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Soul Mining group show at Arizona State University Museum

Soul Mining: The influence of Asian culture and labor in Latin America.

September 23 - December 30, 2017

When the United States signed into federal law the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, Chinese immigration was suspended. The formerly welcomed Chinese laborers were expelled and began moving south into Mexico and Latin America. It is said that the original fence along the southern border was built not to keep the Mexicans out but rather to detour Chinese immigrants from re-entering the United States. The narrative in the exhibition reflects a complex history of forced migration tied deeply to a web of social, political and economic issues. Forced migration is a general term that refers to the movements of displaced people due to natural, environmental and man-made disasters, such as hurricanes, infectious disease outbreak, civil strife and international wars.

At the same time, immigration – in particular, involuntary displacement – is not an objectified fact or a disembodied phenomenon but an intimate and personal experience in flesh and blood. Featuring artworks by artists from Latin America, the United States and Asia, Soul Mining looks at the influences of Asian culture and the history of labor in the Americas. By focusing on the “body and soul” of the stories, the aftermath and the current social conditions, the works explore the possibility of transforming the estranged “otherness” into a familiar collective experience. The result reveals a process that privileges artistic imagination over political statement.

The narrative of the exhibition begins with a self-portrait by Suwon Lee, which features the artist herself, the daughter of Asian immigrants, sitting among a group of Venezuelans in a commuter bus. The exhibition ends with a self-portrait by Mimian Hsu that captures the artist in traditional Costa Rican attire, posing in front of a Chinese restaurant called La Gran China (the Great China). The image makes a connection to Brandon Som’s poem Chino: “Where I’m the only chino. How might I see through my family’s eyes — an owl’s eyes in ojos and one in its lid turned sideways.” Here, the personal and the social, the everyday and the historical overlap, interweave and interpenetrate to explore where the singular becomes plural.

—Julio César Morales, curator ASU Art Museum and Xiaoyu Weng, The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Curator of Chinese Art at the Guggenheim Museum, New York

Suwon Lee (b. in Venezuela)

San Ruperto, 2004

Archival pigment print

12 x 16 in (30 x 40 cm)

Taken with a point-and-shoot camera, San Ruperto features an ordinary scene of the interior of a bus and its passengers. The 'San Ruperto' bus is a vintage model that has long gone out of circulation but was solely used by working-class people to commute in Venezuela. On the bus, the workers, the mother holding her baby, the contemplative senior rider and the artist herself — the daughter of immigrants — all share a temporary transit space despite their different identities and cultural backgrounds.

For Suwon Lee, this image is a self-portrait of her experience as an immigrant from Asia growing up in Venezuela who constantly wonders how she fits in or stands out in a foreign society. It fulfills her curiosity of seeing herself from an outside perspective. More importantly, it is also a metaphor for the stories of many immigrants whose anxiety and fear of alienation and strangeness are not only a social phenomenon but also very real human experiences.

Richard Lou (b. 1959) Born in San Diego, California, raised in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico; lives and works in Memphis, Tennessee

Border Door, 1988

Permanent pigment photographs, 37 x 27 in. and 9 x 11 in. Photo credit James Elliott

In the late 1980s, there were areas of the border fence along Tijuana and San Diego that had holes and rust, with some sections completely missing. This disrepair gave birth to border vigilantes, such as Muriel Watson, a conservative San Diego citizen who created Light Up The Border. The action asked other citizens to take their cars to the San Ysidro/U.S. border and shine their headlights onto Tijuana and border crossers. Starting with a couple of cars, the event grew into hundreds, and a counter protest, led by artists, took shape on the opposite side of the border. In Tijuana people used mirrors to reflect the spotlights back to San Diego, placing national attention on immigration.

These actions led to the creation of the second border fence in the early 2000s, made from left-over landing strips from the Vietnam war and first Iraq war. Richard Lou’s iconic Border Door was meant to reflect the cultural realities that appear between the U.S./Mexico border. Originally asked by Border Art Workshop/Taller de Arte Fronterizo (BAW/TAF) to develop an artwork, Lou, who is half-Chinese and half-Mexican, took to the border to create the door that only opened on the Mexican side, as he explains, “a symbolic portal inviting immigrants to cross ‘with dignity.’ When Mexican migrant workers cross, they are forced to do it in a humiliating manner.” The project lasted two days before U.S. Border Patrol agents dismantled the site-specific installation. Nevertheless, to this day the work is one of the most important artworks ever created in the U.S./Mexico border region.

