3 Asian-American Artists You Should Know About
With the rising popularity of Asian media in western pop culture, it becomes easy to neglect how difficult it is for debuting Asian-American artists to succeed in their field, especially compared to their White counterparts. When we discuss Asian-American artists, not only are we celebrating their hard-won successes, but we are encouraging the future generation of budding artists who struggled to see themselves represented in their dream industries. To begin, these are three Asian-American artists who should be household names.
1. Julia Riew
On the surface, it looks like a simple 41-second clip online drastically changed Julia Riew’s life. In reality, that snippet of her song-writing had been a lifetime in the making.
The librettist discovered her love of music composition from a young age. Her experiences of being one of the few Asians in the musical theater department, both while growing up and while attending Harvard, inspired her to co-found the Asian Student Arts Project, at her alma mater. With ASAP, she wrote and produced many of her early musical projects.
Whether it’s writing a slice-of-life piece surrounding an Asian-American college student or molding her freshmen computer science lectures into fantastical, sci-fi musicals, Riew’s musical projects often incorporate aspects of her experiences. This is especially apparent in her most popular work, which delves deep into Riew’s relationship with her Korean culture and heritage.
“I decided that it was sort of time to unite my art, which is one of the most important things to me, with my culture, which is another really, really important thing to me,” Riew told indy100. Thus, for her senior thesis project, she began working on Shimcheong: A Folktale, which follows a young woman’s fantastical journey home from The Dragon Kingdom.
In addition to being inspired by the Korean fable, The Blind Man’s Daughter, Riew channeled her experiences of being perceived as foreign into the musical: grappling with being the only Asian in musical programs during her childhood, reconciling with the disconnect with her Korean heritage as a second-generation immigrant, being perpetually perceived as a foreigner in Seoul. “[Shimcheong’s] greatest fear is never belonging anywhere,” she told Harvard Gazette. “That’s my greatest fear too.” The honesty imbued into her storytelling and her creative talents quickly gained popularity online.
On January 7th, Riew posted a clip of her song, “Dive”, with the caption, “There was no Korean Disney princess so I decided to make my own :)”. Her work immediately began amassing attention worldwide and now, less than a year later, her first TikTok now has over 1.2 million views and her account with over a hundred thousand followers. In addition to collaborating with Broadway actor, Raymond J Lee, and Dan Povenmire, creator of hit TV show, Phineas and Ferb, Riew’s latest partnership involved working with LG and ReadyEntertainment to animate a scene for “Dive”.
2. Kim Jung Gi
On October 3rd, 2022, millions across the globe mourned the loss of a legend. On his way to New York City’s Comic Con, artist Kim Jung Gi suffered a sudden heart attack and passed away.
Hailing from South Korea, Gi had always known he wanted to pursue drawing and had studied Art and Design at Dong-Eui University of Busan. His works included creating “Tiger the Long Tail” comic series and illustrating “The Paradise” and “Third Humanity”. He also taught art at the university level, designed commissioned music album covers, and painted exhibition murals in government offices and celebrity houses. Most notably for his Western audience, Gi frequently collaborated with Marvel and DC Comics to draw covers and teach workshops. “I’ve always lived with a ‘If there is something I want to draw, I must draw it, no matter when or where I am’ kind of mindset,” he said in an interview with Visual Atelier 8.
Perhaps what is most astounding about Gi’s art style is the sheer precision and speed at which he works. Often drawing before a live audience, Gi’s stunning visual memory and decades of artistic experience meant that he could produce sprawling cityscapes or colorful ensemble pieces without need for a reference or pause. Because he viewed art as “just an instant from . . . continuous moment[s] in time”, Gi would focus on “recogniz[ing] and memoriz[ing] the key elements of the subject matter” in order to establish his piece’s framework. He recalled always striving to draw from memory, from when he was a child recreating scenes from the television or serving in the war and observing the different shapes and structures of weaponry.
Equal parts entertaining and impressive, Gi’s creative process and commitment was what awarded him the Guinness World Record for “longest drawing by an individual for the Fisheye Art”. He dedicated 20 hours over the span of a few days to complete a complex and intricate mural that earned him the title. As an advocate for studying traditional art principles and patience, Gi regularly reminded his students that “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.”
