Take a New Snapshot of Identity



“Daniel Dae Kim” by CYJO
Digital pigment print, January 29, 2007

There was a time when my biggest wish was to be as “American” as I could. When looking different first became a source of rejection, in some ways I rejected my heritage. But now that I’ve grown and started to raise my own family, I feel an undeniable sense of gratitude to my parents and the values they worked so hard to instill in me, values shaped by a country half a world away. I’ll always be grateful to America for being a place where part of what it means to be a proud American is the ability to be openly proud of being Korean.


If you’re going to be in Washington, DC before October 14, 2012, you’ll want to catch “Asian American Portraits of Encounter” at the National Portrait Gallery. This temporary exhibition, presented by the National Portrait Gallery in collaboration with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, displays the work of seven visual artists who are concerned with breaking down stereotypes of Asian Americans and expanding notions of identity.

The featured artists CYJO, Zhang Chun Hong, Hye Yeon Nam, Shizu Saldamando, Roger Shimomura, Satomi Shirai, and Tam Tran are connected by their Asian heritage and experiences living in the U.S. They use concepts of diaspora, migration, and transnationalism in their art, inviting visitors to contemplate their own heritage and what it means to be a member of a globalized society.

Upon entering the museum, I was drawn to the CYJO portraits that line a long hallway. CYJO, born Cindy Hwang, calls her collection The KYOPO Project.  A self-described Kyopo—the Korean word for members of the country’s diaspora—CYJO came to the U.S. as a toddler in 1975 and grew up in suburban Maryland. The KYOPO Project began with a single portrait in 2004 and has grown to include 240 prints. The subjects are all photographed in the same pose with arms at their sides and unsmiling faces to provide a common thread and invite comparisons. The artist interviewed her subjects, and the quotes that accompany each portrait give insight into the subject’s understanding of his or her diasporic identity. An excerpt from CYJO’s interview with Sung Rno in 2006 has stayed with me:

“Being Korean American is an evolving, ever-changing question. It’s something to be explored, questioned, dissected, felt, tasted, remembered, rethought, and reconfigured. I do worry that my children will be even more confused about all of this than I am. It becomes reductive when eating Korean food is the only identifiable cultural relic of being Korean. So I hope I can lead them to a more solid cultural ground.”

The next featured artist, Zhang Chun Hong, is a Chinese-born resident of Kansas who draws on traditional Chinese culture complemented by contemporary ideas. She mixes Chinese and American influences to create a unique expression of her identity through disembodied images of long, straight, black hair presented on scrolls.

As a Korean immigrant to the U.S., the artist Hye Yeon Nam has had difficulties adjusting to a new culture. Her four-part video self-portrait—Walking, Drinking, Eating, and Sitting—mixes confusion and frustration into everyday situations. Orange juice continuously spills out of a hole in a glass. Tomatoes slide off a ruler the artist tries to use as a utensil. She struggles to walk with large planks attached to her feet. Nam’s work evokes empathy while encouraging others to confront and surmount social constraints.

Shizu Saldamando, a California native of Japanese and Mexican descent, investigates subcultures and documents mundane social moments to bring attention to those who society often overlooks. She hopes to reflect the fluidity of identity and the concept that each individual is a work in progress.

Roger Shimomura was born and raised in the diverse city of Seattle, Washington but has spent the last forty years in the Midwest where Asian American communities are less prevalent. Frustrated by questions such as “How long have you been in the U.S.?” and “What part of Japan are you from?” he believes that American-born citizens of Asian descent are too often thought of as “American knockoffs.” His series of paintings show the artist engaged in battles against stereotypes.

Beyond giving viewers a better understanding of what it means to be Asian in America, the exhibit encourages visitors to think about how each individual seeks to connect to her heritage and carve out her place in society. Don’t miss this opportunity to engage with diaspora art! Information about visiting the exhibition:

Location: The National Portrait Gallery is located at Eighth and F Streets, NW, in Washington D.C., above the Gallery Place–Chinatown Metrorail station (red, yellow, and green lines).

Museum Hours: 11:30 am–7:00 pm daily. Closed December 25th.

Admission: Free

For more information on visiting the museum, please visit the National Portrait Gallery’s website.

Have you seen the exhibit? Which piece or collection caught your eye? Did you find any of the works to be controversial? How have you used art to explore or express your own identity?