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Detail of BEN SAKOGUCHI’s Chinatown, 2014, acrylic on canvas, wooden frames (15 panels), 134.6 × 231.1 cm. Courtesy Bel Ami, Los Angeles.

Chinatown

Ben Sakoguchi

Also available in:  Chinese

Borrowing from the language of commemorative plaques, comic books, political cartoons, and pop culture, Ben Sakoguchi’s 15-panel, acrylic-on-canvas Chinatown (2015) was the banner work in his exhibition of the same name at Bel Ami gallery, itself located in Los Angeles’s Chinatown neighborhood. The central panel of Sakoguchi’s painting is a searing depiction of the Chinese massacre of 1871, in which 18 Chinese men were hanged by a mob of 500 White and Hispanic men, less than a kilometer from the gallery. Considered the largest mass lynching in United States history, it is an event not covered in the official history books that form American national identity. Sakoguchi’s exhibition—which, in addition to Chinatown, included smaller canvases made throughout a five-decade career—offered an alternative American history told through racialized and bigoted affronts, through the eyes of an octogenarian Japanese-American who spent his formative years with his family in an Arizona internment camp during World War II. The unassuming show in a quiet Chinatown shopping center carried great import and timeliness, considering the rising anti-Asian sentiment in the United States and the killings, during the show’s run, of six Asian spa workers in Atlanta by White mass shooter Robert Aaron Long.

Chinatown is the only work in the main exhibition space, evoking a memorial or mausoleum. Meticulous attention is paid to each of the 18 victims, with their detailed clothing and lifeless, gaping faces. The figures are partially obscured by Sakoguchi’s overlaying of latticed, decorative screens, the type often seen throughout touristy Chinatowns in the US, suggesting that we continue to view non-hegemonic or non-Western cultures through an Orientalizing lens. 

Smaller canvases radiate around this central panel like aftershocks to the 1871 massacre. One canvas depicts incidences including the expulsion of over 200 Chinese people after the Seattle riot of 1886 and the 1885 Rock Springs, Wyoming, massacre of more than 28 Chinese miners. Other panels illustrate 19th-century political posters comparing the Chinese to rats; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; a grouping of stereotyped, sneering Chinese villains from American comic books; and examples of yellowface in classic Hollywood movies. A portrait panel of Vincent Chin, who was mistaken as being Japanese and beaten to death in 1982 by two Detroit auto workers who blamed the declining local industry on Japanese car imports, felt wincingly reminiscent of the beating in April 2021 of an elderly Mexican woman on a bus in Los Angeles by an assailant who perceived her as Chinese. 

A panel titled Slitty-Eyes is dedicated to more than a dozen instances in which public figures made the derogatory slanted-eyes gesture or openly used the racial slur “slitty-eyes,” including David Bowie, comedian Sarah Silverman, Prince Phillip, various sports figures at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, Miley Cyrus, and more. Racism against Asians is a murky topic in the US, in part due to the model-minority myth and the effacement of Asian-American contribution and struggle in the nation’s historical narrative. The feat accomplished by Chinatown is that it reads like a forensic chart that clearly catalogues the reality of longstanding anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment in the US. 

Smaller works in the back room follow a unique rubric the artist devised in the 1970s, in which advertisements and signage for oranges—a distinctly 19th- and early 20th-century Southern California product—are appropriated in paintings about everything from baseball to politics to art history. The charming La Vide Brand (1997), from when Sakoguchi lived in Giverny, imagines Claude Monet swan-diving off his Japanese bridge side by side with Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960). In El Niño Brand (2002), Sakoguchi creates a humorous trifecta between an orange, the NASA logo, and a climate map of a warming planet Earth. Pointing to the dearth of medical resources in the US during the onset of the pandemic, PPE Brand (2020) places the Boy Scouts’ “Be Prepared” logo with unflattering images of former president Donald Trump, improvised protective gear, and trash-bag-wrapped oranges. These smaller works show Sakoguchi’s knack for combining disparate elements to reveal unsavory realities within society, making his an essential voice in an unvarnished American cultural landscape. 

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