Chinese American experience in the U.S. West examined in new exhibition

The James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art‘s upcoming exhibition, From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier, will run from October 14, 2023, to January 28, 2024. Curated by James Museum Curator of Art Emily Kapes and in consultation with the Suncoast Association of Chinese Americans of Tampa Bay, The James Museum presents this groundbreaking exhibition that immerses visitors in a captivating journey through time, culture and identity, showcasing the remarkable history and contributions of early Chinese Americans in transforming the landscape and character of the American West. 

Kapes partnered with ten lenders, including museums and private collectors, to bring the art and objects together for this exhibition. The entire exhibition will feature Chinese translations alongside English text, a first for The James Musuem.

From the Gold Rush and the Transcontinental Railroad to the development of Chinatowns and Angel Island, the contemporary work of Chinese American artists Hung Liu (1948 – 2021), Mian Situ (born 1953), Jie Wei Zhou (born 1962), and Benjamin Wu (born 1961) transports guests back in time to gain insight into what life was like for early Chinese immigrants who helped build the American West. Often drawing inspiration from their own—more recent—immigration stories and using historical documentation as their guide, the artists’ paintings and artifacts featured in From Far East to West create a rich narrative tapestry that speaks to culture, identity and community, and how the past can impact the present.

An additional section of the exhibition spotlights artist Z.S. Liang (born 1953), whose fascination with the history of his adopted country led him to a career painting 19th century Native American life.

The Westward expansion of European American settlers during the 19th-century is a well-known chapter in American history. However, From Far East to West reveals a parallel development of the West Coast, catalyzed by the discovery of gold in the mid-1800s. Chinese immigrants, drawn by the allure of opportunity, played an integral part in the population boom that ensued. Their journey, resilience and contributions are eloquently portrayed through a captivating array of paintings and artifacts.

“Through the lens of contemporary artists reflecting on the experiences of early Chinese immigrants, our guests will connect with often untold stories that showcase a rich cultural narrative rooted in resiliency and self-determination, offering a unique look at the American West,” Robin Nicholson, Executive Director at The James Museum, said. 

Liu, Situ, Zhou, and Wu reflect on the American experience and immerse guests in distinct aspects of what it was like to be one of the first Chinese immigrants to the United States. This push and pull between history and the lived experiences of the artists offers the opportunity for visitors to explore the immigration stories within their own families and what it means to be an American pursuing a version of the American Dream. Liang also draws on his immigration story and finds his way to depict the lives of Indigenous Americans, offering guests another opportunity to contemplate what it means to be an American.

From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier is an opportunity to expand on the works by Chinese American artists already in The James Museum collection and engage with Chinese American art and culture in a thought-provoking and visually captivating manner,” said Kapes. “The exhibition underscores The James Museum’s commitment to fostering a deeper understanding of Western and American art and history.”

Benjamin Wu (b. 1961), Supply Station, 2015, oil on canvas.
Benjamin Wu (b. 1961), Supply Station, 2015, oil on canvas. Private collection of Steve and Debra Rowley. Photograph by Krista Steed-Reyes.

Exhibition programming

For those who want to dive deeper into Chinese culture and the stories of the Chinese Americans who helped shape America, The James Museum offers more than ten unique programs between October and January. Designed to spark curiosity and conversation, guests can choose their own From Far East to West adventure. From Family Day, featuring Chinese ink painting with local Chinese American artist Hao Penghe to artist talks with Z.S. Liang and Jie Wei Zhou, who both have work in the exhibition, there is something for the whole family this fall at The James. 

October 14 | Family Day: Chinese Ink Painting with local artist Hao Penghe

October 14 | Z.S. Liang
November 4 | Jie Wei Zhou

October 29 | Chinese Ink Painting with local artist Hao Penghe

October 19 | Thousand Pieces of Gold by Ruthanne Lum McCunn

October 24 | Thousand Pieces of Gold with filmmaker Nancy Kelly
November 28 | Chan is Missing with San Diego State University Professor Brian Hu
December 12 | Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart with San Diego State University Professor Brian Hu

November 14 | The Chinese Exclusion Act with Rutgers University Professor Jack Tchen
December 3 | The Art of Encounters with Mount Holyoke Professor Anthony Lee & Exhibition Curator Emily Kapes
January 9 | Asian American Experience Today with University of Michigan Professor K. Ian Shin (registration coming soon)

January 13 | Mahjong: A Chinese Game and the Making of Modern American Culture with Dr. Annelise Heinz (registration coming soon)

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