Illusion
Photo Sculpture (ortho transparencies, ink, plexiglass)
3.5" x 3.5" x 2.5"
Diane Tani, 1987

Gallery · Statement · Interview · Bibliography · Essay

Essay
Diane Tani

Cultural Constructions:
Rethinking Past and New Realities
by Theresa Harlan 1994

For me this space of radical openness is a margin's profound edge. Locating oneself there is difficult yet necessary It is not a "safe" place.

- bell hooks (1)

Identity has been highlighted as one of the key issues of the 1990s and has enjoyed an especially popular treatment in photographic circles. Photography, thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to corroborate American history, is now being employed by those it has historically subordinated to create new historiographies. The photographic works of Diane Tani, Sharon Tani, and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie move discussions of representation and self-identity to historical, cultural, and political photographic constructions that create "spaces of radical openness."

As bell hooks says, these spaces are not safe. These artists must reach into a difficult past to invert present realities through historical connections. With their historiographic constructions they carefully examine past realities and face past sufferings to understand the colonial and racial mechanisms that persist to subjugate Asians, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, respectively. Their personal experience of these mechanisms distinguishes their work from that which relies on vicarious expression. In their work they literally construct space for oppositional voices to American white supremacy, and they continue to build a home for their own empowerment by way of asserting their own self-representation and history.

Diane Tani and Sharon Tani, sisters born to a Chinese American mother and Japanese American father, each discuss their family history through photographic imagery. Diane Tani creates small, intimate constructions of Plexiglas boxes and photo-transparency overlays. Each box (measuring roughly 2" x 3" x 3" to 6" x 4" x 12") contains three photo-transparencies, each of which is held between two Plexiglas plates. The viewer looks through layers of photographic images to create a composite image, mirroring the complexity of identity with specific regard to Asian American history and the layers and depth of each individual experience. The small scale and layered imagery insist that the viewer bend close to take in the full image. The effect is that the viewer must follow the path of his or her eyes, which are drawn in to such an intimate level that the viewer has the sensation of entering the Plexiglas box.

In Immigration (1988), the first transparency carries the words "We are living on borrowed land," while the second is an image of Tani's maternal grandmother seated with her hands clasped in front of her. The third is a map of immigration routes with directional arrows pointing to the United States, Australia, and Southeast Asia. The quotation belongs to her grandmother, who, as Diane describes,"...came over in the 1900s but never felt comfortable here. She reared eight kids and became a citizen, yet she always felt that China was really her home." (2)

Diane's grandmother never experienced the luxury of forgetting she was an immigrant, of becoming comfortable enough to "feel at home" - not because of language, not because of employment, not because of education, but because of race. The question that begs to be asked then is, How can a nation of immigrants - specifically Euro-American immigrants - become so comfortable that they forget that they too are "living on borrowed land"? The idea of home and who is at home is contested by Tani's own reflections: "As an Asian American I never really felt accepted as an American."(3) bell hooks looks at the changing locations of home as revealing its multiple meanings:

Indeed the very meaning of "home" changes with experience of decolonization, of radicalization. At times, home is nowhere. At times, one knows only extreme estrangement and alienation. Then home is no longer just one place. It is locations. Home is that place which enables and promotes varied everchanging perspectives, a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference. (4)

Diane Tani's Internment (1987) presents the experience of Japanese Americans who were interned by xenophobic Caucasian Americans during World War II as another location of home. Unlike Immigration, which reads front to back, Internment reads front to back and back to front. The viewer looks past barbed wire to a map of internment camps in the western United States and finally to an array of family snapshots of Tani's paternal Japanese American family who then return the gaze.

Diane's newest construction, Citizen (1994), contextualizes "citizen" and its civil entitlements in her created space of radical openness. Here she confronts myopic interpretations of citizenship with the duality of her family's American and Asian American experiences. The text and images follow the steps of their family home. The word American in red letters is at the bottom and closest to the viewer. On the next step is her grandmother's obituary written in Chinese with her residence clearly evident by the only Arabic letters - "S.F., CA." A family portrait of Tani's mother, aunts, and uncles as teens posed on the steps is the last image. Citizen is filled with irony and feelings that linger when something is not right: Diane's grandmother left this world forced to know different and oppositional locations of home.

Sharon Tani's photo-sculptural works include both constructed and found objects. In Anger on a Hanger she used liquid emulsion to print on a T-shirt an archival image of an older Euro-American man pointing to a sign on a cash register that reads, "We don't want any Japs back here - EVER!" The T-shirt, which looks worn and has burnt portions, hangs on a coat hanger made of barbed wire with an identification tag that reads, "lnternee, Relocation Camp, 1942." The coat hanger looks more like a skeleton, and the T-shirt, a piece of clothing worn to protect the body, is unable to protect its wearer from American hatred and racist attitudes. Anger is reflected in the T-shirt: the burn marks can be read as evidence of the abusive treatment experienced by its wearer or as the wearer's own searing anger.

