As ACPA draws closer, get excited with a weekly dose of MRN Blogs! Hope to see you in Indy soon. Whether you will make it or not, we remain united in solidarity over multiracial endeavors!
To start us off, we have an interview from our CultureFest performer Laura Kina! As can also be found on her website (http://www.laurakina.com/) Laura is an artist and scholar who focuses “on the fluidity of cultural difference and the slipperiness of identity”. With subjects ranging from Asian American history to mixed race representation, her work blends autobiography with artwork, breaking down stories and putting them back together. Come see her perform “Hapa Yonsei Uchinanchu” her “talk story” about her Okinawan family history in Hawaii and her multiracial identity while showing images of her recent oil paintings and much more! Check her out at CultureFest on Sunday March 30 from 6-9pm in the Convention Center, as part of CelebrACPA immediately after the opening ceremony.
1. Where and how do you get your inspiration for your art?
2. Do you have a favorite piece of art you’ve created? Why?
[I’m going to answer both questions at once below]
My artwork usually starts out with an autobiographical impulse and series of questions and then develops as I gather source materials and do field research. For example, in my current exhibition Blue Hawaiʻi, which is on view through March 27, 2014 at the University of Memphis Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art, I initially traveled to Hawaiʻi in 2009 to look at community and family photos and interview elders in my dad’s Pi’ihonua sugarcane plantation community on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi as well as other Nisei (2nd generation) and Sansei (3rd generation) from nearby plantations. I grew up in a small Norwegian town called Poulsbo, WA and aside from my dad and my grandma Kina, I was pretty cut off from this part of my heritage. We’d go back as tourists and grew up eating Spam Musubi but I wanted to learn about the real Hawaiʻi and what it means to be Uchinanchu (Okinawan).
I initially was going to collect “obake” ghost stories Glenn Grant style inspired by the tales I’d heard of hinotama (fireballs) shooting into the night sky from the old graveyard that surrounded their plantation. I also wanted to find out what the issei (first generation) of “picture brides” immigrants lives were like. This was my own great-grandmother’s story of having an arranged marriage and arriving in Hawaiʻi around 1919. Her life was a mystery to me. So I saw a parallel between these fireballs and wanted to learn about her – of things disappearing and leaving just a trace in the night sky. But when I got into doing the interviews I realized that the folks I talked to didn’t see these “ghost” tales as fantastical or even spooky stories but more akin to Native Hawaiian mythology and manifestations of the spirit world that should be respected or that are useful for us to understand what is kapu (forbidden or off limits). There were also humorous ghost stories, like Kimotori the liver taker, that their parents used for practical purposes to keep the kids out of danger while they were busy working in the fields. Kimotori supposedly lived under a bridge and the kids would have to race home from school over this bridge back to home. Fear of Kimotori kept them from loitering around the water, which could have been a risk for drowning. I also learned how impactful WWII, military service, access to higher education, and the collapse of the sugar industry was on their lives. My image of these kimono clad “picture brides” was quickly replaced by stories of very tough and resourceful women who ran underground awamori (Okinawan sake) mills to subsidize their meager incomes as sharecroppers. They got up early and rolled Bull Duram cigarettes and packed metal tin lunch boxes of rice, dried fish, and pickles and headed out into the fields before the sun rose each day.
After completing the first round of works based on this research for a solo show called Sugar in 2010, this eventually led to my father and I traveling together again to Okinawa in 2012 to collect additional stories of heritage and history. The finished series of 23 oil paintings compress time and space between Okinawa and Hawaiʻi and capture the remnants of WWII and a continued American military presence in contemporary Okinawa and trace my family’s immigration from Okinawa to Hawaiʻi and the process of assimilation and citizenship against the backdrop of larger issues of settler-colonialism. The works are also a way to actively remember the four family members who were killed during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. Although it was impossible to know that I was going to cover all of this while I was making the work, this is where the research led me – from a fantasy of ghosts and picture brides to learning about the very real hauntings of history and connecting to the community in Hawaiʻi and to my extended family in Okinawa. Remembering ended up being a radical act.
My favorite painting from this series is called “Issei” and it is a double portrait of my great-grandma Makato Gibu Hiyane and her mother Makato Maehira. I found the source image for this when my own Grandma Kina died and we were working on a memorial video. I thought the photo was of my great-grandma and I painted her here with a row of plantation workers in the background. When I took the image back to Hawaiʻi, aunties pointed out that I had painted a twist on the Native Hawaiian myth of the night marchers. When I took the image back to Okinawa, my relatives noted that this image was of my great-great-grandma who had died during the Battle of Okinawa. It was through this image that I began to learn the truth about what happened to our family during the WWII. Up until this point it wasn’t something anyone talked about. The image has gone one to be used by the Smithsonian in their traveling banner exhibition “I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” to talk about plantation history in Hawaiʻi.
