Hidden in Plain Sight: Selected Writings of Karin Higa
(Dancing Foxes Press, 2023)
What roles did Asian Americans play in the development of modern art in the United States in the twentieth century, and how did our notion of, and prejudice against, Asian American art materialize? Pioneering curator and art historian, Karin Higa (1966–2013) provides an excellent introduction to this still under-studied chapter in art history through her writings, as well as a poignant reflection on the confounding question of the relationship between identity and art.
While discussing the practice of Godzilla, the 1990s New York-based collective of which Higa was an early member, she outlines the conundrum faced by artists of Asian ancestry. While the intention in creating Godzilla, an alliance of Asian American artists and intellectuals, was to generate “[a]ccess to dialogue, venues for display, and engaged critical response,” unfortunately, identity-based art quickly “took on a codified language and mode of exposition that Asian American artists were increasingly expected to manifest.” For example, when discussing Isamu Noguchi, she writes, “the reference to his dual heritage was evoked even when it appeared to have little to do with the form or content of the work in question.” First published in 2010, this could have been written today, as artists with Asian heritage still experience the expectation to perform preconceptions about their ethnicity and to offer “easily identifiable and consumable entity.” Even though she knew, and advocated, that artistic practice is inseparable from the lived experience of the artist, Higa recognized the danger of reducing art to the identity of its maker, because such a simplification denies multifariousness to artists, and under extreme circumstance structurally reproduces stereotyping that could subject a whole ethnic group to devastating injustice.
It is clear that Higa was acutely aware of this pitfall because the central issue of the book, the historical event that evidently most concerned her throughout her professional life, was the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, imprisoning more than 120,000 people. Herself a daughter of a former inmate, Higa explored the impact of this calamitous event on works by Japanese American artists, both as an academic and as curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The book starts with an essay on the works by imprisoned artists produced during their internment, as well as the art classes they organized for fellow inmates, especially for children. These included prominent artists such as Chiura Obata, who was a successful painter and an influential teacher at University of California, Berkeley, prior to imprisonment. Most of the subsequent essays discuss the camps in one way or another, as well as their effect on both the artists who experienced internment and younger artists. “By collapsing the past and the present within the pictorial frame, Shimomura’s work underscores the process of reflection and, by extension, argues that this period in American history remains relevant today,” Higa writes on Roger Shimomura, who spent a few years in Minidoka camp in Idaho as a toddler and often uses motifs from the camp, such as barbed wire and barracks, in his pop art-inflected paintings.
Yet, the tone of Higa’s writing is neither elegiac nor bitter, but is suffused with the palpable excitement she felt for the artists, for many of whom she organized their first significant public presentations. She was equally guided by acute aesthetic sensibility and the sense of historical responsibility. For instance, when she describes the discovery of hitherto unknown cache of works by Henry Sugimoto: “Sugimoto came to paint a distinctly American experience, one that embodied a heady belief in the power of art to exist outside of individual experience and to serve as a vehicle for critique, commentary, and the documentation of stories that would otherwise remain untold.” She introduced the general public to the practices of first and second-generation Japanese American artists such as Sugimoto, Hisako Hibi, Benji Okubo, and Hideo Date, who were all practicing artists at the time of their internment, as well as Ruth Asawa, who was introduced to advanced art as a teenager in the camp.
Indeed, some of the most exciting moments in this book discuss Japanese American modernist artists emerging from Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, those whose “trajectories as artists were cut short, sidetracked, or derailed” by the incarceration, and overlooked by the postwar art history, such as Date, whose first major post-war show Higa organized in 2001 when the artist was ninety-four. His paintings, which fuse symbolist sensibility, the modernist abstraction and color theory of his teacher Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and figuration informed by Japanese art, exemplify why reexamination of the artists Higa championed is well-timed. These artists subscribed to the modernist impulse to question art forms while introducing Japanese visual language, creating a hybrid aesthetic that is hard to categorize. They used their Japanese heritage as one of the tools available to them along with many other forms of artistic output, instead of using their identity as a legitimization. This mode of art making is highly relevant today, when the focus on identity sometimes overshadows aesthetic considerations.