Hung Liu’s Weeping Canvases reframe immigration stories at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

The popular fantasy of American immigration centers on the positive. On the reception side. On the welcoming arms of America for “your tired, your poor, your crowded masses who yearn to breathe freely.” Horatio Alger Success Stories.

This conversation positions migrants as American citizens eager to start an exciting new life, and not as people with full – and usually tragic – stories before they want – and generally need – to uproot themselves and go. America.

Immigrants dating back to the European colonizers of North America did not take risks in trying to start a new life here, as it was their preferred option. They were forced to leave because of religious persecution, famine, poverty, epidemics, war, natural disasters – trauma. Few people choose to dislodge themselves and their families from their homes to roll the dice for a new life in a country where they do not speak the language, have little money and are often unwelcome. for “adventure”.

Artist Hung Liu (born 1948 in Changchun, China; died 2021 in Oakland, California) – as a former immigrant herself fleeing political persecution – reminds audiences that the story of an immigrant to her arrival in America represents just the tip of the personal iceberg of this person in a magnificent exhibition of his paintings, “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands”, currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

Liu’s imagery is often inspired by photographs. His long-standing interest in images grew out of the terror of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Because Liu’s family was educated, they were seen as a threat to the Chinese Communist government.

In the late 1960s, Liu and his mother removed the photos from their family albums to protect them from Mao’s Red Guards. Liu’s mother hid some of the pictures and set the rest on fire. She also burned her newspapers.

During the Cultural Revolution, many people in China destroyed their personal files out of fear; Liu’s family, among countless others, felt compelled to erase the past in order to leave no trace of their privileged lives.

“You couldn’t keep anything personal, it was dangerous,” Liu said during his lifetime. “That’s why I’m so interested in old photographs, they are rare, it’s not like today.

Liu would carry the surviving photographs with her for the rest of her life.

Liu’s suffering at Mao’s hands would extend beyond the loss of family memories. His father was taken political prisoner by the Communists in 1948 when the artist was still only a child. Forbidden from all contact with the outside world, Liu did not reconnect with him until 1994.

In her early twenties, she was sent to four years of forced agrarian labor.

“It is very necessary that the educated young people go to the countryside and be re-educated by the poor peasants,” Mao said at the time.

Mao’s mania for a totalitarian state under his control would consume millions of lives through forced labor, purges, starvation and execution. Liu managed to escape in 1984 when, after four years of efforts following the thaw in relations between the United States and China due to Richard Nixon’s visit to the country in 1972, she obtained a passport from the central government to continue his art studies at the University of California at San Diego.

Women and children first

Having lived through wars, political revolutions, exile and displacement herself, Liu presents a complex and multifaceted picture not only of an immigrant experience in general, but of an American experience of Asia-Pacific in particular. This is the first time that the Portrait Gallery has honored an Asian American woman with a solo exhibition.

Unsurprisingly, Liu’s paintings highlight women and children. Over a half-century career, she has portrayed refugees, female soldiers, migrant workers, prostitutes, orphaned children and other neglected individuals she described as “lost souls” or “ghost spirits”.

“I want my job to be a comfort to people I have never known,” Liu said.

A particularly dramatic painting from the exhibition, Strange Fruit: Comfort Women (2001, oil on canvas, 80 x 160), brings it all together.

In the early 1990s, Liu discovered a collection of photographs that prompted her to delve into the history of Comfort Women. Through her research, she discovered Korean women who had been forced to work as sex slaves for the Imperial Japanese Army; the source photo for Strange Fruit: Comfort Women was taken by the Japanese army.

“Hung Liu used red paint to erase the soldiers that appeared in the background so that she could focus on the group of women,” said Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture and curator. of the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, during a virtual press preview for the exhibition. “Each woman represented conveys a strong individual presence; Hung Liu chose to paint the subjects with distinct and varied expressions of fear, despair, strength, courage, and even anger. Some make visual contact with the viewer, but their very existence dissolves into the materiality of the painting with its washes and drips.

Liu used generous amounts of linseed oil in her paintings to create what she described as a “veil of tears”; her husband, art writer Jeff Kelly, called Liu’s signing “weeping realism.”

The “wash” has a sagging effect on the knees as the painting seems to cry for its subjects. Painting with extraordinary empathy. It’s not hard to imagine Liu crying as she put paint on the canvas.

“(Liu) said we could adopt ancestors and she described her paintings as memorial sites,” recalls Moss, who had been friends with the artist for years.


“Portraits of Promised Lands” begins with portraits created by Liu as a field worker during her agrarian “re-education” in Maoist China (1968-1972), revealing the roots of her empathy for migrant workers and the compassion that her most recent portraits evoke. He progresses throughout his development as an artist, including his searing “Where’s Mao?” Series, a group of 10 graphite drawings on canvas that depict Mao’s often faceless encounter with various political leaders.

“Hung Liu initially trusted the communist movement and its call for change, but she watched in horror as Mao’s policies unfold, resulting in the murder and starvation of millions of Chinese citizens,” Moss said. “’Where is Mao’ explores their collective memories associated with the Communist leader. Liu felt compelled to create some of the historical images without Mao’s facial features, she regarded these sketches as anti-monuments, explaining at the time that she was “trying to find my own identity as a Chinese. in America “. I was erasing Mao’s because after all, he didn’t need a face, even without a face, you could tell it was him.

In memory

Hung Liu passed away on August 7, 2021, just days before the Portrait Gallery exhibition opened following a brief battle with pancreatic cancer.

“Portraits of Promised Lands” features over 50 paintings, photographs and drawings from her early work in the 1970s to her most recent large-scale paintings, including a series based on Dorothea Lange’s Depression Era photograph she was still working on.

The exhibit ends May 30, 2022 and will not travel beyond Washington, DC. A separate exhibition of his work can be seen through March 13, 2022 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Julia P. Cluff