Diasporic Distillations: "We are here because you were there" at A2AC explores works by Asian American / Asian artists


Laura Kina, She Walks Amongst the Ruins — RIP Red Chador. Acrylic on canvas, 24" x 18". Photo courtesy Ann Arbor Art Center.

Laura Kina, She Walks Amongst the Ruins — RIP Red Chador. Acrylic on canvas, 24" x 18". Photo courtesy Ann Arbor Art Center.

The new exhibit at Ann Arbor Art Center (A2AC), We are here because you were there, highlights issues facing the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) diaspora living in a post-colonial world.

Curated by Chien-An Yuan, a multi-disciplinary artist in his own right, the exhibit features the work of Asian American / Asian artists Kim Jackson DeBordLaura KinaLarry LeeCori Nakamura LinOkyoung Noh, and Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe. It is formally presented by the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission. 

“I reached out to Chien about co-curating a show revolving around the concept of displacement/DREAMERS/living between various cultures,” said A2AC gallery director Thea Eck about the exhibit, which runs through October 22. “As a gallery director, I saw a chance for myself to lean out and for him to lean in. It felt more natural for me to support his ideas as they became more focused and honed in. This is part of allyship and part of the A2AC Exhibition program's vision: To recognize when it's best to play support to someone who is in a specific community. We can be the loudspeaker to amplify and give space, time, and a budget to.”

Kim Jackson Debord, Cowboy Dreams Aren’t for Me. Hand-stitched cotton quilt, 52" x 70".

Kim Jackson DeBord, Cowboy Dreams Aren’t for Me. Hand-stitched cotton quilt, 52" x 70". Photo courtesy Ann Arbor Art Center.

The concept of living between two cultures is present in every piece, but each artist interprets it in their own way and mediums. Kim Jackson DeBord’s Cowboy Dreams Aren’t for Me, for instance, is a colorful hand-stitched quilt that places the famous Korean painted screen Irworobongdo against a Western American landscape, representing her impossible dream of cowboys being Asian. And Okyoung Noh's multimedia piece My American-Ish Flag ​​questions what it means to be an American citizen: "The video shows a Korean woman holding the fake star-spangled banner—an effortful drawing of Stars and Stripes on the boldly printed Korean flag—and interacting with the neighboring circumstance where the 'real American flag' is raised."

Okyoung Noh, My American-Ish Flag detail

Okyoung Noh, My American-Ish Flag (detail). Single-channel video, lightbox, and drawing on a flag. Photo courtesy of Okyoung Noh.

Yuan explained how the artists came to be a part of We are here because you were there

Laura Kina and Larry Lee are both Chicago artists I have long admired and collaborated with; they’re both North Stars for me in how they infuse their creative practice with a very personal and specific point of view. Okyoung Noh and Kim DeBord are both fantastic artists based in Ann Arbor whose work I was made aware of in recent years, and they’re just the best. Both of them create works that are grounded in a personal search yet offer so much for a spectator to interpret and digest. Cori Nakamura Lin’s work was recommended to me via a conversation with Laura after I described the curatorial theme to her. I knew instantly that her work had to be included.

Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe, a former Kresge Theater fellow from Detroit, is a writer and artist with visual arts pieces in We are here because you were there.

“Her suits of armor and mirror couldn’t be more perfectly suited for this exhibit," Yuan said. "I find them especially moving in how deeply they’re rooted in her healing practice. Learning the origins of each mirror’s components and how they were part of her grieving process after losing her mother—I just find it all incredibly moving and encourage any attendee to follow Sherina’s instructions and go along with her on a reflective journey."

Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe, armor

Sherina Rodriguez Sharpe, armor and mirrors. Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Art Center.

We are here because you were there highlights voices and cultures that are generally muted in the arts, which is a driving concern of A2AC.

“Striving to present historically underrepresented artists and themes is part of the A2AC Exhibitions mission: To present dynamic work from the ever-changing narratives of the world around us,” Eck said. “For me, our shows need to bridge our Arts Education program, which serves to teach people at any stage of their arts journey, whether that is a beginner or a professional artist seeking to expand their practice, and at any age. We need to do this in the gallery, too: To present shows that inform, that teach, and that open up windows into tough conversations and subject matter.”

Larry Lee, 7 Star Praying Mantis Northern Shaolin Martian Manhunter. Polystyrene, wood table base, cardboard and metal container drums, enamel  87" x 36". Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Art Center.

Larry Lee, 7 Star Praying Mantis Northern Shaolin Martian Manhunter. Polystyrene, wood table base, cardboard and metal container drums, enamel  87" x 36". Photo courtesy of Ann Arbor Art Center.

While the exhibition focuses on Asian American / Asian artists, Yuan stresses their stories mirror those of many other people.

“I think the key really lies in embracing and showcasing not only the works of the AAPI community but the intersectionality that connects all communities," Yuan said. "While We are here because you were there clearly addresses a history of colonialism at its most 'the solution is worse than the problem,' it really is the specificity of each artist’s lens that makes the exhibit that much more universal for anyone who experiences it, once again reinforcing exactly why representation matters.” 

“As the new gallery/exhibitions director," Eck said, "I'm mindful about how we build diversity into each show. To show how complex and nuanced at times the human experience is. And this includes diversity in the age of our artists, too, so that talented young emerging artists are showing next to mid-career and older professional artists. And not reserving BIPOC-themed shows for their respective one-month celebration—i.e., African-American History Month in February or Asian-American History Month in May. These are super-important marks in our national calendar where we recognize our country's complex history. At the same time, as an arts institution, it is imperative that we move beyond that singular conversation.”

Together Yuan and Eck created a stunning and impactful exhibit. It is impossible to see the art, read about the history and meaning behind each piece, and walk away unaffected. It is a beautiful cultural journey that each visitor will experience differently. 

“I again can’t thank Thea and A2AC enough for the opportunity to curate this exhibit," Yuan said. "I really do believe in the restorative power of each artist’s work to connect with an audience, and somehow help them navigate this world with just a bit more grace, reflection, and understanding."

Marley Boone is a theater professional who has been in the industry since 2015. While living in Philadelphia, she wrote theater reviews for DC Metro Arts.

“We are here because you were there“ is on display in the A2AC Gallery through October 22. The Ann Arbor Art Center is located at 117 W. Liberty Street in Ann Arbor. There are numerous happenings and educational opportunities associated with the exhibit, including a culinary event, author readings, and more. Visit annarborartcenter.org for more information.