Finding Yourself in Portraits

Finding Yourself in Portraits

The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is not what most people would consider a worthwhile cultural adventure. So... it's artwork of people and nothing else. Not the most thrilling of tourist lures, especially when compared to the hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater that fateful night and James Baldwin's passport.  Fortunately, I am not most people so I ventured out to the NPG one fateful Saturday and, quite frankly, it rocked my world.

 

The gorgeous Kogod Courtyard in the NPG and Smithsonian American Art Museum.

 

The NPG's mission is "to tell the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development and culture." This mission is as succinct and straightforward as actually executing it is nuanced and complicated. By creating a space dedicated to showcasing our nation's champions, advocates, and heroes, we are telling the story of our nation through a large, diverse cast of characters. Who should represent America? Who deserves the recognition that displaying a portrait of them in a national gallery provides? What does the face of America even look like? All of these are the sorts of questions that go into curating a gallery such as the NPG. The NPG is about the soul of America and I would argue that it is the one museum or gallery that truly captures the American spirit and what makes America unique - its people.

 

Well, then. If the NPG is dedicated to recognizing the best and bravest that our country has to offer, who do we include?

 

The answer is "everyone." We include everyone. We include immigrants learning English, we include transgendered teenagers, we include Special Olympians, we include presidents, and we include single mothers. We include dead athletes, we include thriving actors, and we include immortal jazz musicians. We include people of every identity and we display their portraits just as respectfully as the last. Everyone gets a soft spotlight and proper framing at eye-level. Everyone gets a legible plaque and a title. Everyone gets adequate space on the wall.

 

"Thank You for Teaching me English" by Naoko Wowsugi on display at the NPG.

 

I love the NPG. I have been converted; I am a true believer in this gallery, its mission, and the quiet power that it so wisely wields in choosing which American portraits are hung on its walls. I didn't expect much going in, but I can wholeheartedly say that I fell in love with this gallery and its emotional level of inclusivity. Make no mistake: it is extremely powerful and inspiring to see people that look like you in the Smithonian National Portrait Gallery. Not only that, but these figures are celebrated. The images of Asian-Americans looking down upon me in these galleries weren't token Asians, propped up in the background next to a kid in a wheelchair and a smiling black boy. These were real people that contributed to the narrative of the United States of America - whether through science or pop culure or even just as every day people that work at a job just like mine. These people weren't shuffled into the same gallery featuring all the Asians together like a self-segregated high school cafeteria. Everyone was embraced. Everyone was promoted. Everyone was celebrated.

 

Portrait of George Takei in the NPG.


As I mentioned in a previous post, I found a portrait of George Takei in my NPG adventures. Takei is an enormously influential Asian-American man who portrayed Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, so seeing him in the NPG was thrilling from both a nerdy and an Asian-American standpoint. However, because of Takei's celebrity status, it's not actually surprising to see him in the NPG. In fact, it is almost expected to find his likeness hanging on a well-lit wall. A far more interesting and subtle find in this gallery though, just a few portraits down from George Takei and just as well-lit, is a portrait of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu. Wu, a Chinese immigrant, earned her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and went on to win most of the biggest prizes in science for her work on the behavior of subatomic particles. She worked on the Manhattan Project and did her work on the behavior of subatomic particles at Columbia University, and while her male colleagues were rewarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the latter, Wu did not. Many have suspected that she did not receive the prize because of gender bias, but between the other prizes she has won, the title of "THe First Lady of Physics" which she disliked, and her inclusion in the NPG, she has arguably come out on top.

 

Portrait of Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu in the NPG.

 

... And to think, I would have never known about Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu if not for the NPG. I think this is what is most valuable about the NPG and it is accomplished in such a sneaky, successful way. The NPG lures people in with portraits of famous figures like the recently deceased Arnold Palmer, the brilliant Neil deGrasse Tyson and Kevin Spacey as President Frank Underwood from House of Cards, but the reason we stay in the NPG is because we see ourselves. We can walk through the galleries and halls of the NPG and see reflections of our own identities included as a part of the greater American identity. We come in for the Hikaru Sulus but we find the Dr. Chien-Shiung Wus. By looking at these portraits, we're looking at ourselves.

 

Now, I have never felt like I need someone to validate that I belong in this country. I was born and raised in Boston, my first language was English, and I can recite the preamble to the Constitution and the batting line-up of the 2004 Red Sox on command. And the bullpen. This is not to say that this is what qualifies someone (or at least a Bostonian) as "American," but my point is that I identify as an American. I identify as American and I certainly bear some of the trademarks of what people consider to be "American," even with my straight, black hair and almond-shaped eyes. Despite what some believe, the United States of America is my home and I suppose that at the end of the day I'm proud of that even considering the infinite number of flaws in our country. Flaws such as those who claim I don't look "American" yet would categorize that anyone who can talk about forming a more perfect union and Trot Nixon as plenty American enough. Nonetheless, it is nice to see some greater authority declare definitively through the NPG that, yes, people like me are just as American as George Washington or Babe Ruth.

 

To wrap this up, here's one final portrait.  It's a portrait of Nancy Kwan and me. Kwan was born in Hong Kong like my parents, and her role in the film The World of Suzie Wong was her acting debut. She is of Chinese-Scottish descent, but I felt a sense of connection to her as an American with Hong Kong ties. At the very least, I know I'll be thinking of Kwan when I finally trek over to Hong Kong this December.  Maybe one day I can make my own portrait gallery too, a gallery full of bad selfies featuring portraits of people distantly linked to me through our shared ethnic and cultural blood. Portraits of Americans.

 

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