Abstract Art and the Yellow Woman as Ornament


Image by Takeo Royer.



It has been a year since the Atlanta mass shooting targeting Asian women.


And there has been a recent upsurge in violence against women of Asian decent in the U.S., including attacks in NYC and two murders in Albuquerque, where I live. A sobering 74% of AAPI women reported experiencing racism and/or discrimination over the last twelve months. My growing understanding is that the murders in Albuquerque follow many incidents of unreported robberies and targeted violence against Asian women who work in massage parlors.


All of this blooms in my body. When I learned of the Atlanta shooting last year, it twitched. My body knew before my mind could comprehend it that the violence had been done to Asian women, and that it was a violence of erasure and annihilation. This is how my body magic reminds me that safety is at risk. My body convulsed for more than a week. And here we are a year later, with more attacks and murders and the continued inability of a white supremacist misogynist system to grasp the intersection of racism and mysogyny. I recently had a trauma response while training at my boxing gym. It was big and ugly and I felt completely vulnerable and driven by fear.


The women who were targeted and murdered here in Albuquerque and in Atlanta were middle-aged to elderly women. Mothers and grandmothers, not much older than me. One was the same age as me – 45. I find myself slipping quickly into the invisibility of being a single, middle-aged woman without customary cultural tethers (partner, children). It disturbs me that American culture hears ‘Asian women’ and ‘massage' and projects a sexual fantasy. The Atlanta shooter projected his sexual fantasy onto these women. The killers in Albuquerque preyed on what they perceived to be easy targets – docile, pliant Asian women. Their race and their gender made them invisible and a mirror. Their race and their gender are the reason they were murdered.


Asian women in the U.S. are invisible to the point that no hate-crime has been charged in any of these attacks, and fetishized to the point that this normalized behavior is accepted from men seeking to eliminate ‘sexual temptation’ or to declare that ‘Chinese people shouldn’t be here.’ Our bodies are perceived as colonized and available for taking. We are digested as aesthetic objects to be owned, serve, and disposed of. This cultural and gendered reflex is built on a long history of Asian female bodies being made available to the U.S. military and other colonial forces, such as during the Korean War. This history also reinforces the alignment of Asian female bodies with economic colonization/commodified goods and reinforces attitudes of exploitation and power dynamics. All of this is tucked away quietly into the collective social norms of United States culture and behaviors.


This is the environment Asian American women live in, and it is ripe for hiding.


Erasure makes it easy to hide in plain sight and to want to keep hiding. So does being a landscape for projected desire, the imperial kind that has hypersexualized Asian women’s bodies while simultaneously erasing and defiling them. As does being an abuse survivor. I think of my 할머니 (halmoni/grandmother), who was a war survivor. There is much to recover in being a survivor, including a feeling of safety in being visible.


And, I had been doing that stereotypical thing that Asian people, especially Asian women, are taught and expected to do. Stay quiet. Stay invisible. Hide in quiet, which we are falsely taught is akin to safety. Strangely, this behavior is reinforced by the messaging and hiding of my white mother. It’s a difficult thing not to do, when faced with violence. And that violence is born in me too, and makes me want to scream and fight and weep and kick and punch and cut with a knife. I’ve done all these things. The voice to speak blooms more slowly than the body sometimes. I wrote this a year ago, and kept it tucked away. I forgive me.


I needed to grow my roots and alliances with a broader support of Asian siblings to come into the light. I needed a push from an ancestor, one who was a fierce warrior. She told me to stop hiding, and I am strong and supported enough to accept my vulnerability. I also needed time to make a connection that has been vibrating for some time. Because you may be wondering what any of this has to do with being an artist who works with abstraction. Here it is.


One of the things I have been hiding is that my work is informed by my spiritual practices. I am learning that this inclination is not without reason, as spiritualism in abstract art has historically been dismissed, derided, and regarded with suspicion. My work is not purely aesthetic, although you may be someone who enjoys it as such and only as such. You may experience my work this way if that is your inclination. I also enjoy diving deep and connecting ineffable symmetries. And I prefer you see me as whole.


