On belonging: The art of remembering

ArtsWatch Weekly: Amid a time of violence in America, art that remembers its roots and looks beyond

YOU CAN FEEL THE FORCE IN ALL-AMERICAN, Portland artist Roberta Wong’s blunt and extraordinarily effective 2003 piece consisting of a thick wooden cutting board, a cleaver, and a length of dark braided hair, severed with a swift swing of the blade from the head it once adorned. Wong’s carefully arranged tableau of the imagination isn’t just a haircut, but a banishment – a denial. The piece implies an amputation of the self, a separation of roots and history and identity in the name of assimilation, of fitting in: Where, then, is the “Chinese” in “Chinese American,” or the “All” in the all too ironically aspirational “All-American”?

Roberta Wong, “All-American,” 2003.

THE FEELING INSIDE THE CAGE that was the downtown Portland prison cell of Minoru Yasui in 1942 and ’43 is different: not a severance, but an entrapment. Yet it also feels very much like the other side of the same coin. Yasui, a second-generation Japanese American born in Hood River in 1916, landed in solitary confinement for his dissent against President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066, which authorized the wartime evacuation and incarceration of Japanese American citizens in detention/concentration camps across the West: Once his prison sentence had ended, Yasui was sent to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho for the duration of the war. 

Artist Brian Borello installing an 8-by-8-foot prison cell, which once held Minoru Yasui in solitary confinement at the Multnomah County Courthouse, in the new location of the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. Photo: Brian Libby

Wong’s and Yasui’s stories, which are recounted in ArtsWatch this week by Dmae Roberts and Brian Libby, are part of a deep and important cultural and political story in Oregon and across the United States of belonging and not belonging. It’s the story of the nation’s never-ending struggle to live up to its own ideals of equal opportunity and equality before the law – of truly believing and acting upon the words of poet Emma Lazarus engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Or, as much of a nation at war with itself makes its preference abundantly clear, don’t.


Wong is the guest artist on Dmae Roberts’ second Stage and Studio podcast on ArtsWatch, following costume designer deluxe Wanda Walden. In Roberta Wong – Conceptual Artist & Tireless Advocate, the two Asian American women hold a fascinating half-hour conversation that touches on growing up in Oregon (Wong is part of the family that owned the prominent Tuck Lung restaurant in Portland’s Chinatown, and worked in its kitchen as a teen) to the growing visibility of non-white art and artists in places like the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (where Wong ran the gallery for many years), and roadblocks to acceptance along the way (Wong recounts how the old Metropolitan Arts Commision, predecessor to the Regional Arts and Culture Council, insisted that grant proposals list all Asian artists in the “folk arts” category).

In Resistance: Relocating Minoru Yasui’s Prison Cell, Brian Libby recounts the compelling story of a little-known but trailblazing Oregon cultural figure – the only Oregon native to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his stalwart and principled fight against a national government that, during wartime, stripped away the rights of thousands of its own citizens, forcing them out of their homes and into vast detention camps. Yasui’s story lives again not just because it’s an important part of Oregon and national history, but also because the Japanese American Museum of Oregon (formerly known as the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center) is moving to a new space at Northwest Fourth Avenue and Flanders Street in Portland, and the 8-by-8-foot prison cell that held Yasui in solitary confinement for nine months during World War II will be a stark and telling feature in the museum galleries. Libby talks with artist Brian Borello, who is reassembling and installing the prison cell, and with museum Executive Director Lynn Fuchigami Parks, about Yasui’s bravery in troubled times. “Many people don’t know his story,” Parks tells Libby. “But he really is a civil rights hero.”



The sound of dancing across borders

Violinist, vocalist, and composer Joe Kye: contemporary sounds for contemporary issues.

