An Artist's Statement

full length portrait of a young Asian man in jeans and a black shirt
Dana Tai Soon Burgess by CYJO  
December 16, 2007 (printed April 1, 2014),
Digital pigment print 
Acquired through the generosity of Ms. Gie Kim and Mr. Rich Chang / © 2007 CYJO

 

 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, inflammatory xenophobic rhetoric has put Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities at risk. As the choreographer in residence at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, I join my colleagues in their dedication to combating racial injustice against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

We present exhibitions and public programs that honor all members of our AAPI communities, no matter their background, language, or religious beliefs. By celebrating and furthering the understanding of AAPI histories, we strive to ensure the dignified, equitable, and inclusive treatment of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Portrait Spotlight

As an Asian American choreographer, I am especially drawn to two works in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection: a pastel drawing of Isamu Noguchi by Winold Reiss (c. 1929) and a photograph of Michio Ito by Nickolas Muray (1921). These portraits, which evoke the style of Art Deco, capture the intense gazes of their youthful sitters. Noguchi is seated before an abstract blue architectural setting whereas Ito strikes a dramatic pose, the geometry of his body harmonizing with the crisp linear backdrop.

The works also illuminate intersecting stories that reveal both the triumphs of Asian Americans as well as dark moment in American history. Both sitters were of Japanese heritage; Ito was the first Asian American choreographer while Noguchi was a renowned sculptor. Lauded for their modern East-West aesthetics, they were in fact real-life friends and artistic compatriots, who galvanized their unique artistic voices during the interwar period. Yet they would struggle to find consistent acceptance in the socio-political landscape of the United States. During World War II, they were considered “enemies of the state” under Executive Order 9066, which greenlighted the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps.  

Ultimately, these likenesses of Michio Ito and Isamu Noguchi reside at the Portrait Gallery as testaments to the sitters’ artistry, to their resilience as Asian Americans, and to the importance of exploring U.S. history through portraiture.  

Waist length pastel portrait of a young Asian man in a black suit
Isamu Noguchi by Winold Reiss / c. 1929, Pastel on paper / Gift of Joseph and Rosalyn Newman / Conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women's Committee / © Estate of Winold Reiss

 

Black and white photo of an Asian dancer with cropped hair in a dance pose
Michio Ito by Nickolas Muray / 1921 (printed 1978), Gelatin silver print / © Courtesy Nickolas Muray Photo Archives

 


Banner image: Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company performed Tracings on May 4, 2019, in the museum's Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. This 50-minute dance work was dedicated to the first immigrants from Korea to settle in America.