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Artists explore Asian identities through art in "Hidden in Plain Sight"

Courtesy of Frances Grace Mortel
Courtesy of Frances Grace Mortel

This month Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander artists and groups will be sharing their work and experiences at several galleries and events.

Pui-Yan Lam, a professor at Eastern Washington University and member of the Spokane Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition, says she and event participants hope to bring to light disparities within those communities.

“There has been a nationwide conversation from our Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities that the use of the term API or, API in the past has oftentimes kind of [made] Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders invisible, even though we have this term that's meant to be inclusive, but in practice it hasn't been,” Lam said.

She says EWU students led a conversation about that issue this week and there are several campus events, as well as art exhibits.

The art exhibits, Hidden in Plain Sight, explore identity, colonization and race. Spokane Public Radio’s Rebecca White spoke to the artists, Margaret Albaugh and Frances Grace Mortel about their work.

Albaugh’s new portrait series and interview series, Indivisible, shares the perspective of people who have experienced racism.

Albaugh’s portraits will be on display at Eastern Washington University, from now until the end of the month. A panel on the portraits and a screening of Mortel’s film will be held May 16. The exhibits will also be displayed at the Terrain Gallery in Spokane. More information is available at apicspokane.org.

Below are interviews with artist Margaret Albaugh and Frances Grace Mortel.

White: "The overall Hidden in Plain Sight project in your Indivisible series, how did that come about, and what were the circumstances that led to these pieces?"

Albaugh: "It started in the midst of COVID, and people saying things that I found were hurtful. My husband made a Facebook post sharing something from the Asian American community about how we shouldn't say Chinese Flu anymore because in anti-Asian hate. And, I was shocked by the amount of people who were mocking him, and were almost offended by the very thought that this could be a racist thing to say. They defended Trump's usage of the words, and just a lot of microaggressions around how people of color perceive racism. I realized as I was reading these words, that I'm the only person experiencing that tension and frustration, and aggression - and the only person who sees it as aggression. People think of racism, and they think of a rural countryside with men in white hoods. That's what they think of, but racism is much more pervasive that that. We all have biases, and we're all responsible for assessing those biases. 

White: "What themes came up when you spoke to the subjects of these photos - is there experiences that were pretty consistent throughout your conversations with them?"

Albaugh: "A lot of activism has come up because of things people have struggled through. And the points of representation - being able to see people who are like them, especially in schools. A lot of people talked about how they didn't see teachers that looked like them, and that effected them how they saw themselves in society, and how they connected to their teachers, whether they felt their teacher could understand them, and whether they saw themselves in the curriculum. One of the participants talked about how the things that their family had ben through had never been taught in school - meaning the genocide. He talks about the Khmer Rouge and how he never learned about that in school but it impacted an entire country, killed thousands of people and displaced many people. Yet, he was hearing about it through an after-school program.

White: "Is there anything you hope as people come into contact with these photos, or read these interviews, that you hope they'll walk away with?"

Albaugh: "I hope people keep in my that these are very vulnerable stories and with every story regardless of how strong that person is for what they've been through that they're still dealing with a lot of these things. If we really want to work toward progress, the work needs to be done by everybody. It can't be left alone too people of color or marginalized groups to try to fend for themselves, but it really commands that we all work together to try and change things and look out for each other."

Mortel , a Spokane filmmaker, will be showing her documentary, Diaspora Recipes both at Eastern, and a multi-media installation exhibit will also be shown at Terrain Gallery.

Her film follows two Asian women in Spokane who are navigating the food, culture and integration into the U. S.

frances grace mortel interview radio edit.wav

White: "Tell me a little bit about yourself as an artist, and the intention behind your work?

Mortel: "I do the intersections between experimental and documentary, and try to kind of marry the medium. Those barriers and challenges [such as] being new to the space, being an immigrant, being a woman, being queer, and being a person of color in Spokane. It's really what fuels my commitment to really telling stories, authentic stories, and amplify stories that really examine truths that people are not familiar with here, and the intergenerational identities also, and hopefully inspire social justice."

White: "Was Diaspora Recipes a continuation of that? Or was it inspired by a personal experience or story?"

Mortel: "The core of the project is really about these two women - two Asian American immigrants who are talking about their journey to the United States, and their passion for food. I'm really following them for a couple of months, and following their process as they adapt into the new space and introduce their recipes, and how they're recipes are evolving. It’s really observing them and following them while they do their cooking process while they're in their kitchen, while they're at work, or while they're feasting with their family members when there is a gathering.

White: "What are some of themes that stuck out to you through this documentary?"

Mortel: "There is a complexity about identity in terms of culture and also how migration and colonization intersect. When I say migration and colonization, I mean there is this question about integration and assimilation, why specific terms are called this way and became like the Western term for a certain dish for a certain culture. Things like that. 

I think specifically these two women, they'res the thing about how they're also evolving with how they cook, with their food making process. They remain who they are, but they're also integrating different things because they're in a different space."

White: "Is there anything you hope people take away after experiencing it?"

Mortel: "I want to amplify their stories and I want them to be seen and heard. (I want) for people to see that there is no single definition of what an immigrant woman, there's no single definition of someone who's not from here, and has moved here and is settling. 

People think Asian people and tend to consolidate (the experience) into one. I just really want for people to see the complexities that these women have, and break down all these tropes and stereotypes." 

Reporter's note: This stories headline has been corrected to reflect that the Hidden in Plain Sight exhibit explores Asian identities.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.