emotions. Kelly Lu’s art portrays a similar experience of an Asian-American struggling to find a personal identity within Western society.
It is interesting to note that all-women group shows, which according to the New York Times, “fell out of favor in the 1980’s and ‘90’s”, have recently experienced a comeback…According to the New York Times, at least a dozen galleries and museums are featuring women-themed exhibits and, thereby, finally illuminating these neglected artists. The effects look promising– resuscitating the careers of some artists and increasing the commercial potential of others. Barbara Kruger says these shows are “playing catch-up after centuries of women’s marginality and invisibility.” Fortunately, we have more women-only group shows to look forward to, such as at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Denver Art Museum. Corporate sponsors are jumping on board as well, as evidenced by DKNY fashion house approaching New York’s The New Museum to underwrite its spring season, which is devoted to five solo exhibitions by women artists (NYTimes). Maura Reilly , the founding curator of the Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, advocates for all-women exhibits, saying, “they are curatorial correctives… to counterpoint the looked-overness.”
Though gender and race discrepancies are apparent in our society, the narrative of stereotypes and equality are being opened in the online and art worlds. It appears as though female artists, including those who are ethnically Asian, are experiencing recent success and recognition in what is hopefully an increasing trend. Kelly Lu’s WAR! is a window into the experience of a 22-year old Vietnamese-American female artist in the modern world. Influenced by the Southern culture in which she was raised and inspired by our youthful, social media-oriented modern society, Lu’s work illustrates and emphasizes a unique, rebellious mix of both Western and East Asian culture as well as a personal quest for self-identity.
Written by gallery assistants Aiden Lillie and Caitlin Billard