On Friday, Feb. 15, Negative Space Yale hosted its spring gallery opening in the Asian American Cultural Center. The gallery features excerpts from interviews conducted by members of the organization during the spring and fall semesters of 2018. The interviews showcase the experiences of those who identify as Asian-American at Yale, and some are accompanied by artistic works from the interviewees.
According to the organization’s webpage, Negative Space is an oral history project that aims to “create a more nuanced portrait of Asian-American identity by collecting the voices” of members of the Yale community who identify as Asian-American. The group seeks to celebrate the heterogeneity of Asian and Asian-American experiences in order to “encourage a broader and more inclusive view of the kind of narratives encompassed by that label.”
The organization was created by Haewon Ma ’19 and Oriana Tang ’19 in the fall of 2016 after the pair wrote a piece for the Yale Herald about Asian-American identity at Yale. After conducting a series of varied, intriguing interviews for the article, Ma and Tang grew frustrated at the journalistic necessity to shorten and paraphrase the stories. They began their oral history project to present these interviews in full.
“One of the motivating ideas behind Negative Space is that all lived experiences are significant,” Tang said. “A lot of people do end up talking explicitly about being Asian-American, but that’s not something we ask them to do outright — just by virtue of identifying as Asian-American, their experiences are already colored in a certain way.”
The group is cautious not to attach any specific meaning to an Asian-American identity and interviews anyone who is comfortable self-identifying as Asian-American. The interviewees include those solicited by the group and those who requested to participate.
The project has grown since its inception — Ma recalled “sitting in a cramped closet-sized room with Oriana” at the beginning of the project, “desperately trying to cram everyone’s interviews in.” Since then, Negative Space has gained three other board members — Tien Tran ’19, Sarah Jho ’20 and Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21 — and conducted countless interviews.
“An interview I transcribed this winter included such vivid depictions of NYC’s Chinatown I literally got on a train to get pork buns,” Ma said. “It was my first time there and spotting all of the details she had mentioned in her interview felt so special. I felt as if I was living a part of her reality and a part of her memories of a place that she so cherished.”
According to Ma, this response encapsulated the project’s intention — to bring people together and share their stories.
On opening night of the exhibition, Negative Space provided iPads on which visitors could view the groups’ website and read the full text of each interview.
According to Tran, viewers are not intended to project their experiences onto those represented in the gallery. Rather, viewers can use the variety of identities represented to help inform their own.
“Art does not have to make sense,” Tran said. “I hope that the attendees consider contradictions that may be present in the interviews. Maybe they will recognize that they also have contradictions in how they perceive themselves. I want to ask [attendees], ‘Do you accept these contradictions or do you feel like working through them?’ There’s no right answer.”
“I don’t really think of this gallery as an art exhibition, although there will be some art on display, and I definitely hope it’s not the only exposure to the project visitors will get,” Ma said. “So I hope the exhibition whets the appetites of visitors to learn more about the people featured here and to celebrate them in all of their complexity.”
Negative Space’s project will remain on display until March 3.
Rianna Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org