The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 details that there is indeed a rich history of the spiritual in Western abstract art. Abstract art is not devoid of content or merely a logical outgrowth of aesthetic isolation of form, as is popularized by dominating Western art criticism. The book notes that Wassily Kandinsky’s big fear was that “abstract art risked becoming mere ornament” and Barnett Newman stated:


"The present feeling seems to be that the artist is concerned with form, color, and spatial arrangement. This objective approach to art reduces it to a kind of ornament.… It is decorative art built on a slogan of purism.” (p. 49)


I am happy to discover that I am in good company in being driven to create work as an outgrowth of my spiritual practice, particularly as an artist living and working in New Mexico. This is where the Transcendental Painting Group emerged in the 1930s. There is a reason they were here, as there is a reason I - and many other artists - gravitate to New Mexico. (I also need to note that as a bi-cultural person whose heritage is of the West and the East, the inheritance from Western abstract art feels culturally exclusive, or off-center. I'll have to address that in a future post after some research).


I am still inclined to hide and stay quiet but have been mandated not to, and an aspect of my work is to hold the tension of visible / invisible and what is solid and material / subtle and transparent. There is pleasure in illuminating the invisible and watching it vibrate and sing. And, my work is a reflection of me. My work also demands to be seen in fullness.


The truth is that it has become more dangerous for me to hide than it is to be seen. I believe this is a corresponding truth to the broader Asian community in the U.S., which has been sold a false and precarious safety of invisibility as long as we remain ‘model minorities.’ The interesting thing is I am not in fear, not because it isn’t present, but because she sits beside me as a guide. So does my halmoni, my sisters, my siblings, my friends, my allies, the many ancient women and the new vibrant ones - nieces and dear ones - who have laid down tracks for me to follow and ground myself to. My personhood cannot be stripped away when I stand in solidarity and calmly insist on being seen as a site of beauty and wholeness. I am here too.


I am remapping my body's periphery.


Do I get to imagine how my body is to Be?

Does an Asian female body get to reside in safety under the Western gaze?

Am I doomed to deflecting gaze and self-erasure?

What is this tension between embodiment and abstraction?

What does it mean to be seen?


This is the vital connection between the act of striping the spiritual content of abstract work and the act of flattening Asian women in America to one-dimensional objects. It leaves both as ornament. Abstract art as ornament, devoid of content, as feared by Kandinsky and Newman. And ornament, as named by Anne Anlin Cheng, in her critical unpacking of the ‘yellow woman’ as person/object and erotic/defiled in her book Ornamentalism. She aptly addresses that it is permissible to say Black woman, brown woman, white woman, but not ‘yellow woman.’ This phrase grates the ears even as we recognize who this yellow woman is. Interestingly, the yellow woman can only exist in the West. There are no yellow women in Asia. Color is relative and defined by what it stands in contrast to, including racialized color.


There is nostalgia (what is lost/discarded?), ownership, and erasure woven in to aestheticizing without content. Cheng connects the dots between the association of the ornament with the Oriental since antiquity and the rejection/control of the ornament as a Western modernist impulse. (p. 15-16) I bristled, then felt my heart drop out of my chest when Cheng asks this question in the preface to her book: "What does it mean to survive as someone too aestheticized to suffer injury but so aestheticized that she invites injury?" (xi) There is an inexplicable link between the ornament as Asiatic and the ornament as a site of violence.


Do you see why it is more dangerous to hide than it is to stand in the light? Do you see how erasing content from abstract art flattens the art and artist, limits perception and personhood, and turns us away from each other? Erasing the substance of a person or of an artwork dis-allows the complexities of their source to be known and truncates their Being. Erasure is painful and violent. It breeds invention and fantasy and creates the Other. This is how fascism and supremacy cultures are cultivated. I would rather collectively turn away from an incomplete impression of each other toward polytonal dimensionality. This is how we dismantle hierarchy, including the one that places Black and Indigenous people at the bottom and defines a ‘model minority’ to pit non-dominant populations against each other. There is no safety here.


I am not an ornament, and neither is my art. We are not one-dimensional, and neither are you. We are both insisting on being seen in our fullness. I am asking that you hold this with me. It is too much to hold by myself. Stop hiding. Stop erasing. Stop projecting. See me. Be seen. Be with me in the light.


It is terrifying, and we vacillate between becoming solid and protective / transparent and open. It requires vulnerability from those who are seen and those who choose to see fully. You will be seen too. I understand your fear.


And in this renegotiation of the space between us, you and me become we.