After a long void in scholarship, literature on US/Central American art began to emerge in the decade of the 2010s. As this new body of literature emerges it is important to consider the politics of visuality and visibility as it informs production and reception of contemporary art by US Central Americans. During the years of US intervention that fueled Central American conflicts (1970s–1990s), the United States produced a visual discourse on Central Americans for US audiences, especially evident in photography, political posters, and Hollywood films. This visual discourse relied on a what I call a “solidarity aesthetics” for Central America, in which images and representations of Central Americans were made, selected, disseminated, and framed to produce empathy and encourage action with the region across the globe. Yet, this solidarity aesthetics entailed optical codes—imagery on poverty, violence, and tropical landscapes—that subsequently established a reductive visual trope about Central America still used today. This visual discourse not only objectifies a Central American subject, but further enables the erasure of US/Central American creative practices as it implies the region produces violence and not art. In the context of such visual discourse, art by Alma Leiva, Muriel Hasbun, Beatriz Cortez, Jessica Lagunas, and Óscar Moisés Díaz exemplifies a disruption of dominant visual discourse by US Central Americans artists. They create art and images that counter historical erasure and the visual tropes that propagate violence while offering alternative visual narratives that reflect on the legacies of war, US intervention, and the consequential displacement and mass migration of thousands of Central Americans.
Mixed-race Asian Americans have long been a part of the visual culture of Asian Americans, yet, like the wider culture, in Asian American studies the figure of the mixed-race Asian American is rarely recognized or acknowledged. This absence is notable given the field’s sustained interest in representations of Asian interracial romantic relationships in both print and visual media. The simplest explanation would be that mixed-race Asian Americans are difficult to recognize visually as Asian. This explanation locates the source of under-representation in the bodies of mixed-race Asian Americans and their failure to signal race correctly. Within that causal logic, some bodies push viewers to categorize those bodies incorrectly as monoracial or as confoundingly ambiguous. Since race is a social fiction, however, it does not simply exist in specific bodies waiting to be read. Instead, the ambiguity of mixed-race Asian representations resides in the exchange between the viewer and the viewed. The study of visual representations of mixed-race Asians intervenes in this racial narrative. While the visual apprehension of race may appear to bypass culture, the study of representations of mixed-race Asians makes apparent the ways in which the visual is constantly mediated by cultural codes. Race appears to exist on the surface of the body for the viewer to scan. On the contrary, the features that signal racial difference are socially determined, and people are trained to prioritize those features as they enter into culture. Representations of mixed-race Asians often fall outside common racial coding, slowing the process of assigning racial meaning to fetishized features. These bumps in the road open up a space for scholars to denaturalize visual racialization and to begin to unravel the cultural codes that inform readings of racial categories. Rather than looking for a solution to the problem of mixed-race Asian representations, scholars writing on mixed-race Asian Americans focus on visual representations to trouble racial categories and to question what it means to look—or not look—Asian. By tracking the shifting racialized reading of images of mixed-race figures such as Hollywood star Merle Oberon across time and genre, it becomes apparent how cultural context rather than mixed-race bodies shapes the visual apprehension of racial difference.
South Asian American visual culture is a diverse field of visual art, created by artists who are first-, second- and third-generation immigrants from Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, among other diasporic locations (e.g., Kenya). South Asian American artists work in a range of media forms, including photography, sculpture, installation, video, painting, and drawing. Collectively, these artworks are frequently exhibited in museums and galleries as depictions of contemporary South Asian immigrant life. However, a close reading of individual works produces a more dynamic picture. Instead of viewing South Asian American visual culture solely in terms of artists’ own immigrant biographies, scholarship and museum practices have begun to focus on how its aesthetic and political contributions have been central to the representation of racialized, gendered, and sexualized immigrant bodies in the United States since the turn of the millennium. Drawing across archival collections, aesthetic histories, and digital media forms, artists create works that link the colonial documentation of “native” bodies on the subcontinent with the surveillance and documentation of immigrant bodies by the US state. Alongside artists, academics and activists also work to produce curatorial interventions through exhibitions that generate feminist and queer critiques of the relation between nation-state and diaspora. Emphasizing the transnational ties of capital and labor that bind together the subcontinent with the United States, South Asian American visual culture creates new frameworks for the relationship between race, visuality, and representation.
The Black Arts movement heralded an important turn in the history of African American literature. Between 1965 and 1975, a loose confederation of African American poets, playwrights, artists, and intellectuals set out to remake the world in their own image. Fed up with what they considered to be the oppressive logic of Euro-American cultural standards, these practitioners theorized and executed a program of black aesthetic self-determination. Contemporary critics followed suit, emphasizing Black Arts’ conjoined investments in nationalist politics and radical poetics—the discursive level at which the movement reshaped African American letters. That remained the dominant way of understanding the movement until the early 21st century, when scholars began examining Black Arts’ publishing networks and institutions, or the material conditions for creative expression. Since then, scholars have shown how the movement’s effort to redefine the black voice was achieved through a concomitant effort to redesign the black text. Their research has pointed to the need for historicizing the politics of design in this moment of literary transformation. For Black Arts publishers, the work of photographers, illustrators, and graphic designers was important not only for bringing specific literary texts to life but for inviting everyday readers into a robust, race-affirming literary culture.
Vivian L. Huang
Asian American queer performance indexes racialized, gendered, and sexualized forms and modes of performance created by, for, and about Asians in an American context. Since the 1980s, queer and ethnic studies have conceptualized performance not only as object of study (e.g., staged performance, visual art, film) but also as a method of critique and hermeneutic for troubling knowledges of Asian American encounter and subject formation. Performance in this sense can be understood as Asian American and queer in its engagement with and critical rescripting of histories and ideologies of empire, nationalism, war, globalization, migration, missionizing, white supremacy, and cis-normative heteropatriarchy that constitutes themes of Asian American studies. The interdisciplinary field of performance studies offers quotidian performance, racial performativity, and gender performativity as discursive tools with which to consider social conventions and scripts that render Asian American queer formation legible and dynamic toward future rewritings.