Vishakha N. Desai | Columbia University Press Blog | May 27, 2021

The first time I personally identified with the term Asian American was in 1993, when I had the opportunity to organize the first major exhibition of Asian American art exploring the issues of multicultural identities at the Asia Society, Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art. Designed to explore the experiences of cultural “in-betweenness” as an essential ingredient of artistic creativity by immigrant artists of Asian origins and those who came here at a young age, the exhibition elicited divergent responses. Some patrons grumbled: “why is this at the Asia Society? It should be at the Whitney. Essentially these are American artists.” Even some artists questioned the premise: “Why are we being seen at the Asia Society, an institution known for showing old traditional art from Asia with little interest in contemporary expressions from anywhere? (we had not yet shown contemporary art, even from Asia, as that would be the next big exhibition). We will get placed in the Asian bucket, as always, and not be considered American enough.” Underlying these responses was the undeniable perception that, in the U.S, people of Asian origin would always have to deal with too much or too little of one thing or another: either not Asian enough (like the “authentic” Asians who lived far away in the continent of Asia) or too Asian, not like “authentic Americans.”

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