View the complete series and download the exhibition catalog and read the essay “Okinawan Diaspora Blues” by Wesley Ueneten, Associate Professor of Asian American Studies San Francisco State University: http://www.laurakina.com/newwork2013.html
3. How did you begin your academic career in Mixed Race Studies?
This was a somewhat organic process too. I was working on a series of painting in 2002-2005 called “Hapa Soap Opera” and I was initially just painting friends and family of mine who were mixed Asian and another race. Along this process I learned about Hapa Issues Forum in California and the MAVIN Foundation in Seattle and I started to get connected with the multiracial movement on a national level. Before that time, mixed identity was a thing we just talked about in our own family and we used the Hawaiian word “hapa” to name what we were. I’d already been very grounded in Asian American arts and a collectivized and activist identity but over the course of time I had noticed that more and more of us in Asian American arts were in fact “mixed” and this was something I wanted to explore in my artwork. Eventually, of course, I had to think about mixedness beyond just “hapa” identity and this led me to make my 2006 Loving series, which featured 10 charcoal portraits of mixed race individuals. They were all born in the years after the 1967 Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court Case, which overturned our nation’s last anti-miscegenation laws. I wanted to capture who we (mixed folks) are a virtual community in one sense but also quite disconnected. Since I had converted to Judaism back in 1997 I was also thinking about the idea of a minyan– with 10 being the minimum number of people you need to pray. Of course in the Jewish context this needs to be 10 Jewish adults but I was thinking about this in relation to what makes community. Over the course of 2002-2006 from the Hapa Soap Opera and Loving series, my virtual community of subjects started to be a real community.
By winter of 2008 I found myself at a Multiracial Leadership retreat outside of San Francisco organized and attended by Hapa Issues Forum, iPride, MASC, and MAVIN asking what the next steps were for “our” community. After the push for the one or more option on the 2000 U.S. and then the nomination of President Barack Obama, there was a collective question of what the next national project should be. There also seemed to be a waning interest in the social support groups and networks that were established in the 1980s and 1990s. With the growing social acceptance of mixed race people and families, there just didn’t seem to be as much demand to meet in groups. This experience raised a whole new set of questions. On one hand I felt a certain homecoming to finally find a whole community of other “mixed” people out there. I wasn’t certain what this meant yet for Asian America and I couldn’t see how, other than a common experience of racism, we were historically connected. I just had a lot of questions that I couldn’t articulate at the time but I was happy to make so many new friends but a little skeptical about all this claim to “newness” and the “multiracial millennium” and what the New York Time’s was calling “Generation E” (Ethnically Ambiguous). In the art world there had already been 7+ years of rhetoric around entering a so-called post-racial era and President Barack Obama’s election seemed like the proof. In retrospect this was really problematic and was happening at the same time that we saw and continue to see Islamaphobia on the rise post-9/11.
4. What was the process of creating, organizing, and implementing the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference?
I went to this 2008 leadership retreat with my DePaul colleague Camilla Fojas. She had just published her co-edited book Mixed Race Hollywood (NYU Press, 2008) with Mary Beltran and I was beginning to teach a class called “Mixed Race Art and Identity.” We were doing a workshop activity where you put post-it notes up on a wall with where you see yourself in five years in the multiracial movement and what you want to work on. After everyone had their dreams on the wall, we moved out post-it notes around to align with each other. It was out of this activity and other theater and drawing activities that Camilla Fojas, and Wei Ming Dariotis from San Francisco State University, and I had the very practical idea to work towards legitimizing multiracial studies in an academic context. Our hope was to found an association for critical mixed race studies. We used the word “critical” from “critical race” theory to point towards systems of racialization and used the “mixed race” (with no hyphen) from what was being used at the time (as opposed to “multiracial”) to define the movement. The no hyphen comes from us ditching hyphenated identities in Asian America. I know this is confusing when “mixed-race” is used as a compound modifier! We sat down and hammered out a definition, which we are still using today for Critical Mixed Race Studies:
Critical Mixed Race Studies is the transracial, transdisciplinary, and transnational critical analysis of the institutionalization of social, cultural, and political orders based on dominant conceptions of race. CMRS emphasizes the mutability of race and the porosity of racial boundaries in order to critique processes of racialization and social stratification based on race. CMRS addresses local and global systemic injustices rooted in systems of racialization.
But before we could found an association we figured we should start small by organizing a conference. We sent out a call for papers in 2009 and by the time the inaugural conference “Emerging Paradigms in Critical Mixed Race Studies” took shape in November 2010 we had over 200 paper submissions and 430 people attended. What was unique about this first conference is that it wasn’t a student conference, as most large-scale meetings on multiraciality had been up to this point. It was an academic conference but it also recognized the movements community roots and included arts and community programming and it drew national and international participation. For our subsequent 2012 conference “What is Critical Mixed Race Studies?”, which over 450 people attended, we sought to keep this core spirit but wished to professionalize the process to ensure peer review but to also create a sustainable process for the conference can keep going. Camilla Fojas worked with an external panel of reviewers to select the papers and I partnered with Mixed Roots Stories to organize arts programming. We are doing this again for the Nov 13-15, 2014 conference “Global Mixed Race.”
To read in detail about the history of multiracial studies in the U.S. and the founding of Critical Mixed Race Studies, please read the inaugural issue of the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies article “Emerging Paradigms in Critical Mixed Race Studies” by G. Reginald Daniel, Laura Kina, Wei Ming Dariotis, and Camilla Fojas.
5. If you had one word to use to describe your creative/artistic style, what would it be?
6. Lastly, do you have any advice to our budding artists?
Knowing your craft – not only the technical aspects but the history too. As a painter I need to know how to paint and hopefully be damn good at it but also really engage with the entire history of painting and all of it’s possibilities. Work with deadlines and parameters and clear goals but also sink yourself into research and get lost and take risks. I also have really personally benefited from a practice where I incorporate collaboration and accountability to specific communities. This means my artwork is drawn from and gives back to these communities but it also means that these groups sustain me and keep me on point.
Thanks to MRN Co-Chair Heather Lou for coordinating this blog post and of course to Laura Kina for sharing her time with us!