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Karin Higa, 1966-2013

"Criticism and scholarship makes a difference grows out of palpable conviction—a belief that the stakes of an art practice go beyond professionalism, expertise, and mastery of a subfield," a David Joselit writes in the current Artforum, "Karin Higa’s exhibitions and essays possessed that special quality. In part this is because her path-breaking curatorial projects like “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945,” 1992, bore links to her own heritage as a Japanese American. But such biographical connections aren’t sufficient to explain the special intensity Higa had as a leader in the field of contemporary art, especially but not exclusively in building a complex and nuanced understanding of Asian American experience within it. Higa was awake; she engaged seriously with all kinds of visual worlds from fashion to food to architecture and she knew how to bring the richness and contradictions of life into her analysis of art. She was rigorously honest—she meant what she said, and her critical assessments were always based on a deep and constant practice of looking at art, and interacting with artists. Moreover, Higa was devoted not only to her own curatorial projects and scholarship but to institution building. Her efforts in this regard range from her early participation in the Godzilla Asian American Art Network and her dedication to establishing a world-class art program at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, where she worked in various capacities from 1992 to 2006, to her service on numerous panels and committees, including chairing the editorial board of Art Journal from 2010 to 2012. Higa was committed to making the art world more inclusive, more complex, and more humane. "I remember how excited I was when the Hammer Museum chose Higa to co-curate the 2014 “Made in L.A.” biennial along with the writer and curator Michael Ned Holte. It is one of the many losses resulting from her untimely death from cancer on October 29, 2013 at the age of 47 that she was unable to complete this project. Higa was an inspired choice because of her special capacity to articulate the complexities of “identification”—the assignment of an identity as conditioned through diverse visual media.

In her terrific retrospective of Bruce and Norman Yonemoto at the Japanese American National Museum in 1999, for instance, she constructed a nuanced reading of how these important artists approached the question of the “Asian American” from a diverse and even contradictory range of perspectives including internment camp propaganda, queer sociality, and Hollywood stereotypes filtered through a panoply of media including television, film, and live performance while alluding to genres ranging from melodrama to underground film. As Higa remarks in her catalogue essay, “the Yonemotos could reference ethnic difference without foregrounding the search for ethnic identity.” In other words, subjectivity, as it is developed through artistic practice, need not solidify into a fixed “identity.” Indeed such an ossification or reification leads to the very danger of stereotyping that helps to justify policies like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. While Higa is probably best known for her work on questions of identity (though her expertise and knowledge of contemporary art was not limited to any particular community), she insisted on assembling dynamic chains of association—configurations of ethnic difference—rather than constructing securely delineated profiles. This is one of the reasons she was so widely admired and respected, and why she was an inspired choice to co-organize the Hammer’s biennial devoted to Los Angeles, a city that she knew so well, and which is characterized both by enormous diversity and fantastic fusions.

“I was profoundly moved in reading Higa’s essay for Kellie Jones’s “Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960-1980,” which revisits an exhibition her father, Kazuo Higa, commissioned from the artist Alonzo Davis in 1970 while director of the Da Vinci Gallery at Los Angeles City College. To accompany “Black Art in L.A.” the elder Higa asked photographer and filmmaker Robert A. Nakamura to make portraits of participating artists, and it is these portraits that are the primary focus of the younger Higa’s essay four decades later. As she writes “At that time, black art became a key source of identification not just for African Americans but in the broader Third World sense of people-of-color coalitions.” In this historical reflection on cross-identification and coalition building, I find a description of Karin Higa herself as an historian, a curator, and an activist who made similar connections in her own time. She was much too practical and too wise to minimize the difficulties of reconciling difference; but Higa was also too ethical—and too optimistic—not to try. And often succeed.”

David Joselit is Carnegie professor of the history of art at Yale University.

 

Full article at: http://artforum.com/passages/id=45076

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