A digital archive of Asian/Asian American contemporary art history

Arai, Tomie

Other Names: 新居富枝


"In 1983, I began a series of drawings of Asian women which were inspired by the masks and heavily stylized imagery found in traditional Japanese art. As a third generation American of Japanese ancestry – a Sansei and a native New Yorker, I’ve tried to incorporate the influence of both cultures in my work. These drawings were part of an effort to create an artistic language based on the unique experience of Asians in America.

Drawing masks and portraits were a way for me to understand the stereotypic imagery of Asian women; stereotypes which contributed to the painful formation of my own identity as an Asian growing up in this country. The faces I’ve drawn, perceived through Western eyes, may seem both disturbing and intriguing; but passive, repressed, expressionless, doll-like, inscrutable, exotic; -- I found that they were not so different in spirit from the quiet/angry faces of many women I have known.

Since this series, I’ve continued to create works on paper which reflect an Asian influence; calligraphy in particular. The subject of my most recent drawings is the urban landscape, with its abundance of written, printed, and scrawled imagery. The presence of these scrawled messages, which resemble a form of urban calligraphy, convey a sense of urgency and immediacy which I’ve tried to portray in my work.

This year, I was awarded a fellowship from the Printmaking Workshop to study etching and lithography. I’m presently focusing my energy on printmaking; a process which has brought me closer to an understanding of the Japanese graphic arts tradition. It has also been an opportunity to meet and work with other third world artists who share a common perspective on the relationship of their art to their communities, and who are similarly involved in transforming elements from their cultural background into a new, vital and contemporary art form."--Tomie Arai, Artist Statement, 1985

"In 1970 the Asian American Movement began on the East Coast. The history of how Asian immigrants were treated in the US, the Chinese Exclusion Act which lead to the Chinese being the only people excluded from entering the United States territory, and the Japanese Internment Camps of World War II, gave substance to a perspective on the Asian American experience. This was perceived and given significance through the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 70' & 80' in community organizations like Basement Workshop and Asian American Arts Centre. Midst the issues of identity and multiculturalism, art became a tool to challenge America's direction. In asserting the experience of Asian Americans, artists like Tomie Arai and many others made clear our human differences did not divide us, but could tell the truth of our humanness, the heart of our story, and were thus assets in bonding us towards the goals of a more human society. 'The question of identity has become central to much postmodern art and the contemporary dilemmas of artists, who work across cultures is especially poignant, revealing and enriching.' - Ronald Kuchta"--Robert Lee, Director, Asian American Arts Centre, for ARTRAIN show catalog 2008

Gallery of Selected Works