An artist’s make-up mirror display symbolizes Asians looking over their shoulder on the subway

Artist Kelly Wang was 6 years old when two of her classmates told her that they “wanted to kill all Chinese people”.

Today, Wang, 29, wears mirror makeup when she’s in New York City, where she lives and works — not to touch up her appearance, but to subtly check behind her shoulder on a subway platform at night.

As anti-Asian violence increased in 2020, the artist began building a collection of message-carrying compacts to tell his story. The resulting installation, titled “Thank you for reminding me of my rich cultural past,” is on display at the Princeton University Art Museum through February 27.

The piece is part of one of four galleries featured in the exhibition, which features works ranging from burnt calligraphy pieces to a Chinese garden rock carved from rolled up pieces of newspaper, which was created in honor from his late father, who received daily deliveries before dying of Covid-19 in 2020.

“Thank You for Reminding Me of My Rich Cultural Past” aims to relay a shared Asian-American experience that, for Wang, seems to amplify “Asian” and forget “American.”

“But where are you originally from?”

“We want to kill all the Chinese.”

“Please take the next elevator.”

In creating the piece, she burned comments like these, which Wang said she received, into traditional Chinese xuan paper. She displays them on compact mirrors, allowing parts of the mirror to see through.

Through her work, artist Kelly Wang tells stories of anti-Asian racism and her journey to self-acceptance.Jeff Evans

She said that in addition to symbolizing looking over your shoulder, mirrors take on another meaning.

“The feel of those words and the impact they have on your experience is almost like being burned. It transforms the view you have of yourself,” Wang said. “But you can also transform your response to that image, so it’s not like the text has to completely obscure how you see yourself.”

Curator Cary Liu said in an email that the museum initially aimed to explore Wang’s artistic connection to his heritage.

“Working closely with Kelly, however, revealed underlying tensions in being caught between cultural traditions or coping with the loss of a parent,” Liu said. “The trajectory of the work is compelling, and our job was to step aside and let Kelly and her art speak for itself.”

Wang said she used compacts ranging from contemporary designer brands to vintage designs as she imagined the variety of women who could all peek over their shoulder when standing alone in the city.

Personal safety weighed heavily on the minds of Asian Americans when Wang began working on the facility two years ago during the height of the first wave of the pandemic, and it remains an equally important concern. for her now. On the opening day of Wang’s art exhibit in Princeton last month, an assailant shoved Michelle Go, 40, to her death in front of a New York City subway train.

As the arrival of Covid-19 spurred a wave of xenophobia and racism against Asian and visiting Americans in Asia, Wang said some residents in her apartment building began refusing to let her even ride the elevator. when they were the only person inside, which meant he hadn’t yet fulfilled his recommended social distancing capacity.

Kelly Wang’s exhibition consists of four galleries showcasing a range of works combining traditional art styles with contemporary techniques.Emile Askey / Princeton University Art Museum

Some commentary on the pacts stems from a much longer history of perpetual alienation. Wang, who was born and raised in New York, often answered questions about her background.

“And if I say, ‘Well, I’m from New York’, they’re like, ‘No, but where are you originally from? ‘” she said. “Like, OK, so you want to know, what’s my background? What’s my ethnicity?”

But the hateful words on some mirrors are accompanied by other mirrors displaying images of paintings and calligraphy on bamboo, representing the Chinese culture that Wang says she only embraced when she began to appropriate her ethnicity.

“Before I had these experiences, I wasn’t really forced to care or even acknowledge my own different backgrounds, the fact that I have this background,” she said. “So while these comments were very painful at first, they eventually led me to do a lot of deeper self-exploration. I never wanted to hide from who I really am.

For Wang, expression through art is a way for Asian Americans to express themselves. Few works of art center on anti-Asian racism, she said, and many community members are still silent about their trauma and history.

While her exhibit helps tell their story, she said it also raises questions about the identity they share.

“I think a lot about the term ‘Asian American’ and if it’s even something people call themselves until they face the answers to their existence from the outside world,” Wang said. “Because I’ve always thought of myself as an American and there’s no such thing as an American race.”

About Margaret L. Portillo

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