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Behind the Scenes of "Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter"

For the artists and museum professionals behind the Smithsonian’s landmark exhibition, a portrait is much more than an artwork. It’s an encounter—an opportunity to meet someone and glimpse his or her world, through the eyes of an artist.

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter displays the diversity of contemporary Asian American identity through the groundbreaking work of seven visual artists—CYJO, Zhang Chun Hong, Hye Yeon Nam, Shizu Saldamando, Roger Shimomura, Satomi Shirai, and Tam Tran. It was created through a special collaboration between the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and Asian Pacific American Center (APAC).

The exhibition enjoyed a successful run for more than a year at the NPG’s venue in Washington, D.C. Thanks to cooperation with the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), new audiences in the American West will have a chance to see the show (May 11-September 22, 2013 in Los Angeles).

“We are delighted and honored that JANM is hosting this show!” says Konrad Ng, Director of APAC. “I hope that visitors will see the meaning of the American experience and world cultures from a different perspective.”

“As the title of the show suggests, these portraits are ‘encounters,’” Ng notes. “Asian America is the vehicle for that experience.”

"Daniel Dae Kim" (January 29, 2007), CYJO. Digital pigment print. Collection of the artist. © CYJO

“We often get approached by artists about shows that explore the meaning of being Asian in America,” says Ng. “CYJO, one of the featured artists, helped us consider the idea of a joint show between the APAC and the NPG. It was an opportunity to use art, especially the energy of NPG’s Portraiture Now series, as a way of expanding our understanding of the ‘American’ experience.”

Brandon Fortune, the NPG’s chief curator, says that the NPG is the only museum of its kind in the United States to reflect the connection between American history, biography and art. It tells the diverse story of America through its individuals.

“We loved working with Konrad Ng and his staff,” says Fortune, adding that they, and the NPG’s consultant, Margo Machida, helped to select the artists whose work is represented in the exhibition.

The exhibition is the Smithsonian’s first major showcase of contemporary Asian American portraiture.

“For me, the project had to deepen our understanding of the Asian American experience by not being conclusive—that this show is about Asian America—but by staging an encounter, starting a conversation, about what “Asian American” can and could mean across contexts,” Ng says. “I like to think that the work suggests how Asian American identity is rooted in a community, but not limited by it.”

“We were very impressed with the quality of the artists’ work and the fascinating ways in which each artist approached ideas of ‘fitting in’ and cultural collision,” Fortune recalls. “We also embraced the diversity of the work, from Hong Zhang’s large elegant scrolls to Roger Shimomura’s colorful, acerbic paintings, to Tam Tran’s small and provocative self portraits.”

"Shimomura Crossing the Delaware" (2010), Roger Shimomura. Acrylic on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. © Roger Shimomura

“Overall, the show asks us to (re-)consider what is ‘Asian American,’” Ng adds.

That contemplation of what it means to be Asian American is a big responsibility for Ng and the APAC, which was founded in 1997 within the Smithsonian. “As Director, my job is to establish a Smithsonian museum center about the Asian Pacific American experience, which is generally underrepresented or misrepresented across our cultural industries, like in the entertainment industry and in the life of our national museums,” says Ng.

Ng notes that the APAC’s exhibitions have traveled to museums and cultural organizations across the country. He hopes to raise public awareness about APAC, and says that their work has showcased the history, art and culture of Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Filipino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and Native Hawaiians, among others.

“The work is challenging, but when things come together—the work becomes deeply rewarding,” says Ng.

"Laundry" (2007). Satomi Shirai. Digital Chromogenic print. Collection of the artist. © Satomi Shirai

The exhibition’s journey to JANM represents one of those instances of things coming together.

“The task of the Smithsonian and institutions like JANM is to show how Asian Americans have been and continue to be central to the American story,” says Ng. “Even a simple interpretation of the show—there is great Asian American art and there are talented artists who are Asian American—goes a long way in addressing the challenges facing Asian American communities. It validates our voice and part of the American story.”

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter is an important exhibit, historically and culturally,” says Dr. Greg Kimura, President/CEO of the Japanese American National Museum. “It is the type of exhibition that every major museum would love to have after premiering at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. I am proud that JANM is the venue that will showcase it for the West Coast.”

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Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter

May 11 – September 22, 2013

Japanese American National Museum
100 North Central Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90012

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© 2013 Japanese American National Museum

Asian Pacific American CYJO exhibition Hye Yeon Nam janm Konrad Ng Portraiture Now roger shimomura Satomi Shirai Shizu Saldamando Smithsonian Tam Tran Zhang Chun Hong