Abolition of a Category
Right: Portrait of Amy Sadao, pencil on paper by Phong H. Bui
Over the last several decades, scholars and curators have written about the historical richness and heterogeneity of Asian American art, yet art made by and about Asian Americans has remained for the most part unnoticed, an afterthought, or an oversight, especially in major thematic museum exhibitions and sweeping art histories.
Historically to the present, Asian American bodies have been pummeled, dehumanized, or fetishized into racial objects. How strange and ironic it was then to realize the timing of the New York Times’s interest in Asian American art; featured as a recent supplement to its reportage of anti-Asian hate and violence, notably the murders of six Asian American women in Atlanta and brutal beatings of Asian Americans captured on CCTV cameras.
While we could use this space to present artists who have been underrecognized and underrepresented, lost in between the categories of American or Asian art, contemporary or political art, such an endeavor unwittingly embeds Asian American art in an art apparatus that paradoxically segregates and contains Asian American art while maintaining the status quo.
Constantly positioned as middlemen or what Victor Turner describes as “betwixt-and-between … preserving law and order” and as model minorities in order to be recognized, how might we consider recognition and Asian American art’s liminality differently, how might we approach thinking about Asian American art as a verb or even as an entropic force? Entropy is conventionally understood to be a process of measuring disorder and energy in a system unavailable to do work and/or it’s a concept used in information theory in relation to the coding and feedback of messages. Organizing Asian American artists into the canon increases the entropy of the art world and the diminishing means of BIPOC artists to make and show work with impact. Responding to the pressures of needing to be seen and recognized but only in a certain way maintains a harmful system undergirded by extractive capital and white supremacy. Instead of exerting energy and waiting for the art world to reach its maximum entropy or heat-death, how might we figure Asian American art as bringing on a new system that reveals and revels in decolonial arrangements and projects already underway, and/or makes room for new alliances, unexpected juxtapositions, connections, tensions, and dynamic collaborations. How might we shift our gaze of Asian American art as not about suffering but as pure joy, erotic pleasures, quiet intimacies? Asian American art has been about creating safe spaces, expressing identities, and narrating the Asian American experience and history, how might we see it as revealing other histories, amplifying submerged voices, and/or serving as a reparative space for others?
Informed by a number of fields—including Asian American studies, art history, postcolonial studies, Black feminist theory, Chicana feminism, queer and trans theory—and indispensable concepts that include Jose Muñoz’s sense of brownness, Lisa Lowe’s scholarship on intimacies, and Fred Moten’s aesthetics of blurring, we realized that in order to refigure Asian American art differently—as a relational encounter, poetics of relation, and alternative space of knowledge production—we had to do so collectively.
In our call, we asked artists, curators, poets, playwrights, scholars and activists a set of questions and invited them to collaborate and contribute a “flash” work of art and/or share with us an excerpt of a conversation or email exchange in relation to Asian American art and its attendant topics. Being mindful of the delimitations of space and time of this issue as well as the contributors’ space and time, and the realization that not all concepts and frameworks can be transferable, grafted onto or folded into Asian American art in light of differential colonial processes, forms of violence, and priorities of sovereignty, we kept it loose and open. Some artists are in conversation with other artists or scholars of a different ethnicity or race, other submissions are part of long-term ongoing exchange, while other presentations are hopefully the first of many collaborative creative endeavors.
What follows are flash meditations and propositions on Asian American art in which abolition doesn’t mean just dismantling and getting rid of something. The contributions do not necessarily reject or even substitute the category “Asian American art” for something else, what they do is highlight the multi-dimensions and interpretive possibilities of what Asian American is and does, what it can become. Another way to approach this open-ended project is in and through a constellation of contributors who care about each other and Asian American art and its becoming.
Inspired by Kandice Chuh’s and Al-An deSouza’s An Unsettling Aesthetic Lexicon, we open the issue with their contribution and then offer our own version of a working lexicon of Asian American art as a way to introduce the rest of the contributors and some key terms drawn from the contributions. Please note that some of the contributions are shown here in its entirety, and for others, it is merely a preview and the rest of their exchange can be found online.