THE STORY OF BELONGING IS FAR FROM JUST HISTORY. It’s with us every day, part of the flux and tumble of contemporary American life, and artists respond to it in a multitude of ways. In The sound of dance across borders, Monica Salazar talks with Portland violinist, vocalist, and composer Joe Kye about his new audio single, The Way Out, the product of a Zoom conversation that led to a long-distance collaboration with a high-school dancemaker in New York City named Diego Garita, whose Zoom dance piece Los Delores de la Raza is included in The Way Out’s digital media package. Kye, whose songs often include themes of migration and belonging, was born in South Korea. Garita is a Mexican immigrant, and his dance is concerned with the very contemporary crisis of family separations along the U.S./Mexico border. The two clicked. When he heard Garita talk about the border crisis, Kye says, “I knew immediately I wanted to work with him.” You can also hear Kye talk, in a podcast from The Immigrant Story, about his own journey from poverty as a child in South Korea to his career as a musician in the United States.



Songs and paintings from the emotional wilderness

Portland writer Keith Rosson and his new collection of stories.

WONG’S AND YASUI’S AND KYE’S STORIES DON’T ARRIVE IN A VACUUM but at a time of multiple national and international crises, from the Covid-19 pandemic to a frayed political culture to a spike in violence against Asian Americans and, even in a time of social isolation, soaring gun violence. This month we’ve seen two mass murders by young men carrying assault-style rifles and pistols: 10 killed in a grocery store in the college town of Boulder, Colorado; eight, including six Asian American women, in Atlanta. In spite of or perhaps partly because of coronavirus shutdowns, violence has soared in the past year in the United States, from the heavily protested police killings of Black citizens to increased acts of “private,” domestic violence. With more than 19,000 gun deaths and almost 40,000 gun injuries, The Washington Post reports, 2020 was the deadliest year for gun violence in decades – and those figures don’t include the 24,000 people who died by suicide via gun.

Art may or may not have an effect on its times, but the times definitely have an effect on their art. In Tales from the traumatic edge, his review of Portland writer Keith Rosson’s new collection of stories Songs for Trauma Surgeons, TJ Acena notes that although many of the stories predate last year, “it still feels like a collection written during a time of intense existential dread.” Acena adds: “Rosson dives into that space between moving on and giving up; a space many of us have been living in for the last year. That’s what pulls the reader into the collection. We want his characters’ resilience to come through, for someone to throw them a lifeline, or disaster to be averted through random chance. Because we want that for ourselves.”

Léon Cogniet, “Study for Tintoretto Painting the Portrait of His Dead Daughter,” 1843, oil on canvas, 17.2 x 14.2 inches, Portland Art Museum. Museum purchase, Edwin Binney, 3rd, Fund.

WHAT WE WANT FOR OURSELVES, and what art can provide, covers a lot of territory. Sometimes we want provocations to meet the urgent provocations of public life: a Friends With Guns or The Gun Show, for instance, in the face of what seems to be an impermeable, and predictably predatory, American gun culture. (This is “not the time” to talk about gun control, so soon after all those deaths, the gun lobbyists proclaim owlishly, and the courts and legislatures fall in line.) Sometimes we want the balm of beauty, to remind us of what’s possible. Sometimes we want escape: I’m a sucker for a good old-fashioned screwball comedy. 

And sometimes we want a mirror into the very private grief that so often goes unmentioned in the midst of political or cultural or natural disasters. To see the unadorned eloquence of grief in a work of art is to admit its possibility in our own lives. When I visit the Portland Art Museum – which I haven’t in more than a year – I sometimes stop by the European galleries for a visit with a small painting by Léon Cogniet titled Study for Tintoretto Painting the Portrait of His Dead Daughter. In this study in endurance (the completed painting, which includes the image of Maria Robusti, or “La Tintoretta,” lying in her deathbed, is at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux) Cogniet concentrates on Tintoretto himself, the man left behind in his grief, who is attempting to capture in paint the essence of a beloved life that has already slipped away. Life is like that, and in times like these, Tintoretto is us. Grieving, he goes on. 



How to turn a pandemic on its head 

A still from the IndieFEST Film Award winner “Lilies.” 

