Justine Lai

Angry Nisei Drawings

Felt-tip pen on Ruth Asawa First Day Cover
3 5/8 x 6 1/2 inches each, 2020

These drawings are character sketches for an animation in progress that explores the aftershocks of the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government. The Nisei (“second generation”) are the American-born generation, jus soli citizens and children of immigrants, many of whom grew up under this wartime imprisonment. Two generations later, I, as a Yonsei (“fourth generation”), use my studio practice to engage with this history and examine the capacity for healing and self-determination in the wake of trauma and resilience.

The posthumous recognition of Nisei artist Ruth Asawa (1926-2013) includes not only art world ascension (catalyzed by mega-gallery David Zwirner representing her estate as of 2017) but also government commemoration in the form of a U.S. Postal Service stamp collection issued in 2020. I draw on the stamp’s first day cover, a format considered highly collectible by philatelists, in order to speak past its economic and political value by imaging personal catharsis and poignancy. Questioning the collectibility also points to the times when incarceration camp art, artifacts, and photographs are reduced to a dollar figure and offered up to bidders with little accountability to the community that originated them.

There is a longing in my work – to affirm an inheritance of Japanese American artmaking undertaken to process Japanese American trauma. At the same time, I don’t fully trust how this idea is distorted and bent when scoped through the lens of late capitalism. In my art I sit with this uncomfortable ambivalence, allowing both curiosity and criticality.

Justine Tamiko Lai is an artist from Sacramento, California. She has exhibited work at Asian Arts Initiative (Philadelphia, PA) and Gawker Media (New York, NY).

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