Mimian Hsu (Costa Rica)

La Gran China (The Great China), 2005

The photograph captures the artist, Mimian Hsu, in traditional Costa Rican attire, posing in front of a Chinese restaurant called La Gran China (the Great China). “The Great China” is often a ubiquitous name for small Chinese businesses outside of China. In this context, the phrase can be read as a pun because in Spanish “China” is also the term for Chinese women: thus, the artist assumes multiple roles: La Gran China, the great Chinese woman, as well as, a visual representation of Chinese restaurants, Chinese cuisine, Chinese people and even Chinese culture.

The self-portrait suddenly turns into a snapshot of a cultural body — the individual becomes an abstract notion of identities. In addition, her Chinese-ness is made more complex by the Latin American location. This hybridity implies a transformation of subject and context, questioning the boundaries and definitions of nationality, tradition and values.

Hung Liu (USA/China)

Resident Alien, 1988

Hung Liu is an important figure in contemporary art whose work reflects both Chinese and American cultures, specifically investigating gender and identity issues. Liu grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and was forced to work in the fields until she was finally allowed to study traditional Chinese art practices, such as ceramics, painting and calligraphy.

In 1984, she left China to attend the University of California, San Diego where she began to expand her artistic practice and reflect on her experience in China. In 1988, she began a new body of work that focused on the history of Chinese immigration during the gold rush in California. Further research led her to the break-through exhibition, Resident Alien, in which she explored both her interests in Gold Rush immigration and her own cultural identity. The large-scale painting, sharing the same title, marks her first self-portrait using her own immigration card coupled with a series of innuendos. One reads “Fortune Cookie,” a name given to Chinese prostitutes that were imported from China during the Gold Rush era. Another is the date of birth on the card is noted as “020784,” the date when Liu became a legal U.S. resident; perhaps a date that can be read as her re-birth into the new and complex society she found herself in.

Brandon Som (b. 1975)

Born in Phoenix, Arizona; lives and works in San Diego, California

Chino, 2017

Poem in vinyl set in Adobe Garamond Pro, dimensions variable

Brandon Som utilizes “images that play with sound,” such as the phonetics of sounds from indiscernible languages to create his works. He creates ambient and distinctive poetry drawn from site-specific experiences, such as hearing in a language he does not speak.

This work references a poem, by famed Chinese poet Li Po, which was tagged on a wall by an immigrant on San Francisco’s Angel Island. It also references the failure of language to express the human condition.

Influenced by the migration of his own grandfather from China as a “paper son,” one who had already established U.S. citizenship, the story was fabricated in order to be allowed into the country, bypassing the Chinese Exclusion Act. In his poignant and powerful poem Chino, one can feel an awareness and coming of age of ones’ own identity in regards to acceptance, one of the primal needs for immigrants. Som asks, “How can we fit in without losing our identity and heritage?”

Sergio de La Torre (USA/Mexico)

This is not in Spanish

“The Chinese had been invisible for many years,” Tijuana-born artist Sergio de La Torre mentions when asked about his project. This is not in Spanish includes a neon sign of the same title in Mandarin, with an architectural model of a building that housed Chinese residents and immigrants, all accompanied by three experimental videos. All the videos were shot on location in downtown Tijuana in a neighborhood that has a large Chinese community. The immigrants arrived to Tijuana and Mexicali in the mid-1800s and early 1900s after being expelled by the U.S. They worked as agricultural workers and later during Prohibition turned to informal economies with the construction of the famed Chinese tunnels in Mexicali.

In 2008, De la Torre started to collaborate with this community and wanted to tell the unknown history of the Chinese in Tijuana with Nuevo Dragon City, a video influenced by Luis Buñuel’s seminal 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel, in which guests from a dinner party inexplicably are unable to leave the house, which leads to a series of surreal events. In Nuevo Dragon City, the Chinese/Mexican teenagers barricade themselves in an old furniture store perhaps as a personal protest related to discrimination, thus their actions represent a form of both protection and belonging. The subsequent videos, We the Dust and NOISE, were created as the artist mentions, as “feedback to his own attempt/failure to work with the Chinese immigrants in Tijuana.”

