Fists flying in goodwill

The martial arts-inspired 'Black Belt' exhibition in Santa Monica focuses on the ties between black and Asian American artists.

By Hugh Hart
Special to The Times

January 26, 2005
When Bruce Lee died in 1973 after making "Enter the Dragon," the Kung Fu master was mourned by millions. But it wasn't just movie fans who lamented the death of Asia's first global superstar. Judging from the "Black Belt" exhibition on view at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Lee also had a profound impact on an entire generation of artists.

David Huffman, for example, gave up on his childhood dream of becoming a professional martial arts fighter to become a painter. In "Dark Matter," he pictures an alternative universe populated by black-faced robots, "Japanimation" figures and "Afrofuturist" super heroes inspired by Lee's big-screen heroics. In her installation "Plays Well With Others / Bruce Lee Saved My Life" Cynthia Wiggins has assembled lethal shuriken throwing stars along with a pile of wood blocks used in karate competitions and inscribed with dialogue from the 1972 film "The Chinese Connection."

David Diao layers yellow smiley faces over silk-screened images of Lee in his classic fighting pose, in "Hiding." Rico Gatson's video piece, "The Art of Battle," juxtaposes militant slogans with images of Lee, Muhammad Ali, rap group Public Enemy and the Vietnam War. And Los Angeles native Glenn Kaino takes a showdown between Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from their movie "Game of Death" as a point of departure for a video game, "Game of Death (Reprise)." In it, Kaino, who is Japanese American, and his friend Mark Bradford, an African American artist, take over as virtual warriors.

Artist Y. David Chung is not surprised that so many of his peers have turned to old-school action films for inspiration. "Growing up in the '70s as a kid, Bruce Lee and all those kung fu movies were a huge influence because they were one of the very few things that focused on Asian culture," he says. "Even if those movies were in some ways exploitive, it was still great to see Asian people in the hero role instead of being the dishwasher or something. The action heroes in those films resonated deeply for me and my friends. We took it very seriously. In the black action films as well, you get an extension of that whole idea where somebody's taking on 'the Man,' the powers that be; you could learn fighting skills from the Asian people, create armies, stuff like that. It all had a huge impact."

For the exhibition, Chung contributed a 23-foot-wide oil stick drawing that pays homage to "Black Belt Jones," a 1974 movie featuring Lee's "Enter the Dragon" co-star Jim Kelly in the title role. "The way Jim Kelly moved was amazing, so I wanted to create this epic battle scene where he descends like a mythic hero, totally impervious. There's a classic reference to the Middle Ages, when artists used to paint these mythic battle scenes from the past. To me, this was like a contemporary telling of a mythic tale because when a movie gets ingrained in you, even if you first saw it a long time ago, it becomes sort of a classic or a giant memory."

If martial arts movies fueled the imaginations of black and Asian American urbanites in the 1970s and '80, by the '90s, hip-hop music had emerged as the coin of the trans-cultural realm. Painter Iona Rozeal Brown was startled to learn just how eagerly some Asians embraced hip-hop when she came across a 1997 article about the ganguro phenomenon. "I read about this group of youth in Japan who mimic hip-hop blacks by darkening their skin and getting Afro perms and dreads and corn rows. The guys would hold their crotches imitating the people they saw in music videos. It was curious to me. It wasn't just the clothes, the slang, the physical movements, but the actual darkening of the skin and changing the hair texture that was tripping me out, so I thought, OK, this is something that I need to try to wrap my brain around. I wanted to visualize it."

In "a3 blackface #3" Brown altered an image printed in the traditional Ukiyo-e woodblock method by crowning her kimono-clad geisha with an afro and covering her ivory skin with black paint.

Taking the hip-hop / Asian hybrid a step further, Brown produced "a3 #10 (down-ass emperor Qianlong)." Inspired by Wu-Tang Clan, the rap group that took its name from the Wudang sword-fighting tradition practiced by medieval Chinese monks, Brown decided to subvert the "imperial visage" portraiture used for centuries in China to depict royalty by imagining her subject, 18th century Qing Dynasty emperor Qianlong, as a rap artist. "I kept thinking about how hip-hop had entered China and the effects it had on a lot of areas outside the United States. As I looked at this image of Qianlong, I had this idea of showing this emperor who's still strong, but now he's also into hip-hop. I gave him all the accouterments, the boombox, the corn rows. Usually in these portraits, the emperors are very upright and everything is symmetrical. I tipped Qianlong's hat to the side, just to gave him some angles."

Movies and music inform much of the "Black Belt" work, but contributor Clarence Lin eschewed pop culture references altogether. He showed up at the museum recently with a bagful of articles, books and pamphlets documenting the privatization of the prison industry, which he obliquely critiques in "Housing Project: The Prison Industrial Complex." Lin's precisely detailed jail cell floor plan is laid out in accordance with industry specifications. "This [prison] system affects many people of color in this country.... so I think that's one way this piece fits into the show," he says.

The range of variations on the black-belt theme was welcomed by curator Christine Y. Kim when she first presented the exhibition a year ago at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Kim was just 2 years old in 1974, but she came to regard that year as a watershed point after reading Vijay Prashad's book "Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity."

"I picked 1974 to set the pace in terms of pop culture, Hollywood and movies because of the importance that's played in the artists' work. The spirit of this exhibition is very rooted in the '70s because historically that was a moment when people of color looked to one another for inspiration," Kim says. "We came to a certain period, post-civil rights, post-Vietnam war, which was a stop-and-think moment. Like the artist Sean Duffy said, the hippies were over but disco hadn't yet begun."

The cultural transfusion between blacks and Asian Americans has been complicated by historic tensions, which flared up famously when Korean American shops were ravaged during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. But Kim says that for her, the "visual conversations" between black and Asian artists continue to be a source of fascination.

"America has always been thought of, with its history of slavery, as having two races, black and white. But there's all these other hybrids that exist. In urban cultures, there's so many more angles and perceptions once you uncover a few layers of history."



Joel Tauber

What: br> 'Fellowship!'

Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays

Ends: Jan. 22

Price: $15

Contact: (323) 960-7774 or