16 Rising Artists of the Asian Diaspora in the United States

Harley Wong, Artsy, May 19, 2021

Even as artists of color begin to gain a foothold in the upper echelons of the art world, naming widely celebrated Asian diasporic artists with cemented legacies in the art historical canon remains challenging. Oftentimes, it feels as though we’re constantly excavating long overlooked or ignored artistic practices. However, thanks to decades of activism and advocacy from BIPOC artists and art workers, greater attention is being given to contemporary artists of color during their lifetime. Here, we focus on rising artists of the Asian diaspora currently based in the United States. Many of these artists have been experiencing substantial career momentum in recent months, exhibiting in art institutions or international biennials one after the other. Some have honed their craft and bypassed educational barriers, exhibiting in solo shows at leading galleries without an MFA, and sometimes even without a BFA.

My conversations with these artists and close readings of their works reveal an engagement with similar ideas through varied approaches and media, suggesting a collective consciousness created through shared experiences within the diaspora. Multimedia artist Catalina Ouyang and figurative painters Oscar yi Hou and Timothy Lai spoke about losing the Chinese language or never having a firm grasp of it to begin with. Informed by theorists Gilles Deleuze and Isabelle Stengers’s writings on how stuttering acts like a glitch, Ouyang pushes the English language to points of deterioration. Yi Hou, on the other hand, visually obscures the English texts in his paintings and drawings, relegating them to the space of inscrutability often reserved for Chinese characters. Meanwhile, painters like Lai, Bambou Gili, Sasha Gordon, and Dominique Fung expand on the color palettes used to render Asian skin—not only with shades of yellow and brown, but also hues of red, blue, and purple.

The artists featured also pay tribute to those who came before them, acknowledging the continuum of the diasporic experience. Gili includes the late Matthew Wong’s spotlighted door from 5:00 PM (2019) in Blue Summer (An Ode to Matthew Wong) (2020). Ouyang’s “Lift me to the window to the picture image unleash the ropes tied to weights of stones first the ropes then its scraping on wood to break stillness as the bells fall peal follow the sound of ropes holding weight scraping on wood to break stillness bells fall a peal to sky” (2020) borrows its title from the last line of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s 1982 publication Dictee, and features a portrait of the artist as the late poet. Multimedia artist Kang Seung Lee’s labor-intensive reproductions of photos of painter Martin Wong and photographer Tseng Kwong Chi illustrate both the precarity of these artists’s lives during the AIDS epidemic and their diminished presence in art history. While charting careers of their own, these rising artists bring their predecessors with them.

Wesaam Al-Badry

B. 1984, Nasiriyah, Iraq. Lives and works in Berkeley, California.

In March 2020, when relatively little was understood about the novel coronavirus, the artist Wesaam Al-Badry drove more than 1,500 miles through California’s Central Valley to capture the daily lives of farm workers as the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing inequities. His ongoing series “Migrant Workers” is the result of his personal conversations with and photographs of the individuals and families who continue to feed America.

Although touted as essential workers, farm laborers found little protection from the federal government or their employers. While producing a quarter of the nation’s food during periods of panic purchasing during the pandemic, Central Valley farm workers continued to face threats of deportation while being paid insufficient wages, making it difficult to afford the very food they harvest. In living and working conditions where social distancing is nearly impossible, most farm workers were not provided personal protective equipment by their employers. As the pandemic worsened and their livelihoods became even more precarious, laborers found some relief from the United Farm Workers (UFW), which distributed food, school supplies, and masks to thousands of farm workers. In Al-Badry’s photographs, we see workers in the fields engaged in action, looking into the distance, or returning the viewer’s gaze. Avoiding the position of a voyeur, Al-Badry’s presence is always made known as he considers his process to be highly collaborative.

Al-Badry’s previous bodies of work similarly engage in this empathetic form of photojournalism that avoids sensationalizing hardship. Others take a more personal turn. In “It Smells Like Sweet Apples” (2016), the artist revisits the photographs he took as a child in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. Al-Badry writes over the discolored and blurry images, recalling his father’s PTSD and the fear of smelling mustard gas.

In “Al Kouture” (2018), Al-Badry examines our relationship with Muslim head coverings in a post-9/11 world. By tailoring and repurposing couture silk scarves into niqabs, Al-Badry asks in his artist statement: “Would the Western World accept the niqab if it were on the racks of luxury fashion designers?” In fact, “Al Kouture” anticipated Gucci’s controversial Milan Fashion Week show for its 2018 autumn/winter collection that accessorized white models with hijabs and Sikh turbans. Al-Badry’s portraits in this series explore the impossibilities of assimilation through high fashion’s signaling of wealth and status.