The artist’s makeup mirror gallery symbolizes Asians looking over the shoulder on the subway

Actress Kelly Wang was six years old when two of her schoolmates told her they “want to kill all the Chinese people”.

Today, 29-year-old Wang carries a mirrored makeup kit when in New York City, where she lives and works — not to enhance her appearance, but to subtly check behind her shoulder on a subway platform at night.

As anti-Asian violence escalates in 2020, the artist has begun putting together a collection of charters bearing messages to tell her story. The resulting installation, titled Thank You For Reminding Me Of My Rich Cultural Past, is on display at Princeton University’s Museum of Art until February 27.

This piece is part of one of four galleries featured in the gallery, which display works ranging from burnt calligraphy pieces to a Chinese garden rock carved out of rolled newspaper pieces, created in honor of her late father, who received a daily newspaper delivery before death from Covid- 19 in 2020.

Thank You for Reminding Me of My Rich Cultural Past aims to convey a common Asian American experience that, for Wang, seems to amplify the “Asian” and forget the “American.”

“But, where are you from, originally?”

“We want to kill all the Chinese people.”

“Please take the next elevator.”

When creating the piece, comments like this one, all of which Wang said were on the receiving end of it, were burnt into traditional Chinese Xuan paper. Displays it on top of the built-in mirrors, allowing parts of the mirror to see through.

Through her work, artist Kelly Wang tells stories of anti-Asian racism and her journey toward self-acceptance.Jeff Evans

Besides looking over the shoulder, she said, mirrors take on another meaning.

“Feeling those words, and the effect they have on your experience, is almost like burning up. It changes the view you have of yourself,” Wang said. “But you can also shift your response to that image, so it’s not like the text should completely obscure how you see yourself. “

Curator Carrie Liu said in an email that the museum initially aimed to explore Wang’s artistic relationship to her heritage.

“Working closely with Kelly has exposed underlying tensions in falling between cultural traditions, or in dealing with the loss of a parent,” Liu said. “The course of action is compelling, and our job was to get out of the way and let Kelly and her art speak for themselves.”

Wang said she’s used decades ranging from contemporary designer brands to vintage designs as she imagined a variety of women who might slip off their shoulders when standing alone in the city.

Personal safety dramatically affected the minds of Asian Americans when Wang began work on the installation two years ago, at the height of the first wave of the pandemic, and it remains a concern for her now. On the day Wang’s art show opened in Princeton last month, striker Michelle Gou pushed 40-year-old to her death in front of a New York subway.

As the arrival of Covid-19 sparked a wave of xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans and trans Asians, Wang said some residents in her apartment building began refusing to let her go up in an elevator even when they were the only person inside, meaning he didn’t. It has not yet filled its recommended social distancing capacity.

The Kelly Wang Show consists of four galleries displaying a range of works that combine traditional art styles with contemporary techniques.Emile Askey/Princeton University Art Museum

Some comments on the conventions stem from a much longer history of permanent Westernization. Born and raised in New York City, Wang often asked questions about where she came from.

She said, “If you say, ‘Well, I’m from New York,’ they say, ‘No, but where are you from originally?’ “Like, OK, so you want to know, what is my background? What is my ethnicity?”

But the hateful words on some mirrors are accompanied by other mirrors displaying images of bamboo and calligraphy drawings, representing Chinese culture, and Wang said she only embraced them when she began to own her ethnic background.

“Before I had these experiences, I wasn’t really forced to care or even recognize my different origins, the fact that I have this past,” she said. “So even though these comments were very painful at first, they eventually got me to do a lot of deeper self-exploration. I never wanted to hide from who I really was.”

For Wang, expression through art is one way that Asian Americans can speak. Little of the artwork, she said, centers around anti-Asian racism, and many within the community remain silent about their trauma and history.

As much as her exhibition helps tell their story, she said it also raises questions about the identity they share.

“I think a lot about the term ‘Asian American’ and whether it’s something people call themselves in order to experience reactions to their presence from the outside world,” Wang said. “Because I’ve always thought of myself as an American, and there is no American race.”

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