Stranger in a Strange Land: Saginaw Art Museum Presents ‘Crossing Cultures: Belle Yang, A Story of Immigration’

Exhibition to Run Through June 4th

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature,   From Issue 824   By: Robert E Martin

17th March, 2016     0

With their latest exhibition Crossing Cultures: Belle Yang – A Story of Immigration – the Saginaw Art Museum presents an in-depth look at migration and personal identity as rendered through 25 vibrant paintings and 8 poignant illustrations by author, graphic novelist, and illustrator Belle Yang, who translates her experiences as a Chinese-American immigrant into vivid, bold and powerful visual artistry.

Curated by Vikki Cruz and organized by the Bakersfield Museum of Art in collaboration with the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington DC, Crossing Cultures is now on view in the Saginaw Art Museum Sargent Special Exhibition Wing from through June 4th.

Essentially, Crossing Cultures sheds lights on the immigrant experience and what it means to be an American. With charming yet nuanced depictions, Yang narrates the story of her family’s journey from China to America with insight, wit and humor. Seminal Chinese-American author, Amy Tan, once remarked that Yang “writes in English and thinks in Chinese,” endowing her works with a unique combination of accessibility and intimacy.

Born in Taiwan, Yang spent part of her childhood in Japan before immigrating with her family to the US at the age of seven. In an effort to reconnect with her parents’ mainland Chinese roots, and escape an abusive romantic relationship, Yang studied at the Beijing Academy of Traditional Chinese Painting, where she developed an appreciation and respect for traditional ink paintings and folk art. Her acquired fluency in Mandarin allowed her to unlock a colorful wealth of stories springing from her father and his ancestors.

After witnessing the horrors of the Tiananmen Massacre, Yang returned to the US determined to not waste her freedom of expression, and to serve as a voice of justice for immigrants. Exhibitions of her works have been presented at museums and cultural centers such as the National Steinbeck Center, Monterey Museum of Art, Pacific Asia Museum, and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

In Crossing Cultures, Yang—whose Chinese name, Xuan, means “Forget Sorrow”—shares her inspirational journey through enchanting depictions of family stories and childhood memories; and recently I had the honor to discuss both her origins, the gestation of her work, and her perceptions about immigration in greater detail, which lends to a deeper appreciation of her artistry.

Given that most traditional Chinese & Eastern artwork is often very delicate and rendered on rice paper with watercolors, Yang’s style mixes and blends the traditional with the contemporary. How does she as an artist categorize the work she is striving to achieve visually; and how long did it take her to develop the evolved styles that she explores within her work?

“I studied graphic design in Los Angeles in the early 80’s before I embarked on a three-year sojourn to China,” she recalls.  “I went to Beijing specifically to study traditional Chinese painting, which can be delicate, but the xie-yi style, which I love, is expressionistic and robust with the artist’s breath.  Traveling in China, I also came to admire folk art: paper cut works, Chinese minority embroidery, peasant paintings.  I absorbed the visuals of two millennia as I traveled to Dunhuang in the middle of the Gobi to see the grotto paintings left by Buddhists of early dynasties.  As to how long it took me to develop the style I have, it was all within a decade, from my early 20’s to 30.  But frankly, I don’t have an answer for you as how I categorize my work.”

Given that the thematic topic of this exhibition revolves around immigration, what were Yang’s memories from the time that she first came to America; and what was the most challenging components involved with getting acclimated to the American environment?

“We came to America on my father’s student visa during a period of great American social change,” she reflects.  “We landed in San Francisco in 1967 during the era of the Vietnam war, the racial riots, the assassination of a president and a civil rights leader.  For me, the turmoil was in the background.  English was my third language and Japanese had been my second, so I was used to moving from one cultural milieu to another without much fuss.”

“I do recall that my new environment and family situation felt very off kilter.  Think of San Francisco with it’s seven hills.  The streets were steep and hardly any flat spot of ground for a child to play.  My super ball bounced out our apartment window and was never to be found again.  My father set off to work before it was dark, wearing his hand-me-down coat and shoes.  I attended elementary school armed with one English word: lavatory.  But now English is the language I feel most at home speaking, thinking and dreaming in.”

