Image source: Hauser and Wirth
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Living Across Cultures With Miguel Payano
Catching up with The 2009 Public Vote Prize Winner
Miguel Angel Payano Jr. is an Afro-Caribbean American artist working between Beijing and New York. Having moved to Beijing in 2003 and becoming an active part of the local art scene, Payano entered the The 2009 Sovereign Asian Art Prize – in which his work, Sha-Boy, won him The Public Vote Prize. We caught up with the artist, now back in the United States, to hear about his recent work and where he continues to find inspiration in the intersections between diverse cultures.
Miguel, you were the Public Vote Prize Winner in The 2009 Sovereign Asian Art Prize: how has your career as an artist progressed in the past decade? Can you share any new projects you’ve been working on?
The last decade has been a time of growth and reflection: growth with regards to the expanding scope of my audience and practice (i.e. sculpture and new and experimental materials), and reflection on my artistic role in the world. At the end of 2003, I left New York and moved to Beijing because I knew that I would be able to self-sustain a full-time studio practice from the beginning of my career. I had grown tremendously in China, but later in 2013 after my first solo show in Hong Kong, I realized that I had become estranged from my people in America.
Until the recent pandemic travel restrictions, during the last few years I have traveled with great frequency between Beijing and the Bronx. I see my artistic role more as a someone who collapses cultures, a transcultural connector. As for specific, future projects, my solo show with Charles Moffett Gallery will be opening this February and there is a possible Biennale on the horizon.
Warmer Destinations (2020)
Your winning work for The Prize, ‘Sha-Boy’, is inspired by a passage from the novel ‘Invisible Cities’ by Italian author Italo Calvino. Can you tell us about the meaning of the passage, and what first drew you to it?
Sha-Boy was a self portrait, but even then my transcultural interests were percolating. It was about 革卦, the 49 Hexagram of the I-Ching, just as much as it was about Calvino’s passage. The title was a play on the Mandarin pronunciation of “傻” and “Sha-man” or rather boy. I was in my late 20’s then, but still very much felt like a boy trying to find their way in the world. That Calvino passage is about how to live in the world as a human. I still think about it to this day, especially considering the daily madness of human existence or the apparent dystopia in the US. Am I a part of the inferno? Are art objects non-inferno insights into the inferno? Calvino is a writer of fiction, but his work landed on truth: that sort of “恒通” truth that is not restrained by time or place.
Your work, often containing elements of surrealism, also references American, Caribbean and Chinese cultures. Where do you see the important intersections between these diverse geographies?
I have an innate affinity for the surreal, because at the core of surrealism is “inbetweeness” or liminality. My parents immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic and I immigrated from the US to China. As someone with deep multi-cultural connections I have always lived in the in-between. For me the cultural connections that I find the most compelling are moments of possible misinterpretations or cultural hiccups. These moments are little transcultural ruptures in meaning that can provide opportunities for learning or unraveling.
More often than not, I find these moments in language. 那个，那个，哇啊！Anyone who listens to hip-hop and speaks Mandarin can feel me with that one! You know what I mean, 那民, 那民. It’s moments like these that are cognitively non-linear tangent points between cultures where this could be that… but what you actually meant is… We can learn from each other at these points. I previously painted Barack Obama in the Monkey King Beijing Opera mask: I was definitely trying to trigger a reaction, but undoing it as well. The derogatory use of “monkey” in English, breaks down when you know who Sun Wu-kong is.
Left: Future George’s Abundance aka Angelitos Negros | Right: Breonna La Dominadora
We see that you recently created an artwork dedicated to Breonna Taylor. Can you tell us a bit more about your intentions behind this work?
I occasionally dabble in political works and now, somewhat stranded in America, I had to respond to BLM. I hope that this series will grow. The Breonna painting is based on Mami Wata, a west African religious figure that culturally crossed the Atlantic and became a part of New World religious practices, but the series was kicked off by another piece with very deep connections to Asia, Latin America and the US. The painting is called Future George’s Abundance aka Angelitos Negros and was inspired by George Floyd’s murder and Toña La Negras song. The series is my way to combat social issues and tragedy by using uplifting imagery rather than reliving the trauma.
The murder of George Floyd began with a police call about a counterfeit 20 dollar bill. At the root of the violence was a lack of abundance and wealth. Fish have long been a symbol of wealth in China and Asia and 福娃, usually pearly white toddlers embracing fish, symbols of abundance. And though I have seen many dark-skinned Asians, I have never seen a dark-skinned 福娃. Toña La Negras song from the 1940’s, based on an older Venezuelan poem, was a call for the inclusion of black cherubs in Church imagery. This conversation of inclusion is old yet still necessary. Colorism is a BIG problem in Asia and cultural conditioning begins and is reinforced with the images we consume and propagate. This painting was my way of bringing these worlds together: answering Toña’s call, creating a better world for the future George’s of the world and letting my dark-skinned Asian siblings know 你也有福！！