Born in Seoul, raised in the United States, and now based principally in Beijing, CYJO (born 1974) is a self-described Kyopo—the Korean term for ethnic Koreans living in other countries. Just one-and-a-half years old when she immigrated with her family to the United States in 1976, CYJO grew up in suburban Maryland and later studied at the University of Maryland and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York. She continued her education in Italy at the Istituto Politecnico Internazionale della Moda before returning to the States, where she earned her degree in fashion design from FIT in 1997.
After working initially as a stylist, CYJO moved behind the camera in 2002 to launch her career as a fine-art photographer. Since that time, her subjects have included a wide range of individuals—from performing artists to politicians—and her photographs have been featured in numerous publications both in the United States and abroad.
Beginning with a single portrait in 2004, CYJO’s KYOPO Project has grown organically as new subjects have encouraged other members of the Kyopo community to pose for her camera and share their stories of identity. The texts that accompany the portraits are derived from interviews that CYJO conducted with the sitters.
Hong Zhang (as she is known in the United States) is a Chinese-born artist living and working in this country whose work combines traditional skills with contemporary ideas. She received her BFA in Chinese painting from the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1994 and came to the United States in 1996. After completing the MFA program at the University of California, Davis, in 2004, she moved to Lawrence, Kansas. Her work is collected and exhibited internationally.
Zhang references her own identity through disembodied images of long, straight, black hair. The use of contrasting black and white values draws on the philosophy of yin and yang, wherein contrasting values are intertwined and inseparable. The exaggerated scale of the scrolls transforms this very personal exploration into a universal theme. Twin Spirits #1, Hong’s first hair scroll, represents Hong on the right and her left-handed twin sister Bo on the left. While the scrolls, like the twins, appear identical from a distance, a closer look reveals subtle differences. The scroll Cyclone (with its reference to Hong’s Kansas home) examines a woman’s life cycle, from radiant, untangled youth to the twists and turns of midlife. The two long braids of Bond represent the natural connection that exists between a mother and daughter.
“I hope my audience finds connections between my work and their lives,” writes Hye Yeon Nam (born 1979). This young Korean artist, a PhD candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology with an MFA in digital media from the Rhode Island School of Design, uses her artwork to address issues of personal and societal concern. Keenly aware of distinctions in expectations for the appropriate behavior for women in her native land and the United States, Nam has created a body of work that addresses feelings of awkwardness with subtlety and humor.
Her four-part video self-portrait—Walking, Drinking, Eating, and Sitting—transforms everyday activities into sites of confusion. A hole in a glass continually spills orange juice. Large planks strapped to the artist’s feet make walking uncomfortable and challenging. Tomatoes slide off a ruler used as a utensil. A chair with shortened front legs causes the artist to slide forward, slipping off her perch. No resolution is offered, and the artist invites empathy and even sympathy for the physical and psychic struggles she evokes.
With her patient and resolute response to the difficult situations she encounters, Nam provides a reminder that “fitting in” requires consistent negotiation between the self and perceived expectations—a challenge to which we can all relate.
Shizu Saldamando (born 1978) depicts how American social spaces are the laboratories for new ways of being. Her portraits playfully suggest that race, gender, and ethnicity act as white noise to the scene at hand; audible, yet not identifiable. Saldamando’s visual biographies, which use friends as her subjects, capture the energy of youthful experimentation and the freedom of malleable categories for identity.
Born to parents of Japanese and Mexican descent, Saldamando resides in Los Angeles but grew up in San Francisco. She attended the University of California, Los Angeles, for her undergraduate work and received an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts.
About arriving in Los Angeles, she says: “Growing up in the Mission district in San Francisco, it was predominately a hip-hop culture. Here in Los Angeles, I’d go to shows or house parties, and it would be all Latino kids listening to the Cure and the Smiths. In L.A., I felt normal for the first time.” Saldamando’s meticulous collaged paintings offer the viewer a subtlety of influences to ponder.
Since 1969, Roger Shimomura (born 1939) has lived in Lawrence, Kansas, where he has served as an art professor at the University of Kansas. As a painter, printmaker, and performance artist, Shimomura has focused particular attention on the experiences of Asian Americans and the challenges of being “different” in America.
He knows well the pain and embarrassment associated with xenophobia. As a small child during World War II, he and his family were relocated from their home in Seattle to a Japanese American internment camp in Idaho. Having trained as an artist at the University of Washington and Syracuse University, Shimomura creates work that often pivots on the racist stereotypes that have been used to characterize Asian Americans.
The five paintings featured in Portraiture Now are types of self-portrait in which his own likeness takes center stage. Whether fighting popular caricatures or portraying himself as someone else, Shimomura wishes to reflect on the absurdity associated with such caricatures. Both humorous and poignant, these paintings reflect the artist’s long interest in the status of Asian Americans within American society.
The title of Satomi Shirai’s photographic project, Home and Home: New York in My Life, indicates a coming-to-grips with the dislocations caused by her move to the city from Japan in 2004. She writes about how she watched a small cherry tree in her Queens neighborhood and how she was shocked to discover one day that it had been cut down.
What makes Shirai a true artist of cultural conflict and engagement is that she did not flinch from this episode, or from America. Instead, her wonderfully overstuffed, sensually detailed photographs create the visual terrain that shows Shirai’s ongoing engagement with two cultures.
Shirai graduated from Musashino Art University in Tokyo (1996) and worked as a commercial photographer in Japan before moving to New York City. She received her MFA from Hunter College in 2010. She has exhibited widely, including in the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition (2009).
Tam Tran (born 1986) moved with her family to Memphis, Tennessee, from South Vietnam when she was a young child. Growing up in the South with her parents and two older sisters, Tran experienced two different and overlapping cultures—one at home and another in the world around her. A recent graduate of the University of Memphis with a degree in journalism, Tran now works as a graphic designer. She has shown her work in solo and group shows in Memphis and was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial.
Her arresting photographs investigate identity and gender, and in this series of self-portraits, called Accents, she explores her ever-changing relationship to her own developing identity. Her self-portraits are not exercises in performance or character invention. She photographs herself against a white background, using clothing that she wears regularly—as well as pose, hairstyle, and makeup—to shift the viewer’s perceptions of her own identity. Through these sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic images, she focuses on her “battle to maintain balance in my two cultures.”