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Duluth collective reckons with racial stereotypes in new art exhibit

“We’re preserving lessons learned from our families, preserving culture, preserving our history and we’re putting it on this very intimate display."

Women talk in exhibit.
Julia Cheng, left, talks with Kim Nordin near a sample of Sharon Kwong’s writing Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in the Duluth Art Institute. Cheng and Nordin are among the artists whose work is included in “Like Me, Like You,” an exhibit examining the experiences of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community members in the Twin Ports.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Julia Cheng moves through the John Steffl Gallery, stopping at a 3-D sculpture. Photo collages folded into shapes of different sizes are positioned on the wall.

“We’ve got cranes, flowers, this is my frog. I learned when I was 3,” said Cheng of the origami paper-folding technique.

The sculpture, by Viann Nguyen-Feng, is one of many in The Twin Ports APIDA Collective ’s multimedia exhibit on display through March at the Duluth Art Institute.

“Like Me, Like You” kicks off with a virtual opening and artist talk from 5:30-7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 26. Attendees can register at https://bit.ly/35o81KJ and will receive an emailed Zoom link.

Woman talks about her art.
Artist Aya Kawaguchi talks about her art displayed in “Like Me, Like You” on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

The Twin Ports APIDA Collective , or TPAC, is a local group aimed at advocating and building awareness and equity for Asian Pacific Islander Desi American community in the Duluth-Superior area. And the exhibit is the latest in a stream of efforts by the collective to share experiences of an often underrepresented community.

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Art work hangs on wall.
Among the pieces displayed in “Like Me, Like You” is a three-dimension sculpture representing a bending rice stalk, the logo of the Twin Ports Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Collective.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

“Invisibility is the APIDA curse,” TPAC member Jennifer Lien told the News Tribune last fall.

“People are always saying, ‘I’m sorry for the emotional labor,’ but I feel like our narrative is nobody’s ever listened to us before, so to be invited to tell our story, to me, is an important part of this work,” she continued.

For the photo collage sculpture, conceptual artist Viann Nguyen-Feng printed stacks of submitted images, which TPAC members folded into hearts, boats and flowers.

Viann Nyguygen-Feng smiles for a headshot
Viann Nguyen-Feng
Contributed / Bobby Rogers, Walker Art Center

“It represents all of us,” Nguyen-Feng said. “We have something unique to bring together. We form a beautiful cohesive whole.
“The sum is greater than all the parts,” she added.

During the News Tribune’s visit to the exhibit, Duluth painter Aya Kawaguchi said she creates her nature silhouettes on glass by whittling away bits of acrylic using a sharpened chopstick.

“Not the nice chopsticks, the really cheap ones. It doesn’t damage the surface of the glass,” she said.

Participating in TPAC and this exhibit have been beneficial for Kawaguchi in many ways.

“I have no experience growing up in the U.S., but my kids are struggling. They’re full Japanese. I’m seeing I can learn an approach to understand the situation they’re in right now,” Kawaguchi said.

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Laura Judd smiles for a headshot
Contributed / Laura Judd, Shawna Vine Photography

Other participating APIDA artists include Laura Judd, Dahee Kim and Matthew Koshmrl, Julie Kim, Sharon Kwong and Sharon Yung.
Not all who participated are artists, said Pakou Ly, who submitted for the exhibit a traditional Hmong outfit created by her mother.

“We’re preserving lessons learned from our families, preserving culture, preserving our history and we’re putting it on this very intimate display. It takes a lot of courage,” Ly said.

Cheng submitted professional and personal photographs.

An image of hers features a young woman learning Laotian dance from her father. It was taken in 2002, when Cheng was chief photographer at the Sentinel and Enterprise newspaper in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Pakou Ly ruffles a pink sash on a dress displayed at the Duluth Art Institute.
Pakou Ly ruffles a pink sash on a dress displayed for exhibit "Like Me, Like You" at the Duluth Art Institute. Ly is a member of local advocacy group, the Twin Ports Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans. The exhibit is the latest in group efforts to raise awareness and connection.
Contributed / Julia Cheng

“There’s a lot of work here that reflects the relationships between parents and daughters.