AH, BUT SURELY SOME GOOD CAN RISE FROM TIMES LIKE THESE. “Of course, lesbians have dreamt of this for years: sleeping in late, reading to each other, fretting over the cat, cooking, stretching, listening to jazz in silks. No parties to attend,” the short film Lilies begins, and in Lilies, Rising, Bennett Campbell Ferguson tells the story of how poet Joni Renee Whitworth and image and sound artist Hannah Piper Burns transformed the pandemic experience into an award-winning experimental short film. “We can’t build a society where joy and pleasure are not allowed,” Whitworth tells Ferguson. “Because the hard stuff will always be there, and last year was harder than most—harder than any I’ve known.”

MORE GOOD NEWS: The Oregon Cultural Trust reports that Oregonians donated $5.2 million to the Trust in the Covid year of 2020, breaking the $5 million barrier for the first time: It was a 13 percent jump from 2019, and it came from a broad base of 11,161 donors, a 17.5 percent increase from the previous year. “We asked Oregonians to help us protect Oregon culture and their response exceeded our expectations,” Cultural Trust Executive Director Brian Rogers said in a press statement. “These funds will go a long way in helping us support the cultural community’s recovery in 2021.” 



What’s in an artist’s name? A whole history of ideas

Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. as the Urban Shaman. Image courtesy of Kassius King

BEHIND THE NAME: AN INTERVIEW WITH MASTER ARTIST MICHAEL BERNARD STEVENSON JR. It means something to the way a person identifies to the world. Their college didn’t want to put it on their diploma. “When that happened,” Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. tells Luiza Lukova, “I said, ‘this is annoying, this is an invisibilization of the way that I identify.’ This is also happening to transgender and gender non-conforming people who are trying to free express and the system says, ‘No, this is what we do’.” Artist and writer have a long conversation about making art, working with students, and “topics that center at the core of Stevenson’s practice – race and identity, community engagement, and art as an antithesis to marginalization.” 




Streamers: Documentaries from the letter “F”

Master Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. as the Urban Shaman. Image courtesy of Kassius King

PROFANE DOCUMENTARIES ABOUT PROFOUND ARTISTS: “WOJNAROWICZ” & “F.T.A.” “This week’s column,” film writer Marc Mohan declares, “is brought to you by the letter ‘F’.’ A pair of documentaries, each available to rent through virtual cinemas, employ profane F words in their titles as they separately capture the energizing spirit of artists giving the middle finger to the establishment.” Mohan reaches into the vault to discover newly streaming films about a Jane Fonda tour to the troops in Vietnam, and about the queer New York artist, photographer, and activist David Wojnarowicz, who died from AIDS at 37.




Then again, it’s springtime in Oregon

Manzanita’s Hoffman Wonder Garden showcases plants from around the world that thrive on Oregon’s northwest coast, all with arboretum-quality labels. Photo courtesy Ketzel Levine

PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN ON MANZANITA’S WONDER GARDEN. The Hoffman Center for the Arts, in the Oregon coastal town of Manzanita, features all sorts of arts – including, especially this time of year, the art of gardening. That suits Ketzel Levine, NPR’s “doyenne of dirt” who moved to Manzanita four years ago, just fine. As Lori Tobias writes, Levine’s become “the self-proclaimed director of the Center’s Wonder Garden and as such, directs the horticulture programs.” She’s also become deeply involved in the center’s Hoff Online program of virtual webinars and Zoom classes, some of which – including gardening classes – have been attracting international audiences.  You might call it a blooming success.

SPRING AWAKENINGS IN YAMHILL COUNTY. “It’s not exactly a party yet,” David Bates writes, “but Yamhill County’s long pandemic thaw continues. Intriguing events coming this week and later this spring include a chance to fire up your own raku in Willamina and a virtual lecture by LGBTQ+ educator Trystan Reese. Let’s begin with the raku, then take the rest in chronological order.”



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About the author

Bob Hicks is a Senior Editor and writer at Oregon ArtsWatch. He's been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, first as arts editor and movie critic at the Oregon Journal, then for 25 years at The Oregonian as a writer and editor covering the performing, visual, and literary arts. His most recent art books include "Kazuyuki Ohtsu" (Pomegranate), "James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time" (Hallie Ford Museum of Art), and "Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora" (Pomegranate). His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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