Scenes of metaphorical and physical assault pulse through Ben Sakoguchi’s painting Chinatown (2014), as he makes visible the violence Chinese Americans have endured for centuries in the United States. Some of the fifteen panels depict textbook historical events in comic book fashion; others collage contemporary examples of yellowface. Most striking are Sakoguchi’s representations of lesser-known episodes of anti-Chinese fervor. One section toward the upper right corner of Chinatown shows a group of armed white men herding Chinese men aboard the steamship Queen of the Pacific during the Seattle riot of 1886; hundreds of Chinese residents were forcibly expelled. In a compact scene on the opposite side of the same panel, Chinese miners flee during the 1885 Rock Springs massacre in Wyoming—at least twenty-eight were murdered by white miners. Drawing on extensive research, the artist highlights the intertwinement of political propaganda, xenophobic legislation, cultural production, and interpersonal conflict. Still, the panels are less a comprehensive history of racial oppression than a reminder of its unmapped expanse.
Chinatown’s centerpiece pulls away from the height of violence to focus on its disquieting aftermath: Sakoguchi renders the bodies of eighteen men lynched during the Chinese massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles (between seventeen and twenty-one are known to have died). The youngest was a teenage boy. In Sakoguchi’s other historical panels, the figures are cartoonish, their clothing nondescript; here, in stark detail, we see creased pants, muddied soles, and knotted nooses.
Contemporary artists of color have tended to avoid (re)producing images of brutalized bodies. Sakoguchi partly shields the suspended cadavers with ornate red-and-yellow screens, but their apertures ultimately accentuate bodily harm. Exhibited at Bel Ami seven years after its making, Chinatown joins an online outpouring of images of bruised and bloodied Asian Americans, reminding us that anti-Asian violence is not just a series of individual acts—and that even images circulated with the intention of making bodily trauma more “real” are often seen through an Othering lens.
“One Work” is a new short-form review format in which writers focus on a single piece on view at a current exhibition.