Whitehot Magazine

In Conversation with Meena Hasan & Tommy Kha

Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha, Launch F18. Press Photo

Other Echoes Inhabit the Garden: Works by Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha

Launch F18

May 18 - June 22, 2019


Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha sat down with Christin Graham and Sam Trioli to discuss their two-person exhibition, “Other Echoes Inhabit The Garden” at LAUNCH F18 in Tribeca.  Hasan and Kha are both Brooklyn based artists and first met when getting their MFA at Yale School of Art.  The exhibition marks the first time for the artists directly presenting their work together in such a unique and significant context.

How did you two first meet and where?

TK: We met in interdisciplinary class that was mixed in with other departments [at Yale].

MH: Our first year, first semester class.

TK: Were we the one class of just mostly Asian people?

MH: Yes, it was all of us put together which was very difficult for our professor...

TK: Yes, because he would mistake me for the other Tommy in our class and we look nothing alike at all. After that class we were separated into our own departments because that was the thing that was happening. [the] photographers all stuck together and the painters would all stick together. But we found each other. 

MH: It’s telling that we were in the same place our first months together there and then separated to came back together again years later. Now, having our living and working near each other in Greenpoint too.

Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha, Launch F18. Installation shot

At that time was there a similar dialogue between your work and subject matter? Were you both working figuratively?

TK: I involved figures but I was doing more self-portrait work and was also changing the way I approached photography at the time. I wanted to do landscapes, more performances, and other things, and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into doing this self-portrait work where it seemed very synonymous to identity at the time. You do self portraits and it has to equal, in some way, defining this is what it is about being Asian, being queer…

MH: I’ve always been working figuratively. A lot of my concepts start with the body, but I dealt with similar issues where it felt so illustrative of “identity politics”. East versus West was taken for granted as ideas basically. By second semester though I was suspending fabric dyes on mylar on top of and underneath drawings. I used my mediums to complicate the issue and deal with form. 

TK: I don’t think we wanted to be so straightforward with this subject matter, my mom started figuring into my work while I was making different strategies of going back to the South and photographing that area. This show is not just on moms but also maternal figures, woman figures that have been haunting in the subject matter of our process.

Many of these topics and experiences created for this show have been building for years, if not even longer?

TK: Yes, it seems like we are dealing with very similar concerns. I was a little hesitant to resolve a lot of things because I didn’t think I would have good ideas if I had answers to my questions, “what are the effects of postcolonialism? Am I really a hybridity of two cultures or just a creolization? And what are those nuances between hybridity and creolization?” You (Hasan) asked if I wanted to do a show together. Because there aren’t a lot of surveys or shows on Asianness, especially in our generation. In a way those survey shows were really one-sided. They were always very East Asian or those shows had to be either Chinese, Korean, or Japanese and it was like well, there are other parts. 

MH: Yes, because the legacy of colonialism runs through and defines so many cultures. We (Tommy and I) are both also very distinctly American, you know? We are especially American.

TK: Well, I’m from Memphis but you grew up here, you’re a New Yorker.

MH: That kind of sets us apart also because often times Asian American artists are and maybe have to be all about globalization. I feel like I’ve always wanted my work to just be its own thing rather than quotational or only able to be contextualized within international communities.

Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha, Launch F18. Installation shot

What I really like about this show is that it delves into these channels that you guys are kind of opening up for everyone to see.  Can you speak more about that?

MH: Yes, it feels very conversational in here, each piece is a person talking.

TK: This is probably the first time I’ve got to show actual images of my mom from our collaborative performative photo-sessions with her. There has always been the subject matter of appearance and parenthoods in the artworks. I deal with self portrait work in a way that talks about representation that was absent growing up in Memphis. There were no other Asian people and there definitely weren’t any queer figures other than the ones that were shown on TV or movies. Circling back to making these portraits of my mom, I didn’t really know what it meant to photograph her other than I always thought she was an extension of myself. Recently I put the words together: she’s a half self-portrait because I share half her DNA. On a trip to California she presented me with an album of her photographs. I never knew she was a photographer. They were from the year after she fled Vietnam, I am Chinese and my mom’s generation was born in Vietnam, so there is this weird embedded traumatic history. There was a whole album called “Canada 1984” and those are all her small photographs that are collaged on top of the photographs I made. I guess me years later, picking up the camera, not knowing that history, I’m trying to unpack it. 

MH: I’m so glad that that photo with your mom holding her jacket made it in. Formally it speaks so much to my large hanging paper piece. They both have this triangular hedge or mound composition. I love how forms and shapes reappear throughout all our works, the curve of your hair, your mother’s eyeliner in relation to the curve of my mother’s hair, her ear…

TK: ECHOES INHABIT THE GARDEN! (laughter) The yellow color continuation too and race. For the yellow wall, I just thought it would offset the color of the portrait of my mom, but also the whole show, oh and also cause yellow, duh. To really state our Asianness.

