- Artist Statement
My artwork is about themes of distance and belonging, and I focus on the fluidity of cultural difference and the slipperiness of identity. Asian American history (specifically women’s labor history and Hawai’i’s sugar cane plantation history) and mixed-race representations are subjects that run through my work. In my portrait works many of my subjects employ what bell hooks calls an “oppositional gaze”: they look back defiantly at the presumed viewer. My paintings start with autobiographical impulses and draw inspiration from popular culture and textile design, as well as personal and community photographic archives and oral history interviews. I collect these images, stories, and histories, and I see what is missing, what is not being told, what is not obvious, and I go hunting for it. I am interested in the overlap, fusion, disjuncture, or vibration that happens when I bring back the missing pieces and put them together.
In my Hapa Soap Opera series (2002–5) I drew inspiration from vintage Bollywood movie posters to create large-scale oil paintings of love triangle narratives populated exclusively by racially ambiguous characters. The paintings, based on mixed-race Asians (aka “hapas”) whom I photographed from around the United States, reflect both desire and anxiety. They were executed in an earlier moment in the mixed-race movement, when many of our now actual community interactions were still primarily virtual. The floating heads in this series overlap and hint at shared connections but never truly interact.
In 2006 I created a complementary series to the Hapa Soap Opera series titled Loving, after the landmark 1967 Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court case that overturned this nation’s last antimiscegenation law. Loving consisted of nine life-sized charcoal portraits of “mixed-race” friends and acquaintances and one self-portrait. The works were hung in a meditative half circle that simultaneously embraced and confronted the viewer. For the Loving series I created a minyan of individuals whose common tie is that of being multiracial. [End Page 196] All of the figures in the Loving series are seated cross-legged, a pose that allows each individual to be centered physically and, perhaps, spiritually. Some stare directly; others lean forward as if something is about to happen; one woman has her eyes closed and is taking a deep breath. Time seems suspended. The sitters range in age from their twenties to their forties, all rainbow children of the Civil Rights Movement. Through the process of drawing and subtle gestures in the sitters’ poses, I wanted to capture a sense of community, the ability to connect with others, and the distances between each of us.
In my current Sugar series (2010–present) I have turned my attention to my family’s history of being Okinawan immigrants to Hawai’i. Set during the 1920s–1940s, my Sugar paintings recall obake ghost stories and feature Japanese and Okinawan picture brides turned machete-carrying sugar cane plantation field laborers on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Drawing on oral history and family photographs from Nisei (second generation) and Sansei (third generation) plantation community members from Peepekeo, Pi’ihonua, and Hakalau, as well as historic images, my paintings take us into a beautiful yet grueling world of manual labor, cane field fires, and flumes. [End Page 197]
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laura kina is a hapa yonsei Uchinanchu visual artist and Vincent de Paul professor of art, media, and design at DePaul University. She is the coeditor, along with Wei Ming Dariotis, of War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art (University of Washington Press, 2013); cofounder of the DePaul biennial Critical Mixed Race Studies conference; and cofounder and co–managing editor of the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies. Born in Riverside, California, in 1973 to an Okinawan father from Hawaii and a Spanish-Basque/Anglo mother, Kina was raised in Poulsbo, Washington, a small Norwegian town in the Pacific Northwest. The artist currently lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. Her work...