It is interesting to note that Sharon chose not to use photographs of Japanese Americans and only referred to them through the sign and tag. It is the Euro-American man who is the subject and who must deal with his hatred and anger. The Japanese American has long ago discarded the shirt, as one would carefully remove oneself from a painful situation.

In Color Me True, Sharon Tani uses a child's pack of crayons to look at racial identity. Crayons may invoke memories of one's own childhood. Many parents can remember the delight in their own children's discovery of the color in nature. For children who are distinguished by their color by dominant white society the discovery of color takes a very different course. It is the beginning of the realization that, for some, color is associated with human value.

A segmented image of a young Asian woman with flowing hair who is lying on her back on the floor, is composed of eight crayons grouped together. Sharon has replaced the eight crayon wrappers with photographic paper; each wrapper is an eighth of the total image. The crayons are only half-way in the box, and the label on the box reads, "the American crayon." The red, brown, white, yellow, and black crayons, representing the spectrum of skin colors, point toward and encircle the woman's head. Her eyes are open and she is looking toward the viewer. The photograph of the woman is black-and-white, defying anyone to "color her true."

Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie uses photo-installations to discuss issues of identity and citizenship. For the last two years she has examined the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act signed into legislation by President Bush and written by Democratic congressman Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Republican congressman Jon Kyle, Jr., of Arizona. The act requires artists who identify themselves as American Indian/Native American (and consequently label their art as American Indian or Native American) to present written documentation of their Native bloodlines. (5)

Tsinhnahjinnie likens the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to the tracking of artists in fascist, communist, and Nazi governments and refuses the paternal protection of the U.S. federal government. She also protests the ideology of written documentation of Native ancestry in memory of the Native peoples who resisted all attempts to be so identified. She believes the history of written documentation of Native bloodlines is rooted in deceptive government policies and treaties, following her mother's warning to "never trust government policies of good intentions."

Tsinhnahjinnie created a photo-installation dealing with these issues in her one-woman exhibition, "Nobody' s Pet Indian" (1993), at the San Francisco Art Institute' s Walter McBean Gallery. She transformed the entire two-story gallery space into a one-room installation by connecting the first and second floors with black painted diagonals. Her use of black and white paint signified that issues of Native American identity and citizenship cannot be reduced to "black and white." 40" x 30" black-and-white photo-portraits of Native artists were hung by one end diagonally on the wall. Dwarfed by the scale of the room, the portraits resembled the small identification photographs used for passports. Tsinhnahjinnie presented a critique of Native citizenship imposed and self-imposed by physically surrounding the viewer with faces and voices of Native artists. Each artist was framed with their own words or Tsinhnahjinnie's imposed identification labels. A photograph of her father, artist Andy Tsinhnahjinnie, was framed with the label "Certified Native Specimen." Other artists were surrounded by their federal enrollment numbers. Black dots, two feet in diameter, were interspersed with the photographs; some had numbers in white lettering and others were blank. Tsinhnahjinnie challenged the viewer to identify the Native artists by the enrollment numbers. The blank dots represented Native artists without enrollment numbers and those who have politically chosen not to have them. Her use of painted diagonals, dots, and scale also works to activate the installation, "to stir things up."

On the second floor, Tsinhnahjinnie questioned the viewer - "Are all your Native artifacts racially pure" - through the use of wall text. She engaged the viewer to define his or her own relationship to the commodification of Native American art and artists. On the second floor was a sandbox ( 10' x 10') containing a plaster of paris mask of the artist, surrounded by hand- and footprints. It was this sandbox that Tsinhnahjinnie chose as her own space of radical openness.

Common to these artists' work is their opposition to the ideology of America as "...the land of the free and the home of the brave." They challenge those who decide who are allowed to make America their home and, consequently, to become its citizens. Japanese and Chinese peoples came to the United States like other immigrant populations, only to find themselves rejected by Euro-American immigrants and the ideals of the West torn from them as though they were undeserving. Native Americans are assumed to have been defeated by the prominence and grandeur of the European colonizers and their imaginations of the West. What they considered their home was also torn from them. Entitlements of citizenship, though constitutionally promised by birthright, are not guaranteed.

Diane Tani, Sharon Tani, and Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie speak to

...[those of you] who understand the dehumanization of forced removal-relocation-reeducation-redefinition, the humiliation of having to falsify your own reality, your voice - you know. And often cannot say it. You try and keep on trying to unsay it, for if you don't, they will not fail to fill in the blanks on your behalf, and you will be said. (6)

They use text, photographs, and environment to create spaces of resistance for their work. It is crucial for each photographer to create her own space to contextualize her work and not leave it to be contextualized by others. All three recognize the risk of leaving a door open for uninvited readings of their work and equally recognize that there is no safe place for them unless they create it.

Theresa Harlan is a lecturer, a writer on photography and Native American contemporary art and assistant curator at the CN Gorman Museum at the University of California, Davis. She recently guest-curated "Watchful Eyes: Native Women Artists and Self-Representation" for the Heard Museum in Phoenix.


Gallery · Statement · Interview · Bibliography · Essay

Index S-W

All text Theresa Harlan.
All photographs Diane Tani.