Art exhibition shines a light on the tangled cultural history of the Asian diaspora in the Americas

A report by Mark Jenkins for The Washington Post.

Two photo captions in an earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the first name of artist Wifredo Lam. The pieces are from the Inter-American Development Bank Art Collection, not the Art Museum of the Americas Collection. This version has been corrected.

Asia is on the walls and in the air at the Art Museum of the Americas, whose current exhibition includes origami animals, Zen symbols and even the sounds and movements of a Chinese lion dance. Yet none of the roughly 50 artworks was made on the far side of the Pacific. “No Ocean Between Us: Art of Asian Diasporas in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1945-Present” charts the evolution of artists of Japanese, Chinese, Indian and Indonesian heritage in 10 Caribbean and Latin American countries.

The show was drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and organized in collaboration with the D.C.-based International Arts & Artists, a nonprofit dedicated to “cross-cultural understanding and exposure to the arts internationally.” The largest block of work is by people of Japanese ancestry, the result of migration to South America — mostly Peru and Brazil — that started in 1899. But the exhibition’s story actually begins almost a century earlier, in 1806, when laborers from southern China were first brought to Trinidad and Tobago. A few decades later, Cuba was the destination for additional workers from Hong Kong, Guangzhou and the Macao region. By the late 19th century, the end of the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved Africans led to the 11,000-mile forced migration of indentured servants to Suriname from Java, places whose principal link was that both were then Dutch colonies.

Not surprisingly, the show contains nothing made by people who did hard agricultural labor, often on sugar or coffee plantations, in outposts of the Dutch, Spanish, British and Portuguese empires. The artists included here were all born in the 20th century, and the art is mostly from the 1960s or later. Little of it shows scars of colonization or worker exploitation.

Visitors are greeted first by Kazuo Wakabayashi’s “Blue and Black,” a large, thickly patterned abstract painting. The coolly handsome picture is not in a customary Japanese style, but its simplicity and texture suggest the country’s traditional ceramics.

Wakabayashi was born in Japan, as were most of the artists in the show’s first gallery. So it’s hardly unexpected that Tomie Ohtake’s two paintings feature variations on the enso, the freehand circle that represents Buddhist enlightenment, or that Hiroyuki Okumura’s stacked pillar of tan Mexican marble suggests a Zen rock garden. Even Luis Nishikawa, whose first name reveals he wasn’t Japanese by birth, employs a restrained East Asian pictorial style for his black-and-white lithographs of rocky Mexican mountains.

Very different modes and outlooks characterize the brightly hued work in the room devoted to Suriname-born artists rooted in India and Indonesia. A picture by the Rotterdam-educated Soeki Irodikromo, though painted in oil on canvas, shows the influence of Javanese folk art. Nearby is a reconstruction of Dhiradj Ramsamoedj’s 2010 installation “Adjie Gilas” — meaning “grandmother’s cup” — which conjures past hardships and family history by covering a wall with dozens of aluminum cups, each printed with his grandmother’s face. The piece includes images of Hindu deities Krishna and Ganesha, as did his grandmother’s home.

The more recent works are more conceptual and sometimes multimedia. Artist Carlos Runcie Tanaka, who is Peruvian, British and Japanese, combines hanging origami crabs with a video about the arrival of the first Japanese in Peru; two Chinese Panamanian brothers, Cisco Merel Choy and Rosendo Merel Choy, project a lion-dance video on a Chinese mask. The raucous drumming echoes through the gallery and, combined with other works that riff on Chinese products and pop culture, make this room the show’s noisiest, literally as well as figuratively.

If some works emphasize distinct Chinese or Japanese qualities, others nearly overflow the melting pot. The prints and drawings of Wifredo Lam, one of the show’s best-known artists, reflect the complex identity of a man whose mother was Afro-Cuban and whose father was Cantonese, and who communed with cubists and surrealists while living in Europe between the world wars. Lam’s representational but highly stylized work is far from typical of “No Ocean Between Us,” but it is a fine example of the tangled cultural history the show introduces.

No Ocean Between Us: Art of Asian Diasporas in Latin America and the Caribbean, 1945-Present

Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St. NW.

Dates: On indefinite view.

Prices: Free.

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