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Traveling exhibit showcases Asian American and Pacific Islander artists from Kentucky

A piece of art depicting a woman sitting at a restaurant table with glasses and a bottle in front of her.
Divya Karthikeyan
Louisville artist Eriko Whittaker's piece "For One."

An exhibit that features 30 Asian American and Pacific Islander artists is making the rounds in Kentucky. It’s at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville through June 2.

The “Continent to Commonwealth” traveling exhibit began its stop in Louisville earlier this month – coinciding with Asian American Pacific Islander Month. It displays 33 works by Asian American and Pacific Islanders from Kentucky.

The Kentucky Arts Council partnered with the nonprofit Asia Institute-Crane House and the Kentucky Chinese American Association to choose 30 artists to showcase works unique to their cultures and experiences.

It started in spring 2023 after an open call to Asian American artists followed by a jury selection of artworks across Kentucky’s counties, according to Asia Institute-Crane House Executive Director Joel Buno. The exhibit tour kicked off May 2023.

The artists come from different counties in Kentucky, and not just from major cities like Louisville and Lexington.

“We made sure to be intentional with the diversity — diversity in not only areas of Asia, but also diversity of areas in the state of Kentucky. And also diversity in what we define as AAPI,” Buno said.

The exhibit stands near the main entrance of the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, where it will remain through June 2. There’s quilted silk pieces, mixed media art, landscape paintings, photographs, needlepoint and charcoal sketches displayed on portable panels.

The pieces capture an array of experiences of the Asian diaspora and directly engage with traditional art forms and themes from across Asia, whether it’s Korean vintage silk or Japanese mulberry paper and chiyogami paper.

Some emphasized sentimentality and yearning for family, home and communion as an important anchor in navigating American culture, and a few pieces were an open response to the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some of their influences come from a fellow Asian country, American Western culture, different forms of art — you just have to know what drives you. And we've made sure that we got that reflection from the artists that we chose,” Buno said.

On display at the exhibit is Jacob Herrera Wachal’s work. He’s a second-generation Filipino American photographer from Lexington. His family immigrated to the United States from Cebu, Philippines, in 1978.

Wachal said his work in the series is a marriage of his Filipino traditions in an American setting that’s recognizable to many audiences.

'Pagpangandam' by Lexington photographer Jacob Herrera Wachal
Jacob Wachal/Kentucky Arts Council
'Pagpangandam' by Lexington photographer Jacob Herrera Wachal

That includes his photo of a spread of Filipino ingredients from a family get-together at his grandparents’ house in South Carolina, where he learned more about his heritage.

“Sitting there for hours and prepping all these ingredients gave me so much time to talk with my elders, with my grandparents, with my mom and her siblings,” he said.

Another of Wachal’s pieces is a photograph of his grandfather flying a kite fashioned out of a typical American Chinese takeout bag.

'Tabanog' by Lexington photographer Jacob Herrera Wachal
Jacob Wachal/Kentucky Arts Council
'Tabanog' by Lexington photographer Jacob Herrera Wachal

For Wachal, his graduate school research focused heavily on how photography was “utilized and exploited as a colonial tool” to depict cultures in Africa, South America and Asia in an often negative light.

“How can I, you know, 100 years after the fact, as a Filipino American, reckon with this and kind of subvert the expectations of what a photograph of a Filipino person could be, and kind of reclaim this medium for myself as a way to explore my identity more authentically,” he said.

The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts is located at 501 W. Main St. Patrons attending performances there can see the exhibit, and it’s available for public viewing from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. May 31.

There will be a special reception and meet-and-greet with artists on June 2, with food and performances from the Asian continent. It’s free and open to the public.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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