Saturday, March 20, 2010

Memory Into Flesh: A Tribute to the Performance and Activism of Anida Yoeu Ali

Once upon a biased time, the intolerant world Anida Yoeu Ali lived in revolved around performance poetry. Or poetry performed by a young but powerful Asian American female voice. Of brash words, rightly so, that when spoken cajole, accuse, incite or inspire, revere, love, to say the least or rather the most really about a plethora of social and political woes. And there she was, a portrait of a Cambodian Muslim refugee as a spoken word artist if you will fighting a verbal war against the racist neoconservative times when paradoxically rap rhythms abounded and hip-hop attitudes held sway. Even her audience back then knew Anida under a collective identity, another surname.

Fast forward to now. And the many untold stories told by words that move and shape a body of work, literally her body from another time, displaced by not one, but often many tongues spoken in defense of an undying faith in community poetically remain.

Anida Yoeu Ali as performance artist and activist remembers. Carrying an onerous weight from which she cries out, her oppressed voice still flings words in outrage. To affect change, to right wrongs, to make the world itself an equitable and magnanimous place to live for all is what she believes as Khmer Rouge survivor who becomes a Woman Warrior.

This, of course, is her natural calling. To use so many words, that is. But deep down, she knew or rather came to realize how text whether spoken or written becomes fragile. It is after all internalized, a hermetic record that resides on paper as line, something two-dimensional or within time as sound faded.

So why does she then sacrifice these words? True to her artistic instincts, Anida sought another direction from or through action to reinvent another language of her physical self that gave body to text as static and moving image beyond calligraphic or ideographic form. She understood the contextual nature of how wielding words on stage related to time-based movement in terms of performance and sculpture as methodology.

Now Anida Yoeu Ali continues to speak not only in volume, but mass and space as well as time. For her, the three-dimensionality of her body gives her text another structure, a living surface that follows many varied and generalized functions, all of which reference specific issues concerning gender, sexuality and identity that also broadly reflect the politics of representation. Which then also allows her the conceptual framework to incorporate a larger history that connects who she is to specific memories associated with self and place healing her mind, body and soul. In a way her work transcends into a deeper body politic investigating surface (flesh), space (figure) and time (memory) as exterior and interior material in addition to performative object in response to the past, present and future that shapes her political and spiritual being.

In other words, Anida Yoeu Ali is willing to change the world beginning with herself. Such courage is always to be admired, applauded and cherished. Because to remember is not to forget.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Laura Kina: A Many-Splendored Thing

Glance quickly at a Laura Kina painting and what comes to mind at first is Hello Kitty goes to Bollywood in Pearl Harbor by a Coca Cola sign. Or surely Pop gone haywire as the resultant byproduct the artist creates deftly fuses these loaded icons into a NeoPop Orientalism or less ironical Post Japonisme of East morphing West and vice versa not just Americanized but transnationalized.

Yet to label her oeuvre strictly as such is an injustice because what you also see ostensibly hybridizes the anecdotal and historical, family and society, private and public conflated through collage of art imitating, or drawing from, life, particularly her life as a mixed Asian "hapa haole" alternately fascinated, bemused and obsessed with being in-between.

Which is why upon a closer look describing her artistic process akin to “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” is so apt. Picture, if you recall, Jennifer Jones as a forlorn Eurasian doctor atop a hill overlooking Kowloon Bay in Hong Kong pining for her lover, a married journalist returned to America played by William Holden and come to understand why Kina’s version of her floating world so much resembles the movie itself. Indeed, both “colorfully” depict mixed race representations beyond accepted cultural norms except that Hollywood in this maudlin adaptation based on true events really does exoticize the subject matter as taboo whereas Kina selectively reinvents the nonfictional into the fictive Asian American mainstream. Not commercially slick as something pejorative but professionally crafted by her ability to wield a brush with facility, precision and grace to be part artifice, partly romantic. So not only is it dramatization but autobiography beyond pop culture in collision with Pop Art.

And that is her genius: Kina circumvents the so-called “multicultural” melodrama instead preferring a more straightforward approach celebrating the sameness of difference that in doing so resists the role of victim inherent to the book, movie or song with a good-natured smile, bright colors and an even sunnier disposition as it were. But this is not to say that her overall work is apolitical. Nothing could be further from the truth as she constantly confronts the status quo not in search of but to challenge identity as a given. In fact, her practice seems centered on the question about how such multiplicities that constitutes the Asian American Diaspora become seamlessly perceived if not understood as in her series of life-sized portraits dealing with the famous Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case.

By this then, “many” to Kina is not so much an adjective as it functions as a conceptual directive. Bringing many things together, occupying many places at once belies the generalization of how she combines and recontextualizes the multitude of bits and pieces into layered, oftentimes multiple paneled compositions full of the recognizably everyday versus the intimately arcane. A swatch of fabric belonging to her maternal grandmother, floral patterns from kimonos, a snippet from a favorite Brady Bunch episode, an old black and white family photograph, these very personal images never appear detached as if truncated or worse amputated but rather beautiful because Laura loves to share a glimpse of her past. So true to form, she bends time, dovetails related events and mixes mass media which, of course, compels the viewer to acknowledge and advocate "ikigai" or the Japanese belief of "a sense of life worth living."

The work on display covering almost the last fifteen years reflects this attitude of a world we are very much curious about and a vital part of. Just be happy to see the way Laura Kina lightens the gravity by which everyone walks through it nimbly and sprightly.