MH: For me yellow gold is everything. It is a fetish amongst South Asians, my mother wears a set of gold bangles she never takes off and she recently gave me my own set that are in that painting, ‘Putting on Bangles’.

Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha, Launch F18. Installation shot

You touched upon how your mom feels about you photographing her but I’m interested in how your mom feels, Meena?

MH: I hope my mother is happy, I included things she loves and knows, like her Liberty London blouse, I think she sees that sensitivity. It’s also opened up opportunities to discuss our family’s personal history too – I used to be resentful of my grandfather’s unwillingness to speak and learn Bengali, the language of Bangladesh which is a huge source of national pride, and blamed my own non-fluency on his. Since making this painting of her though, my mother has clarified so much just by describing his experiences moving from India to Bangladesh, alone, during the Partition of India in the mid 1940s and holding onto his Urdu not out of spite, but that life is not a series of carefully made decisions and just happens to people. Like Tommy, I am still learning and discovering things every time I talk to my mother and I use my work to investigate that past. 

TK: I like that our pieces are looking at each other. It’s weird because the smaller pictures are in Canada and then the two larger prints, the main portions, are at my childhood house. The psychology of this house; it is this history and this character informing. That space of the home is so definitive in an immigrants’ experience especially. We’re children of immigrants and grappling that with north and south, and region and land, is such an unusual background, a brick in our pocket.

MH: Has your family always been in the same house?

TK: Yeah

MH: My family too, and these spaces become so loaded. In the portrait of my mom, that’s a corner of her kitchen that she spends the majority of her day, where she smokes, has her coffees and teas, eats her meals, it feels like an extension of her body. 

TK: There is a specific area in my house that I still won’t go into because I've always had nightmares of this white hand knocking on the back window. It’s this ghostly white hand and it’s the strangest, weirdest room. All the other rooms have carpet and this back room where this white hand would knock on the window was completely just wood, like ‘80s wood. It was the only place that was out of character or out of the normalcy in the house.

Can you guys talk about the title?

MH: We were totally stumped and decided to read some Edward Said, to reread his Orientalism for a while and let it come to us. 

TK: It seemed to make the most sense because that was our jumping off point, how the Orient is not definitively a Western manifestation of an idealized East which takes away our own agency but also not necessarily a binary outlook. Over there people don’t view the West as Occidental. Imperialism and war, borders and decor, not all Asia is one history.

MH: Earlier in the year I was reading T.S. Elliot to help me process a number of losses, and I was reading his Burnt Norton. It is this story of him walking, it’s almost a first person's perspective narrative of walking through the estate of this old manor in England. He’s coming to these issues of wealth, and history, and ownership, decay. And in reading that poem over and over and then when we were looking at Edward Said I was reading a speech of his and he quoted part of this poem. It just felt like this perfect union, both are sensitive to this idea of transition and ideas of being respectful towards different histories and finding spaces that are created out of juxtapositions of difference.

TK: The echoing in our works but also the echoes of our own moms, we’re the echoes of them, to take things literally. 

MH: An echo as a replication but it changes, it implicates time and space, matter traveling across. I’m going to start using that word a lot more. Echoes in the show are conceptual but also physical and formal.

TK: Yes, by folding my photograph in the corner space so it occupies two walls but also divides the picture, but also expands the space itself and then adding the collage stacking is new – to bring forth my mother’s past.

MH: Yes, these are not passive images, they’re meant to implicate and extend beyond their frames. I’m always thinking about how to push the grid in my images. 

Meena Hasan and Tommy Kha, Launch F18. Installation shot

How does it feel to finally see it come together? Is it what you expected?

TK: I’m mostly surprised by the selection of work. I think everything we do seems very much storied. We had some very vague ideas of what we wanted to show and seeing it all together, it’s very surprising how well it fit. The floral patterns, the shirts, the outfits, and the appropriation of painting.

MH: Yes, there’s such a painting / photo conversation. I’ve been calling the show a kaleidoscopic onion of shapes and meaning.  

TK: This show is its own piece, it’s own breathing thing that we’re sculpting- it’s really alive for me. There is this sense of continuity that I wasn’t expecting, I thought it was just a two-person show but the difference is in the similarities.

What do you guys hope other people will talk about or say as they walk away from the show?

TK: I think that identity in relation to my work is always in the background, it’s never the main subject matter. I think I want to be seen as a serious artist, not just through my Asianness. This experience of being half of our own, that experience gets brought out and the idea of how to have that in art.

MH: I would like a better, more holistic understanding of our works. It happened for me by putting our work next to each other, it opened up the conversation in a different way. I hope the show leads to further curiosity and a willingness to embrace complex narratives that aren’t just black or white. WM

Sam Trioli


 Sam Trioli is an artist and writer living and working in New York City.

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