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Painting the Bigger Picture: Activist Art History and Asian-American Representation

It’s not a coincidence that when art historians tell the story of American Modernism, they leave out immigrant artists in favor of a largely white canon. The era of American Modernism was also the era of exclusion. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924, and a host of other racist laws attempted to define who counted as “American.” Canonical accounts of art in early 20th-century America overlook the contributions of Asian-American artists like Eitaro Ishigaka, Miki Hayakawa, Hideo Noda and others, largely because American society considered the artists themselves not “American.”

ShiPu Wang, associate professor of art history and visual culture at UC Merced, is restoring those artists into history, highlighting their key roles in protest movements and curating major exhibits of their works. In a talk on Thursday, March 1, titled “The Other American Moderns: Art Historical Research as a Form of Activism,” Wang made the case that studying and publicizing Asian-American artists is a type of activism that can start to amend the effects of marginalization. Art galleries and art historians, he argues, have the opportunity to craft more inclusive narratives of American modernism.

Although their works are absent from traditional art histories, Asian American artists were active in the social justice and protest movements of the 1930s and 1940s. Wang argues that Asian-American artists’ work was activism in its own time, offering a critique of power structures and reimagining “Americanness” in the process.

Many of these artists created what Wang calls “imagery of the Other by the Other,” where “other” is a recognition of a position in society rather than a marginalizing term. Eitaro Ishigaki’s The Bonus March (1932), for example, centers two black veterans in its composition.

Eitaro Ishigaki, “The Bonus March” (1932)

In 1932, World War I veterans gathered in Washington, D.C. to request cash payment for their wartime service, since many had not worked since the start of the Great Depression and the bonus certificates they had been awarded were not redeemable until 1945. When the Senate rejected their request, many of the marchers camped in Hoovervilles surrounding D.C. President Hoover ordered the military to clear protesters off government property, claiming that the camps were infiltrated by Communists. The military used cavalry, tanks, and machine guns to clear the camp, and in the process injured over 100 marchers and killed two.

While many accounts of the march at the time focused on the white veterans, Ishigaki’s choice to make two black men the focal point of his composition reminds viewers of black veterans’ service and critiques the military’s excessive use of force. Ishigaki’s painting also offers an alternative to the racist images of black men popular in the 1930s, which often depicted them in dehumanizing ways. Ishigaki’s subjects are instead strong, sympathetic, and central to the narrative.

What does it mean for Japanese-Americans to paint other marginalized groups? Wang asked. By focusing on works like Hideo Noda’s Scottsboro Boys (1933), which are often left out of historical narratives, we gain a picture of these artists working against a culture of black and Asian racism, and crafting transcultural alliances.

Wang is clear, however, that he is not discovering “forgotten” artists. Instead, his work draws attention through the exclusionary mechanisms by which Asian-American artists have been left out of traditional art histories. For example, many Japanese-American artists gave up art after being interned in the 1940s. “Think about how many stories are still out there yet to be written about,” Wang notes. Many museums used to own Asian-American art, but de-accessioned many of their holdings in the mid-20th century to make room for more famous Western art. He told the story of a famous New York museum which sold two Japanese modern paintings to a wealthy Japanese businessman in the 1980s, and with the proceeds bought a single Picasso sketch.

Although this lack of art and information makes creating histories of Japanese-American modernists difficult, art museums and historians can begin to correct this exclusion by representing a wider range of American artists. Doing so generates more public interest and more scholarship in Asian-American art. Sometimes the process even turns up “new” works that have been hanging in someone’s home for decades, but weren’t considered

By writing about artists that have been left out of the canon and bringing their art to the public, Wang is helping to send a message to art museums and publishers that the public wants to see more diverse representation in their art. And so far, the public has been enthusiastic.

Chiura Obata: An American Modern edited by ShiPu Wang (University of California Press, 2018)

Recently, Wang curated a retrospective exhibition on Chiura Obata, a prolific Japanese-American artist known for his watercolors of National Parks. Currently at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara, the exhibition will travel to museums that don’t typically exhibit Asian-American art. In the process, it crafts a larger narrative of Obata’s work as part of American history.

When the exhibition travels to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, for example, viewers will reflect on Obata’s internment from 1942-1945. The exhibition then travels to Obata’s home prefecture of Okayama, and then returns to the Crocker Art Museum. The exhibit has garnered so much interest that it will then appear in the Smithsonian Art Museum in 2019-2020. “Inserting Obata into the American canon” through this exhibit and relation publications, argues Wang, “is a way to challenge the definition of American art.”

In the process, activist work that highlights the importance of Asian-American artists to major historical events redefines what it means to be an American artist.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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