Chronicling Asian America: An Interview with Konrad Ng

By Rivera, Ray; Tran, Thao Anh | Asian American Policy Review, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Chronicling Asian America: An Interview with Konrad Ng


Rivera, Ray, Tran, Thao Anh, Asian American Policy Review


AAPR

Under your leadership, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American (APA) Program developed an Asian American portrait exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Could you please share with us how this exhibition was conceived and what message you hope to convey to the general public about the Asian American community through this exhibition?

NG

Our mission is to ensure that the dynamism of Asia, the Pacific, and their intersections in American history, art, and culture are represented at the largest museum and research complex in the world. One of the artists featured in the Asian American Portraits of Encounter exhibition, Cyjo, approached the APA Program about exhibiting her Kyopo project, a photographic show of Koreans living in America. We thought that Cyjo's work offered a terrific opportunity for us to collaborate with the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery (NPG). The NPG hosts a contemporary art series called Portraiture Now, and both the APA Program and NPG thought it would be great if the theme for 2010-2011 could address the Asian American experience. We found funders, and the show moved forward. We selected the artists based on the caliber of their work and how their art would create a thought-provoking dialogue. I wanted the show to be a series of "encounters," that is, curating a cacophony of imagery that challenged popular perceptions of Asian America, including views held by Asian Americans. Even the artists held different attitudes towards being part of a show that addressed the Asian American experience. All of them expressed a tension between being called Asian American and feeling that they were atypical of that identity. This tension, between identity and self-identity--that we may be rooted in a particular identity but not limited by it--underlies the notion of Asian American Portraits of Encounter. However, the goal of the show was not to be conclusive or academic about contemporary identity but to suggest a way to have a more complex conversation about what that means; portraiture is a perfect medium for this important exercise. Our next major projects are HomeSpun: Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project and a traveling exhibition on Asian American history, art, and culture.

AAPR

Also, under your tenure, a program called Asian Pacific Americans: Local Lives, Global Ties was featured at the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Program. What did you hope to accomplish with the program?

NG

The Folklife Festival is hosted by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH). For decades, the festival has been the premier opportunity to highlight a way of life or tradition on the National Mall, a space with great symbolic value. Similar to our work with the NPG, the APA Program and CFCH saw an opportunity to highlight the Asian Pacific American experience as it is lived and interpreted, and as I noted earlier, this is an important story that is often put in simplistic terms. We thought it would make a meaningful statement by showcasing Asian Pacific America through the lives of the more than 350,000 Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian (AAPINH) people in the DC area who have been there for decades; thus, the title Local Lives, Global Ties. Again, we received enough support and funding, and the festival theme was a "go." The APA Program hired longtime Asian American activist and advocate Phil Nash to curate Asian Pacific Americans: Local Lives, Global Ties. Phil brought the program to life. Hundreds of thousands of people walked through the ten-day festival of performances, demonstrations, displays, conversations, and food. It was breathtaking to be at the festival during the Fourth of July weekend when the masses streamed through our stations and stages.

AAPR

Through your work, it is evident that you are very interested in exploring the Asian American identity. …

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