So how have her perceptions on the topic of immigration evolved over the past 30 years; and how has she reflected those perceptions through your work?

“I’ve always felt myself an outsider looking in.  That’s the emotional state of an immigrant in a new country.  The immigrant may not become an insider for decades, perhaps never.  Even after fifty years in the United States, I consider myself an eccentric—not placed in the center.  It’s a valuable place to be for a writer and a painter.  I have loved Emily Dickinson’s poems that address this very topic.  She writes metaphorically of an outsider observing people having supper at the table.  It is one of the saddest images of the human state.  Not having access to food, warmth, the comfort of the interior.”

“Immigration is also connected to identity, and in my current graphic memoir I approach the topic of a divided self.  The immigrant may not fit in in the new country, but neither will she belong to the old country.  She straddles two shores and that’s a precarious and exciting way to live.  I believe people should travel not as tourists, but move away from their native place for at least three years where they can learn unfamiliar customs and language.  Then they will learn to treat the stranger with more humanity.”

“As for the partisan dueling over immigration policies, I imagine the Homo sapiens in their cave, grunting their dissent or assent over allowing the Neanderthals into their green valley.”

Currently Belle says she is working on two new projects at he same time: a children’s picture book, which she is both writing & illustrating; and an adult nonfiction project akin to a graphic memoir, in comic book format, about her three years in China. “I had sought refuge in China, because I had a violent ex-beau stalking me, but after three years, I ran smack into the Tiananmen Massacre and saw the personal violence I had experienced magnified to the far broader societal level.  It’s the first time I’ve excavated the strata of my own life.  It’s very freeing.”

“I am frequently asked whether I am a painter or a writer,” she concludes.  “People always need categorization; but for me categorization is death.  The Chinese written language began as pictographs and ideographs.  Calligraphy in China is considered the mother of all visual arts.  Beautiful brush lines gave birth to sinuous sculptural forms.  Lines of poetry belong within the painted space, because they are of the same nature.  The graphic novel format is perfect for me, because picture and words play off of one another in an absolutely integral way.”

For Saginaw Art Museum curator Alyssa DePlonty, the nature of Yang’s work is appealing because of the fusion of its contemporary style within the parameters of Chinese Folk Art. “Traditional Chinese painting is very rigid and has exact lines and scripts, whereas Folk Art is happier and lighter – almost like childlike animation.  Her father is a renowned calligrapher and painter and these influences abound within her work. Her father also has pieces in this current show and one can see the more traditional nature of his calling. He uses more watercolor, but Belle used a lot of gouache – or thicker paint – sometimes on paper, more often on canvas; but combines both of these styles within her illustrated books.”

“What I find interesting with this exhibition concerning immigrations is how she started processing family stories and her ancestry and then went into children’s literature, writing a book called ‘Hannah is My Name’ about an immigrant girl that that comes to America and has to learn everything anew once again. Belle was only seven when she immigrated, but her later work has more an adult graphic memoir approach, which mingles comic styles and child’s animation as well as representations of things she saw in China when living there.”

“Regarding the topic of immigration, when writing for the arena of children, it’s a very simplified vision: this little girl is new, yet has to change her name. She can’t be called her traditional name anymore, so her work tends to deal with these slight changes – yes, there’s a language gap, but there are different things that are foreign and new, such as different types of food she hasn’t seen before.”

“A lot of this exhibition deals with her history and going back to this land she is from but doesn’t associate with anymore,” concludes DePlonty, “so you see her as a younger child trying to understand the world and then growing older and trying to re-assimilate; but there are also some interactive pieces as well.

“We have 33 pieces in this show and also have a DVD documentary on her work entitled My Name is Belle that will be shown on March 23rd at 6 PM. This will be followed by an educational lecture on Chinese culture by visiting scholar and current Saginaw Valley State University guest faculty Wei-li Wu who is from Ming Chuan University.”


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