Thursday, July 11, 2013

Q&A with artist and author Laura Kina

Laura Kina, photo by Pam Loring
Laura Kina, the Vincent de Paul associate professor of Art, Media, and Design at DePaul University, is the co-editor of the new book War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art and the co-curator of an accompanying art exhibit. She lives in Chicago.

Q: How did you select these particular authors and artists to include in the book?

A: I’m a visual artist, a painter, and much of my work has been about Asian American and mixed race identity and history. As a result, I’m tapped into a network of artists, scholars, and activists working on similar topics. My co-editor Wei Ming Dariotis and I also teach classes on mixed race and Asian American studies so we were also both seeking out work by relevant artists and authors to share with our students.

This is actually how we met. She was using my art in her classes at San Francisco State University and I was using her articles on “hapa” mixed Asian American identity in my classes at DePaul University.

The kernel for our book and the related traveling exhibition happened organically over several years of research and teaching and involvement with community multiracial organizations such as MAVIN in Seattle and iPride and Hapa Issues Forum in San Francisco and then later working together with my colleague Camilla Fojas to found the Critical Mixed RaceStudies biennial conference at DePaul University in Chicago.

In 2008 when we decided to begin working on the War Baby / Love Child project, I was looking to find something beyond the tired “post-racial” debate of identity politics in the art world. I wanted to know how other artists were addressing their mixed race identity in innovative ways that wasn’t didactic or ironic. I was looking for works that would be in dialogue with each other, where aesthetic and formal concerns were on an equal par with conceptual and political concerns.

So the starting point for me was the studio visits, art objects, and conducting the artists’ interviews. I didn’t want the work to illustrate the artists’ biography but rather enhance it. The project was originally just an exhibition proposal but Wei Ming and I both also felt it was important to contextualize each artist’s story and to outline a larger social and political history that typically gets erased in favor of focusing on exceptional individual narratives.

The 19 artists we ended up selecting come from across the U.S. – Chicago, Denver, Honolulu, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Memphis, Miami to name just a few of their geographic locations. That was great for the book but a nightmare for exhibition shipping costs! I ended up having to get a National Endowment for the Arts grant through DePaul University to make the show a reality.

The artists reflect a breadth of diversity in terms of generational, ethnic, racial and class experiences. We have some artists, like Albert Chong and Kip Fulbeck, who are closely associated with mixed race representation and others like Amanda Ross-Ho and Laurel Nakadate who are rising art stars where viewers might not have even read their work through a racialized context and others like Stuart Gaffney that are more associated with marriage equity activism.

Finding the artists was the relatively easy part. A far bigger challenge was finding authors who could write about visual culture and contemporary art AND Asian American studies and mixed race studies. In addition to our own networks in our hometowns of San Francisco and Chicago, we sought out recommendations from other art historians, curators, Asian American studies scholars, and multiracial organizations.

Q: You examine a very diverse set of experiences. Is there any overall theme that you'd like the reader to take from the book?

A: This is ultimately a book about contemporary U.S. art in relation to mixed race and Asian American history and identity. I think that our foreword author Kent Ono said it most succinctly: “War Baby / Love Child makes it possible for us to understand how art documents the experience of society, structures, and the history that produced them, as well as to understand art as object that itself creates history, a new society, and, as anterior immanence, the potential for society to enact a new future.”

Q: What has the reaction been to the book and art exhibit so far?

A: We’ve received a good deal of press so far, which I am really grateful for, but the reactions that have meant the most to me are how the show and book has positively impacted individuals and pushed the dialogue on mixed race identity and Asian American art forward.

In a recent interview, one of the artists in the War Baby / Love Child book/show, Richard Lou, shared:

War Baby/Love Child is - dare I say it - an important landmark show. It's not just about Asian Americans (which is important unto itself). It's also about redefining the Asian American experience within the confines of the United States as a group of people based on ethnicity and how that ethnicity is articulated and rearticulated moment by moment….

We’ve really put the project out there with social media (website, YouTube video, Facebook) so we’ve also heard from mixed race Asians in Asia (“Amerasians”) who might have just seen the book trailer and have expressed concern over what they feel is the “feel-good” classed luxury of U.S. identity politics and questions about how these issues are actually transnational.

I’m interpreting theses concerns as a frustration with the continued U.S. military presence in places like Okinawa, Japan, and the very different realities of overt discrimination mixed race Asians in Asia may be facing. Because of the Asian American focus, most of our book necessarily takes on a diasporic and transnational framework (including militarization and migration histories).

Laura Kina and her artwork, photo by Cheryl Tan
In the U.S. context, when you talk about race and specifically mixed race, a Black/White “biracial” discourse tends to dominate. Moreover, we sought to shift the center of Asian American multiracial discourse from what we’ve noticed as a dominance of Asian/White representation to be inclusive of Asian/Black and Native Hawaiian, Native American, Latina/o and transracial adoptee, and intersectional LGBTQ identities and issues. That was a lot to tackle in one project!

Q: In the introduction, you discuss the "war baby" and "love child" stereotypes. Why did you opt to use that for the book's title?

A: When my co-editor Wei Ming Dariotis was growing up in San Francisco in the 1970s she said that she would frequently get asked if her parents met “during the war.” Her dad, who just passed away, was “White” (Greek, Swedish, Scottish, German, English, and Pennsylvania Dutch) and her mother is from China. She couldn’t understand where the “war baby” label was coming from. As she commented in a recent podcast, “In 1969, we weren’t at war with China.”

I was born just a few years later in 1973 and I was part of a multicultural generation where being mixed was held up as a sign of racial progress, almost the flipside of the tragic “Amerasian” narrative. It’s something I call the “Happy Hapa” phenomenon where young mixed Asians are mixed and proud but oblivious to a larger racial history.

Both Wei Ming and I have experienced assumptions of our “illegitimacy” (the “love child” stereotype) on one extreme or the seemingly more benign “where did your parents meet?” or “are your parents still together?” questions. Your existence ends up being framed as the by-product or “child” (regardless of how old you are) of two separately raced individuals.

We both would also get statements that mixed folks get more generally – “What are you?,” “You look so exotic,” “You have the best of both worlds” and so on. These would collide with the stereotypes we face as Asian Americans of being a model minority, Yellow Peril hangovers of being inscrutable and untrustworthy traitors, or hypersexualized for women and demasculinized for men.

So we realized that in order to really see and represent mixed race Asian American art, despite what our or the artists’ actual biographies or self-perception may be, there were some key stereotypes with some very real histories that were throwing a shadow onto our everyday lives that we needed to interrogate. It’s not just about individual identity. “War Baby / Love Child” is shorthand for all of that.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just got back from a residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, IL, where I had a 3Arts Residency Fellowship and finished up a body of oil paintings for a series called “Sugar” about my father's Okinawan sugarcane plantation community on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi that I’ve been working on since 2009. Be on the lookout in the next few years for a traveling show of the work called “Blue Hawaiʻi.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: If you are in Seattle between August 9, 2013 – January 19, 2014, please come to see the War Baby / Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. You can also catch five of my new paintings in the Wing Luke’s Under My Skin: Artists Explore Race in the 21st Century exhibition up now through November 17, 2013. For a complete listing of my upcoming shows and events visit:

On September 1 we will be launching the inaugural Journal ofCritical Mixed Race Studies. Also be on the lookout this coming fall for the call for papers for the 2014 Critical Mixed Race Studies conference at DePaul University.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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