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Asian American artists resurface in Santa Ana’s ‘Yellow Submarine Rising’

Hand-painted banners at "Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art" at O.C. Center for Contemporary Art.
Hand-painted banners of family by Victo Ngai at “Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art” at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana. The show is a multidisciplinary exhibition showcasing compelling work by Asian American artists inspired by the #stopasianhate movement.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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“Yellow Submarine” was penned by Paul McCartney and John Lennon as a children’s song, and art historian and former Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Assn. board member Thuy N. D. Tran interprets the Beatles standard as a song of togetherness recognized by multiple generations.

“I learned it in elementary school, my 6-year-old son learned it too,” said Tran. “I know that it is a song that is still applicable and is still relevant. When I was learning it, the way my son was learning it, it was about togetherness and unity and bringing people to the realization that we all live in this together.”

Curator Thuy Tran stands at the "Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art" marquee piece.
Curator Thuy Tran stands at the “Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art” show marquee piece at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

However, during the pandemic, Tran said that rather than feeling a sense of togetherness, many minority groups, particularly the Asian American community, felt more isolated than ever. In 2021 the O.C. Human Relations Commission reported a 43% increase of anti-Asian/Pacific Islander hate crimes and a 164% increase in anti-Asian/Pacific Islander hate incidents from 2020 to 2021.

On Saturday, the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Assn. will open “Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art” at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in conjunction with the Downtown Santa Ana Art Walk. The multidisciplinary art exhibition is inspired by the #StopAsianHate movement and the resiliency of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans.

Tran borrowed the song as messaging for the title of the show for which she served as guest curator.

“I had to put ‘rising’ because it is an active submarine,” said Tran. “We are rising out of this, and we can only do it if we rise together.”

A photograph by Binh Dahn shows a Vietnamese family on a farm in New Orleans.
A photograph by Binh Dahn shows a Vietnamese family on a farm in New Orleans on display at “Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art.”
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Assn. was founded in 1991 by Vietnamese American journalists, artists and members of the community to make space for artists to express themselves as a newly resettled immigrant community. “Yellow Submarine Rising” is the last project of the yearlong celebration of the organization’s 30th anniversary.

The opening-night reception will feature poetry and spoken-word performances by Asian American artists. On Dec. 10, a children’s book reading will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. and include family-friendly crafts. The show closes on Dec. 17 with a special appearance by renowned photographer and artist Binh Danh.

The exhibition showcases the work of Danh, along with other contemporary artists like Antonius-Tin Bui, Alison Ho, Bonnie Huang, Alina Kawai, Victo Ngai and Jave Yoshimoto. The space is divided into sections by themes laid out in a circle so that no matter which direction visitors start viewing the show, they will always end up at the same place.

A vibrant piece by artist Jave Yoshimoto features Godzilla.
A vibrant piece by artist Jave Yoshimoto features Godzilla, on display at the “Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art” exhibit.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The show begins with “transference and futures,” where Tran said the focus is what to share with future generations. It is in this space that we see prints of “Wishes,” a children’s book about the immigrant experience by Muon Thi Van, illustrated by Victo Ngai.

“When you stand back from afar, you see this common element of waves,” Tran said of the prints from the book, “and that is purposeful. It is the continuation of a history.”

The second theme is “belonging_home.”

“The reason why that underscore is important is because without that sense of belonging that underscores home, you won’t feel it. You have to feel accepted,” said Tran.

In this space, the abstract visual art of Alina Kawai is featured.

“She is of Japanese descent, she is Japanese American, and her exploration here is her way of connecting to her traditional past out of fear of losing it,” said Tran.

Acrylic on canvas depicts simplified images of sakura blossoms and false strawberries, a type of weed that grows in Japan.

The section dedicated to the theme of “cultural legacies” includes work from Vietnamese American artist Antonius-Tin Bui, who uses the traditional technique of paper cutting.

An intricate laser-cut print by artist Antonius-Tin Bui hangs at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art.
An intricate laser-cut print by artist Antonius-Tin Bui hangs at the “Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art” exhibit at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“This is a nod back to a traditional method of creating paper cuts, which started in Chinese art but is shared in the East Asian region,” said Tran. “Usually they put them up on the wall during New Year.”

Traditional imagery and symbolism is the background for aggressively modern text in these hand- and laser-cut color paper decals that Bui describes as a response to the shared AAPI experience of intergenerational trauma and also a challenge to the stereotypical portrayal of AAPIs as silent, apolitical and submissive.

“Even though the paper medium is such a fragile thing, the message is serious and strong,” said Tran.

The final theme is “elevating empowerment.” While the show as a whole simultaneously retaliates against hatred toward the Asian American community while also celebrating its cultures and traditions, it is a sentiment best represented in Alison Ho’s Mylar balloon letter installation in this section.

An intricate laser-cut print by artist Antonius-Tin Bui is installed.
An intricate laser-cut print by artist Antonius-Tin Bui is installed at the “Yellow Submarine Rising: Currents Within Asian American Art” exhibit.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Bright pink-letter balloons spell out “Rock the Boat,” something Ho said conformists and sycophants advise against. Balloons signify celebration, but the words are also a call to action. Tran said combating racism requires both.

“So often we are told not to rock the boat, especially if you are in a work environment. But we have to rock the boat sometimes in order to make progress, in order to make change,” said Tran. “This is in Mylar balloon form because we also celebrate those moments when we do rock the boat. It is about a call to action as much as it about a celebration of making a difference.”

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