Popular comic book artists, such as Jim Lee, C.B. Cebulski, Hyun Jin Kim, and Jean-Christophe Caurette, have all paid their respects to the late comic book artist. In tribute to Kim Jung Gi, his manager and fellow artist, Hyun Jin Kim, wrote: “After having done so much for us, you can now put down your brushes.” Both his artworks and teachings as an educator remind artists about the importance of observing the world and carefully translating that beauty onto paper.
3. Tiffany Chung
“People ask me whether I see myself as a visual artist, historian, anthropologist, or archaeologist. And to be honest,” Tiffany Chung told Smithsonian American Art Museum. “I see myself as an artist foremost, but I am not afraid of stepping beyond the boundary of art into other disciplines.”
Born in Da Nang, Vietnam, this Vietnamese-American multimedia artist has won several awards for her work surrounding diaspora and culture. After speaking with her father—a Vietnamese military veteran—and tracing his journeys as a pilot and later, prisoner of war, she realized the latent powers that maps hold in terms of storytelling.
Her dynamic utilization of cartography often illustrates the ripple effects of conflict, migration, refugee crises, and gentrification over the course of time. Her exhibits, including “The Vietnam Exodus Project”, “The Syria Project”, “The Global Refugee Migration Project”, “Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past is Prologue”, and “passage of time” have been featured internationally in varying art museums.
Her acclaimed projects interconnect time, individual narratives, and historical events in a manner that is thought-provoking and stunning. Her paintings and cartography breathe life into statistics about the destruction of manmade or natural disasters, often narrowing in on individual stories in a way that magnifies the crises as a whole. Her artwork frequently marries advocacy, tragedy, and surreal whimsy.
“As Vietnamese Americans living in the U.S., our narrative of the war is almost invisible. I’m interested in hidden histories, or histories that were erased in the official records.”
Always somewhat transcendent in nature, art surpasses language barriers and international boundaries. It also serves as a mirror to reflect not only the artist but their experiences and the history they carry with them. As pop culture in America shifts to become more accepting of diversity, more opportunities arise to witness Asian American stories in different artistic interpretations.
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Andrew, Scottie. “Kim Jung Gi, Acclaimed Comic Book Artist, Dies at 47.” CNN, 5 Oct. 2022, https://www.cnn.com/style/article/kim-jung-gi-death-cec/index.html.
Butler, Sinead. “Songwriter Julia Riew on Her Viral Disney-Inspired Korean Princess Musical and ‘For You Paige’ Collaboration.” indy100, 3 Jul. 2022, https://www.indy100.com/viral/julia-riew-korean-disney-princess.
Carras, Christi. “Acclaimed Artist Kim Jung Gi Dies Of a Heart Attack At Age 47.” Los Angeles Times, 5 Oct. 2022, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-10-05/kim-jung-gi-death-heart-attack.
Cho, Isabella B. “Reimaginging a Korean Folktale, Julia Riew ‘22 Finds A Part of Herself.” The Harvard Crimson, 5 Apr. 2022, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2022/4/5/julia-riew-profile-harvard-tiktok/.
Dimitras, Dana. “Interview With Kim Jung Gi.” Visual Atelier 8, 1 Sept. 2018, https://visualatelier8.com/interview-with-kim-jung-gi/.
Gillett, Katy. “Kim Jung Gi, Acclaimed Comic Book Artist, Dies of ‘Sudden’ Heart Attack Aged 47.” The National News, 5 Oct. 2022, https://www.thenationalnews.com/arts-culture/art/2022/10/06/kim-jung-gi-acclaimed-comic-book-artist-dies-of-sudden-heart-attack-aged-47/.
Homaïssi, Lama El. “‘Thumbelina’ Carries Big Message to the Stage.” The Harvard Gazette, 17 Dec. 2019, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/12/julia-riew-21-brings-thumbelina-to-the-a-r-t-stage/.
“Tiffany Chung.” Tyler Rollins Fine Art, https://www.trfineart.com/artist/tiffany-chung/#artist-works.
“Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue.” Smithsonian American Art Museum, https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/chung.
“Who Was Kim Jung Gi? Guinness World Records Holder Passed Away Due to Heart Attack.” The Economic Times, 4 Oct. 2022, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/international/us/who-was-kim-jung-gi-guinness-world-records-holder-passed-away-due-to-heart-attack/articleshow/94667033.cms?from=mdr.