War Baby Love Child - Mixed Race American Art
updated 5:38 PM, Thursday 25th of April 2013
Art’s essential relationship and response to social life are often understated, so notes Kent A. Ono in his forward to professors Laura Kina and Wei Ming Dariotis’ adventurous new book, “War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art.” Kina and Dariotis hope to change that and begin with the seemingly obvious supposition that art-making fundamentally connects to artists’ life experiences and confrontations with shifting knowledge and power relations. But Kina and Dariotis don't just pay lip service to this dictum; they’re keen to structuring their book around the centrality of lived experience. As such, these two editors use analytic tools from critical mixed race studies to more fully present contemporary experiences of mixed Asian artists.
The last 25 years have seen mixed race Asians taking greater ownership in constructing their own visual imagery - one that engages and interrogates imposed, infantilized images of the “Hapa,” a contested name meaning mixed race Asian American. Examples include artist-author Kip Fulbecks’s 1991 film “Banana Split;” 2006 book and online site Hapa project, filmmaker Valerie Soe’s 1992 video installation “Mixed Blood;” and Reggie Life’s 1995 documentary “Doubles: Japan and America’s Intercultural Children.” “War Baby/Love Child” advances our understanding of mixed race Asian American art through the words and works of the artists themselves.
The book combines artist interviews, artwork and secondary critical essays by Asian American studies scholars. This method of personal narrative paired with critical context works well in animating and lending nuance to an under-appreciated topic. “War Baby/Love Child” raises diligent, complex questions about inadequate models for multiracial identity and critiques a persistent yet waning post-race rhetoric that fundamentally dismisses contemporary economic disparity and racial segregation.
Undeniably, the figure of Asians in popular American imagination is freighted with historically racist stereotypes consigned to “yellow peril” and model minority media images. Media portrayals of mixed race Asians on stage and screen have, however, attempted to mediate these stereotypes, particularly through depictions of Eurasians. This mediation culminated in a sense of ambivalence toward Eurasians as tragic figures, rhetorically circulating in terms such as “war baby” and “love child.” Yet, absent are depictions and voices of other mixed race Asians such as “blasians” (mixed black Asians), Mestizaje (mixed Latino Asians) and other mixed heritage Asians. “War Baby/Love Child” opens up an important space for these voices.
Unsurprisingly, no single agreement on the meaning of these terms arises. Wide variations attest not only to the terms’ ambiguity, but also to variation in interview construction and gathering. Kina and Dariotis conducted interviews by email and telephone, which result in a noticeable unevenness in length and focus. Purposefully so, I think. The interviewers give wide latitude to the artists to frame the conversation and take ownership of its direction.
Kina and Dariotis’ interests lay in getting at the nexus between the background experiences of these mixed-race Asian artists and their work as artists and activists. Here, the term activism assumes wider meanings. For the simple act of constructing visual images of mixed Asian American experience in America, by definition, takes on political, as well as personal, dimensions. For many of these artists, colonialism and war loom large in conferring weight to the term “war baby,” as is the case for many Vietnamese Amerasians and Filipina(o) Americans. For others, issues of immigration and racial hierarchies confront more viscerally those marked within majority discourses as “love children” – mixed Asian Native Americans, black Asians, Latino Asians and Eurasians.
Interestingly, the last chapter of the book references same-sex marriage as an important theme for LGBT mixed-race Asian artists as activists. Kina and Dariotis recognize the intersectionality and fluidity of race, gender, sexual orientation and class, and journey into how these constructions operate in the lives of the book’s subjects, which is a bold and courageous gesture.
One aspect of the book proved disappointing: the unevenness of interview length. For example, in the email interview with Jenifer Wofford, who describes her work as incorporating a “mish-mash of visual poetics of travel, temporality, literature and slapstick,” the editors devote only two small paragraphs to her seminal ink and acrylic painting “MacArthur Nurses I” (2009). The interview, excluding a large photo of Douglas MacArthur landing at Leyte and introductory material, takes up a miniscule two pages. In contrast, interviews with Kip Fulbeck and Richard A. Lou extended over three and four pages, respectively.
Readers will, however, very much appreciate the generous and sumptuous photographic quality of the plates. Color, shadow and texture play important roles in many of the works, and the photographs did a decent job of handling the originals. Photographs of sections of Richard A. Lou’s gallery installation titled “Stories on My Back” (2008) exemplified the use of soft lantern light behind a series of digital prints that was captured by the camera.
Brief references after each interview, a larger book bibliography and an extensive notes section round out other appealing attributes of this text. Many reference online sources, and the index is well referenced and easy to use.
This book serves as both an introduction to those wading the waters of mixed-race Asian art and is a ready sourcebook for scholars. The first-person perspectives collected here are unique in content, pulling together a wide range of mixed-race/heritage identities, themes and histories among Asian American artists. By exploding “war baby” and “love child” stereotypes, Kina and Dariotis’ book gestures toward what has been previously characterized in critical mixed race studies as a “third space,” an interstitial site where the performance of mixed-race identity in life and art extends possibilities for recognition and validation. Accessible to general audiences, “War Baby/Love Child” is a merit-worthy contribution to art history and cultural studies scholarship.
War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art. Ed. Laura Kina and Wei Ming Dariotis. Seattle: University of Washington P., 2013.
Renoir Gaither is a library assistant at the University of Minnesota. Previously, he worked at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor as a public services librarian.