Artist Pages | Sumire Skye Taniai: Deconstructing Asian American stereotypes and exposing biases

“The American Forces Have Conquered the Pacific and are Drawing Near…” (2021), digital collage (courtesy of the artist)

With a mixture of humor and cultural reappropriation, Sumire Skye Taniai lends a youthful and optimistic voice to the Kansas City fine arts landscape.

Born in Iwakuni, Japan, Taniai moved to the United States when she was 11 and graduated from the University of Missouri, Columbia, with a B.A. in painting. She then earned an MFA in painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2019.

Despite completing her formal arts education relatively recently, Taniai has embraced her role as both a social commentator and critic. Drawing from her own experiences and observations as an Asian American, she skillfully deconstructs stereotypes and invites viewers to reflect upon the biases that still pervade contemporary American culture. When considering her audience, Taniai remarks, “I would like them to learn something about Asian American history that wasn’t taught in school . . . how the history ties in with the current problems we are having.”

This mission was evident in her recent exhibition, “Promise Land,” at the Habitat Contemporary Gallery. Featuring pieces with irreverent titles like “If you are an Asian man, you are a kungfu master. If you are an Asian woman, you are a submissive sex object,” Taniai places a spotlight on the way in which bigotry and stereotypes continue to pervade American media and social consciousness.

The type of subtle misogyny that has long populated cinema — where Asians fit into one of two categories based upon their sex — is on full display in the acrylic and mixed-media work. A muscular silhouette of a male martial artist preparing to strike at an unseen enemy contrasts powerfully against the outline of a young woman’s face with stars over her eyes that proclaim “submissive housewife.” In the corner, an older man’s face is similarly adorned with the message “Hi-Yah Rodent.” Under the mandate of Hollywood, even the Asian heroes are one-trick ponies, meant to remain benign parodies of themselves when they aren’t engaged in combat.

Although Taniai’s recent body of work carries a heavy message, it remains consistent with what originally inspired her to become an artist. “Art can reference history,” she notes, and it can make people feel “joy, sadness, anger, happiness . . . art is endless possibilities.”

In a testament to her vision and technical skill, even Taniai’s more serious works are armed with a dose of whimsy. “I Thought Asians are Good Good Asians?” depicts a Kansas City police officer pursuing an Asian woman boasting a mischievous smile. Scattered amidst their path are pills and flowers. Taniai’s willingness to confront even “positive” stereotypes imbues a commendable depth to her work. Labels and assumptions only serve the narrative of the oppressor, however harmless they may seem on the surface.

Looking ahead, Taniai plans to continue creating. And while she remarks that Kansas City’s arts community is small compared to major urban realms, that intimacy allows artists here to “support one another and know each other well. It’s great to see everyone’s progress and uplift one another.”

And regardless of what the future may hold, Taniai has embraced a sense of purpose that reflects her passion for the craft.

“My goal is to leave as much art as I can until I am no longer on this earth.”

“This is my successful face,” (2023), acrylic, ink jet, paper on board, 32 x 48 1/2″ (courtesy of the artist and Habitat Contemporary Gallery)
“If you are an Asian man, you are a kungfu master. If you are an Asian woman, you are a submissive sex object” (2023), panty, acrylic, ink jet, paper, oil enamel on board, 32 x 48 1/2″ (courtesy of the artist and Habitat Contemporary Gallery)
“I Thought Asians are Good Good Asians?” (2023), acrylic, flashe, graphite, on yupo mounted on stretcher, 48 x 60″ (courtesy of the artist and Habitat Contemporary Gallery)
Misaki Kawai YouTube Comment Series “ugly art but hot girl” (2022), acrylic, water soluble ink, tatami natural Kozo mix Japanese paper, gansai tambi, ink jet on watercolor paper, 23 x 30″ (courtesy of the artist)
“While these two Europeans are learning the proper way to serve tea” (2022), acrylic gouache, sharpie and ink jet transfer on canvas board, 11 x 14″ (courtesy of the artist)
Matthew Thompson

Matthew Thompson is an educator, historian, and writer who has lived in Kansas since 2005. His research interests include Progressivism and the Socialist Party of America, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War. He enjoys studying visual arts to help make the world and its history accessible and exciting to others.

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