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Issue 221

Ben Sakoguchi's 'Chinatown’ Charts a History of Anti-Asian Hate

At Bel Ami, Los Angeles, the artist’s paintings take a satirical look at the grisly history of American bigotry against US Asian populations

BY Travis Diehl in Reviews , US Reviews | 30 APR 21

In 1938, the year Ben Sakoguchi was born, New Chinatown opened in Los Angeles. The old Chinatown, just a few blocks south, had been wiped clean, replaced by the rails of Union Station. A bronze plaque in Chinatown Central Plaza says as much, surrounded by burbling fountains and bauble shops, all crowned with faux-tiled roofs accented in garish colours conceived by Hollywood set designers. What no plaque will mention, though, is why Chinatown moved; why, in true LA style, the city started over.

For that, see Sakoguchi’s Chinatown (2014), a complex, multipanel history painting on view at Bel Ami. Sakoguchi spares no detail. The central panel, long and horizontal, is divided into 18 compartments – one for each of the victims of the infamous 1871 Chinatown lynching, the worst mass murder of its kind in US history. The painting is grisly and unflinching: the victims are mauled, bruised and hanged by their necks from trees and pullies. Yet, each is also delicately adorned – and partly concealed – by red and gold latticework of the sort that suffuses Chinatown.

Ben Sakoguchi Chinatown, 2014 Acrylic on canvas, wooden frames (15 panels) 53 x 91 in (134.6 x 231.1 cm)
Ben Sakoguchi, Chinatown, 2014, acrylic on canvas, wooden frames (15 panels) 135 × 231 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Bel Ami, Los Angeles

The surrounding panels wield a panoply of styles – from comics and graphic design to sign painting and historical markers – to tell the story of Chinese Americans. These range from the patriotic ­– a panel honouring a handful of US war heroes ­– to the shameful, such as a reprise of a racist ad for rat poison featuring a hungry Chinese immigrant depicted with a tail-like braid. Some are recast for the modern era: a political cartoon promoting the virtues of ‘cheap domestic labour’ (represented by a ruddy Irishman) versus ‘cheap foreign labour’ plays out above the logos of Wal-Mart and Apple. This anachronistic visual melting pot is as seductive as pop, but also underscores the vile fact that the culture of anti-Asian bigotry endures.

Chinatown is the only painting in the main gallery. You have to turn a corner to see Sakoguchi’s dozens of small ‘Orange Crate’ paintings (1974–ongoing), which pour US politics into the nostalgic format of vintage produce ads. It’s a fitting vernacular: Sakoguchi’s family ran a grocery store in the Central Valley. The orange ad is also an early example of untruth in advertising – no California orange is that orange, yet vibrant images like these basically condemned the paler Florida variety to the juicer. It’s a short step to political cartoons. There is brutal satire here, too, like an ad for ‘Conflict Diamonds Brand Oranges’ (Conflict Diamonds Brand, 2002) that shows a girl with mutilated arms; the Black hands surrounding her finger raw diamonds, while the white finger jewellery. Another, Buff Brand (2005), puns on ‘juicing’ (steroids) in baseball. Then, of course, there is the virus, already spherical, easily reimagined as a glowing orange studded with spike proteins (Hoax Brand, 2020), produce of Corona, California.

Ben Sakoguchi Conflict Diamonds, 2002 Acrylic on canvas, pine frame 10 x 11 in (25.4 x 27.9 cm)
Ben Sakoguchi, Conflict Diamonds Brand, 2002, acrylic on canvas, pine frame, 25 × 28 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Bel Ami, Los Angeles

Chinatown sat around in Sakoguchi’s studio for years before he felt ready to exhibit it. Now is the time. The painting arrives at Bel Ami, a gallery on the edge of Chinatown, at a moment when the neighbourhood faces a complex wave of gentrification and anti-gentrification protests, compounded by the renewed racism directed at Asian Americans due to the COVID-19 pandemic – the so-called Chinese Virus or Wuhan Flu. It’s like the jagged joke Sakoguchi includes in History Rhymes Brand (2020): ‘Why do they call it the Spanish Flu? Because it started in Kansas.’

Ben Sakoguchi's 'Chinatown' is on view at Bel Ami, Los Angles, through 15 May 2021.

Main image: Ben Sakoguchi, Chinatown (detail), 2014, acrylic on canvas, wooden frames (15 panels) 135 × 231 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Bel Ami, Los Angeles

Travis Diehl is online editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.