Art likes its categories: Abstraction, realism, impressionism. Painting, sculpture, or the all-encompassing “multimedia.” Artists get grouped into movements, and anyone born in the U.S. is considered an American artist, even if they live elsewhere.
A new exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) throws categories into chaos, while illuminating how cultural currents persist even as they mix and cross.
No Ocean Between Us: Art of Asian Diasporas in Latin America & the Caribbean, 1945–Present opens Friday and runs through May 9 in the spacious Cowden Gallery used to host touring exhibitions.
No Ocean Between Us originated at the Art Museum of the Americas (AMA) in Washington, D.C., where curator Adriana Ospina originally titled it Cultural Encounters. SAMA co-curators Lucía Abramovich Sánchez and Yinshi Lerman-Tan renamed the exhibition “to reflect the more poetic and artistic valences of the exhibition” as opposed to the previous title, which recalls international relations, they said in an email to the San Antonio Report.
The complexities of the name highlight the difficulty of categorizing and containing art made by artists of multiple ethnicities and countries of origin, as well as the many meanings of “Asian” and “Latin America,” both of which encompass a multitude of countries, languages, and cultural traditions.
The new title “gets at the idea that in an Asian-Latin American experience, the space between people and continents is somehow collapsed through the processes of migration and diaspora,” said Abramovich Sánchez and Lerman-Tan.
While the term “diaspora” is more common in academia, Lerman-Tan said in a videoconferenced media announcement, “in more colloquial terms, we’ve been thinking about how people’s life stories often involve travel and migration from one country to another,” and those intersected stories produce multicultural communities in many locations.
A world map with color-coded countries on the title wall makes explicit just how much territory the exhibition covers: 10 countries including Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Guyana, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and the U.S., with artists of Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian descent.
The life trajectory of just one of those artists illustrates the difficulty of categorizing his experience.
Kazuya Sakai is listed in standard art format as “Argentina b. 1927 – United States d. 2001,” referring to the places of his birth and death, but his full story includes his Japanese descent, early life in Argentina, time spent in Mexico, and his late career in Texas, where he taught in Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas before retiring in Richardson.
Sakai’s Texas ties merit placement on the title wall, with a 1976 abstraction that pays homage to jazz musician Miles Davis.
The exhibition poses questions on how migration shapes the work of an artist, Lerman-Tan said.
“There are many different answers to this question,” she said. “And even though all of the artists in the exhibition share something in common, in that they are Asian-Latin American or Asian-Caribbean, they’re not a monolith by any means. In fact, their work is incredibly diverse and utterly unique, and they respond to these questions of migration and diaspora very differently.”
Commonalities in the artwork include considerations of family history, ethnic identity, and cultural fusion.
Brazilian artist Tomie Ohtake was born in Japan, and his large oil on canvas painting Untitled, 1968 resembles traditional Japanese watercolor or ink wash on paper techniques as much as Modernist abstraction. Ohtake’s painting adorns the cover of the exhibition catalogue, produced by the AMA for the touring exhibition.
Peruvian artist Carlos Runcie Tanaka is represented by a room-filling installation including video and 36 large crabs made from folded paper in tradition origami style and hung from the ceiling.
With a woven-seaweed tapestry titled El Dorado After All, Denver-based artist Suchitra Mattai recalls the history of colonialization, the oceans crossed by conquistadors and migrants, and her own heritage as a South Asian Indian born in Guyana.
Mattai’s complex heritage alone dissolves categorization. As for No Ocean Between Us as a whole, the curators said, “by grouping together Asian-Latin American artists, the exhibition disrupts the notion of stable or singular categories.”
Such issues of identity are currently being questioned by Asian artists across the spectrum of mediums, including filmmakers and directors who are forced to reckon with Hollywood stereotypes. In a Feb. 11 New York Times article, journalist Brandon Yu calls the term Asian American “a political term coined in the late 1960s that encompasses a practically borderless stretch of peoples,” a statement that reflects the broad complexity of the No Ocean Between Us exhibition.
Curator Abramovich Sánchez said the show will broaden understanding of SAMA’s Latin American collection, which she manages.
“The multitudes contained by Latin American and Caribbean people is something that sometimes is lost in presentations of Latin American art. So it’s really thrilling, really exciting to be able to broaden our perspective,” she said.