Mimian Hsu (Costa Rica)

Hsu Zheng - Breathing, 2017 (Performance)

A new commission for the exhibition, Breathing, is a performance in which Mimian Hsu projects a portrait of her grandfather onto herself. The rhythm of the artist’s breath and the two persons’ physical resemblance creates an impression where the long-passed grandfather regains forces of life. On March 15, 1947, Hsu Zheng, the artist’s grandfather, vanished at the dawn of the White Terror (1947-1987) in Taiwan, the suppression of political dissidents under Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party) government led by Chiang Kai-shek. His disappearance is directly related to his participation as a teacher and accusation as a promoter of a university student march on February 28 in the same year. The February 28 incident, also known as the 2.28 Incident — an anti-government uprising in Taiwan that was violently suppressed by the KMT — initiated the 40 years of the White Terror.

It was not until 50 years later that Mr. Hsu’s execution was officially confirmed. The severe political situation and opportunity for change led Hsu’s family to flee Taiwan and immigrate to Costa Rica. Mr. Hsu’s disappearance has been an enduring tragic experience for the family members, while his image has evolved into a representation of a heroic and mystic character, absent yet always present. Mr. Hsu becomes a fatherhood archetype, a central axis around which the artist’s upbringing — that of a daughter of immigrants — orbited.

Instead of presenting him as an archetype, the artist emphasizes Mr. Hsu as a human being through the intimate gestures of overlapping her image and breath. She invites the visitors to imagine his breath, laughter and feelings, perhaps not just of her grandfather, but also of the millions disappeared from the political atrocities. In addition, the performance implies a dilemma of immigrants’ identity: a projection of history superimposed onto their own realty. On the one hand, family or racial resemblances are perceived as linkages and connections in different contexts: geographical, cultural, temporal and dimensional. On the other hand, such projection of history and tradition continues to solidify certain stereotypes and misunderstandings of a supposedly shared identity.

Pablo Guardiola (Puerto Rico)

Confianza China (Chinese Confidence)

Pablo Guardiola creates a poetic visual language by mining found images alongside his own journalistic style of taking pictures of mundane events or everyday life. He juxtaposes images that usually contain words such as Tropical, China and Futuro, giving new meanings to the snapshots once they are placed near one another. His newest work Confianza China (Chinese Confidence) is an investigation into the history of fast-food in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In the late 1950s, a large number of Chinese people left Cuba when Fidel Castro took power and migrated to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean countries. The introduction of Chinese food began in the 1960s, prior to the corporate conglomerates we think of today in fast-food culture. Guardiola is interested in looking at food as a way of cultural acceptance and how the influence of Asian food has potencialy changed the diet of Puerto Ricans.

Sofía Córdova (Puerto Rico/USA)

Jibarita girl

XUXA SANTAMARIA (XXSM) is a music and performance project comprised of artist Sofía Córdova and electronic musician Matthew Gonzalez Kirkland aka ABAIA. Interested in subverting cultural norms, the collective works within both pop and experimental frameworks to create albums and performances. Current work Chancletas de Oro (‘Golden Flip Flops’) focuses on untold feminist narratives drawn from both history and works of fiction. Together, they also score all of Córdova’s independent video and live performance work.

For Soul Mining, Cordova was commissioned to record and produce a 45-inch vinyl record with Side A (jibarita girl) featuring a new version of Iggy Pop’s China Girl. In Córdova’s version, after reworking the lyrics, she changed the colonial heterosexual focus in the song to a womxn/femme to womxn/femme relationship where the focus is two Jibarita girls (girl from the country), one wanting offerings of the first world, while the other is begging her not to leave. As Córdova mentions, “our version takes an appropriative and feminist approach and procures the song out of the realm of rock and roll and into the world of dance music, particularly Latin freestyle.”

SIDE B (r arrastrá) is about the 'r arrastrá' from Puerto Rico, a different instance/ type of linguistic check Boricuas, especially those from the west coast of the island are subjected to as in "proper" Spanish. La 'r arrastrá' is considered an aberration and pointed out to denote a class distinction via a colonial lens. Conceptually it a long lost cousin of the 'r test' but definitely its own thing and speaks to personal experience.

Córdova created an ambient music track that tells a story with as many words using the letter “R“ that she could remember in the span of a 45-inch vinyl record.

Eamon Ore-Giron (Mexico/USA)


Eamon Ore-Giron’s Morococha is a 2-channel video that references the history of Asian labor in Peru. Yet, here, the tables have turned and we experience it a hundred years later in the form of reverse labor, where Peruvians are the endangered force digging copper some 14,000 feet up from Los Andes for the largest mining company in the world owned by the Chinese mining corporation Chinnalco. The videos find the artist performing for the camera with a copper sculpture, while simultaneously documenting the old town of Morococha being destroyed while a new town of Morococha is being developed in order to extract copper from the grounds of the former town. What are the memories that are displaced from the laborers and what are the consequences of economic dependency on a single source of income?