“The daughters just seem to either assume or receive or somehow carry a lot of burden with their parents, especially with Chinese culture,” said the Duluth woman.

Cheng’s parents are immigrants from China, she and her siblings were born in the U.S., and growing up as a first-generation citizen, she had one foot where her parents came from and one foot in American culture.

Cheng also unearthed for this exhibit dual images of her parents in the hospital after her father’s stroke.

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Woman stands near two pictures.
Julia Cheng talks about the “Like Me, Like You” exhibition Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. In the background a pair of pictures comprise “The Long Journey” a story of an Korean adoptee, by Cheng and Julie Kim.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

In one, her mother watches two nurses in blue scrubs tend to their patient. In another, her father in a hospital gown rests his arm on a pillow, his other hand in mid-air.

“It was probably the peak of my maturity as a photojournalist, so part of it was documenting this because it’s an important part of our family history,” Cheng said. “It’s painful, but some of the professional detachment also played a part.

“It’s been a long time since I shot these, and it’s still hard to look at them," she said.

This set of images stuck out to Heather Halberg of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

Halberg brought her 2-year-old to the Depot’s train museum, and filtering to the fourth floor with her family, she was pleasantly surprised with TPAC’s exhibit.

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“What we’ve done is decolonize the organization," Christina Woods said.

“You’re expecting what you’ve always seen on field trips as a kid. This exhibit is refreshing and unexpected,” Halberg said, adding: “You know someone hit on something that’s missing if it surprises you.”

Halberg noted the representation of the APIDA community, and of one’s elders.

If people aren’t familiar, there can be fear, apprehension or lack of familiarity when observing the elderly, well or ailing. Halberg works as a caregiver, and said she really appreciated seeing this representation, too.

You know someone hit on something that’s missing if it surprises you.
Heather Halberg, Eau Claire, Wisconsin

Of the exhibit as a whole, Halberg added: “It’s beautiful. It’s good for all of us. It’s good for my son.”

Kim Nordin said the exhibit is good for her son, too.

The collective commissioned works from the Duluth jewelry-maker behind Seoul and Stone , who made a ring with a crescent moon hugging a large labradorite — a stone for transformation — and a bracelet featuring a keshi pearl mounted on a cooper-cast fern leaf.

Contributing to “Like Me, Like You” prompted Nordin to look inward to her Asian-American identity and the experiences that make her who she is.

“How can I use that to help heal myself and also to create a path for my son, who’s half-Asian, so he doesn't struggle so much with identity?” she said. “He sees this, and this is representation of our people.”

Sharon Kwong headshot
Sharon Kwong
Contributed / Sharon Kwong

It doesn't matter where we’re from, it turns out we all have a lot in common in terms of what we want in our lives, how we want to raise our children, what we want to do and how we want to go about contributing to our communities, Sharon Kwong told the News Tribune.

TPAC members have been invited to participate in the Duluth Public Schools' Education Equity Advisory Committee. The collective is looking into nonprofit status and into building a website, where they hope to digitally house some of these works.

“Like Me, Like You” turned out to be more than Cheng imagined.
“Our exhibit was going to be about a sense of displacement … I don't think I agree with that anymore. Out of our relationships, the strength of our family ties, our friendships, our ties with each other, we have created a place for ourselves here.

“We’ve made a home for ourselves here,” Cheng said.

If you go

This story was updated at 1:12 p.m. Jan. 27, 2022, to reflect that TPAC members have been invited to participate in the Duluth Public Schools' Education Equity Advisory Committee; and again at 3:19 p.m. Jan. 27, 2022, to correct the spelling of Viann Nguyen-Feng's name.

Melinda Lavine is an award-winning, multidisciplinary journalist with 16 years professional experience. She joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2014, and today, she writes about the heartbeat of our community: the people.

Melinda grew up in central North Dakota, a first-generation American and the daughter of a military dad.

She earned bachelors degrees in English and Communications from the University of North Dakota in 2006, and started her career at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald that summer. She helped launch the Herald's features section, as the editor, before moving north to do the same at the DNT.

Contact her: 218-723-5346, mlavine@duluthnews.com.
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