Today, copper is widely used in the production of cell phones to satellite systems and almost half of the world’s supply comes from the Andes. While part of the motivation for making the video comes from the artist’s father’s own immigration from Peru to Tucson, Arizona, the other side is about escaping the despair that most miners face in Morococha.

Suwon Lee (b. in Venezuela)

The Garden of My Exile, 2017

Ceramic, ashes, gold leaf, variable dimensions

Like tens and thousands of others who have escaped violence, dictatorship and insecurity, Suwon Lee fled Venezuela, her home country, in 2016. She brought with her some ashes from a mountain fire in her hometown of Caracas. For Lee, this involuntary departure signifies not only an end of a period of her life, but also, the possibilities of fresh beginning; like the forest fire ashes: the death of the trees to form a fertile ground for new lives.

With these thoughts in mind, Lee modeled a series of stone-shaped objects with the ashes and clay to form “a garden of stones” that symbolizes the impermanence and changes of existence. These stone figures are reminiscent of those found on beaches, where constant washes of waves create holes and marks on them. This garden, however, is not shaped by water, but by fire — a destructive force represented by the reshaping of identity in a forced displacement. Some are filled with gold foils, other are left hollow. These holes and marks also suggest the experience as an immigrant, in which time is carving similar marks into her life.


Using the histories of the gold extraction in Northern California as an origin of speculation, Ranu Mukherjee’s animated video trilogy of Phantasmagoria explores the story of gold and its impact on natural resources, labor and shifting international economic power. Accompanied by a constellation of drawings, the project pays particular attention to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and contemplates the legacy of prospecting and cultural resilience.

Mukherjee is inspired by The Classic of Mountains and Seas, an ancient Chinese compilation of mythic geography and creatures that dates back to 4th century B.C. By creating a neo-cosmology composed of myths, facts, imaginary landscape and figures, and ideals of heaven and earth, she is able to remap a history with different narratives and suggest a future that reconciles the relationship between human and environment.

Mimian Hsu (Costa Rica)

Feliz (Happy), 2012

17500 printed letter size sheets of paper distributed in 35 piles

Spelled out as Feliz (Happy), this installation is composed of stacks of letter size paper — free for visitors to take — with content that was selected by Mimian Hsu and printed with a font designed by the artist. Hsu juxtaposes the slogans of the two public campaigns launched by the Costa Rican and Chinese governments that strategize and market the ideas of “happiness.” “The Gift of Happiness,” on the one side of the sheet, is the title of the million-dollar advertisement to promote Costa Rica as a paradise tourist destination. Utilizing the country’s first rank as “the happiest country in the world” by the Happy Planet Index (2009 and 2012), the public entity Costa Rican Tourism Institute (ICT) has created the slogan to target U.S. and European visitors. What the generic and outfacing data record does not disclose is the internal social struggles of Costa Ricans and their discontents towards the government’s performance in serving its people.

The other side of the sheet is printed with “Happy Guangdong,” the slogan used in the propaganda campaigns by the Chinese government to lift the spirits of its people who have been overshadowed by the suicide incidents of the manufactory workers, and therefore cast serious doubts over the government’s policies in the Guangdong region, an area for world factories, including places like FoxConn. Although vastly different in contexts, these two campaigns point to an inherent irony in the governments’ policies facing outwards and inwards, and the reality vs. the projected concept of “happiness.”

U.S.A Visitor Center

The Japanese collective Chim ↑ Pom has an interest in issues of border conflict, immigration history and refugee rights that began from a personal incident when one member was denied entry by the U.S. home security. U.S.A. Visitor Center is a multi-media installation from a series of works that focus on the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

In 2016, they visited Tijuana and encountered a family living in Colonia Libertad, located along the border. Their self-constructed house incorporated the border wall as part of the structure. In their backyard, there was a big tree. Chim ↑ Pom built a tree house on it and playfully named it U.S.A. Visitor Center, as it was physically located on the border of the U.S. and Mexico. This installation is a reconstruction of the tree house. The videos and photographs of the installation document the landscape of the area. Chim ↑ Pom’s humorous take on the San Diego and Tijuana border issues not only serve as a political statement but also an intervention of people’s everyday lives. While projected as a media sensation, the wall has integrated itself into the day-to-day, where the symbolic is less important than the material.

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