Editor’s note: This story contains references to sexual violence.
Art became a refuge and a communication tool for South Burlington resident Misoo Bang after she moved to the United States and a language barrier separated her from her peers.
As a child, Bang moved from the U.S., where her mother lived, to Korea. There, she continued to change locations every few years, moving back to the U.S. at age 12 for a year and a half. When her mother couldn’t take care of her and her brother, they moved back to Korea until her father died when she was a teenager, and she found herself back in the United States.
Bang has lived in New Jersey, Florida and Vermont, where she currently resides. She worked until recently at Frog Hollow Vermont State Art Center in Burlington and now works at Shelburne Craft School, where her studio is located.
She paints a collection called “Giant Asian Girls,” which she describes as a painting and collage series that addresses racial stereotypes and gender-based violence as it relates to Asian women living in America.
“In one aspect, the work is a counterbalance to the western ‘fetishization’ of Asian women, and in another, it is a fantasy narrative about the privilege of size,” she writes in a description of the series on her website.
Bang, horrified by the shootings in Atlanta — and pervasive racism and attacks against Asian women — quit her gallery job in recent weeks and has shifted her attention to educating youth about artwork in various cultures through forthcoming classes at the Shelburne Craft Center. She also spends much of her time in conversations about race, gender and empowerment with her 11-year-old daughter, Lily.
In a conversation with VTDigger, Bang reflected on the relevance of her artwork to the nationwide conversation about racism, gender stereotypes and how those topics have been weighing heavily on many Asian American women.
VTD: How and when did you start painting?
MB: When I started high school here, I had no friends. That was very, very difficult. I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes the year before, and my sugar would drop, so when I had to eat something, I would hide in the bathroom and eat Snickers bars. Sometimes I just walked around the hallways because I did not want to sit in the cafeteria alone. That was when the high school art teacher saw me, and he invited me to his AP art class.
That was a whole different world. He was like my savior. I started going there whenever I felt uncomfortable being with a bunch of students. And that’s also how I made friends. People started talking to me — looking at the artwork that I made.
I think art has a very powerful thing about it. People, especially children, can express through art things they cannot verbally express. It’s better than the written word or speaking language, I believe. For me, making art was not something that I chose to do but something that I needed to survive.
VTD: What were you creating at first?
MB: I was in a very vulnerable place at the time, so I drew Asian girls trapped in very dark places. I started making drawings of children, and they were taken away by kidnappers or being abused. I made a lot of very disturbing images of girls getting raped. I even titled them, “the rape dolls series.” I was collecting abandoned porcelain dolls that I found in garage sales and flea markets. Sometimes they had maggots in them. I felt bad for them, and I felt like I was seeing myself in them. They were beaten and once loved, but they were abandoned now.
I started collecting them without knowing why and then drawing them in a very disturbing way. I was asking myself, why do I keep making these drawings without even thinking about it? And I realized that I have this repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse from my family member. It was always there, but I never really brought it out. After I recovered that memory and started dealing with it, I couldn’t make those drawings anymore because it was hurting me so much.
VTD: How did you go from painting those disturbing images, where young girls are being oppressed, to the Giant Asian Girl series, where women are portrayed so powerfully?
MB: After a while, the drawings changed. I started ripping this perpetrator ink from my canvas, and I started cutting them up. I would display it in public, and I felt very satisfied doing that. I did that for four years, until I felt, like, “OK, I’m OK with this topic now.”
I became empowered. I felt like I was not that helpless child anymore, who was raped, who was discriminated against, who had no language to use. I was an artist, and also a creator. I became very powerful in my canvas. I am the creator of this work, and I can do whatever I want.
So I was working with this high school poet who wrote a poem about how she grew up in this world of fairy tales. When she grew up, the world was not what she learned it would be, and she was shocked. For my part as an artist, I had to make an image according to her poem, so I made this image of a girl and then made a collage with children’s books around her.
That kind of became something. I really liked the style, but I thought, “I am sick and tired of Disney.” All these Western fairy tales that I learned when I was growing up in Korea — I remember thinking, “I’m going to be this princess, too.” When I moved here, I was not the main character in this country. We will never be the main character in white people’s communities.
Then I started replacing Disney characters with Asian women. I found that power in me to start making this series called Giant Asian Girls.
VTD: What is the Giant Asian Girl series addressing in our culture?
MB: It talks about this racial stereotype of Asian girls, how we are always seen as very small and vulnerable, seen as very quiet and obedient. I did not like that. I did not like how Asian girls are seen as exotic.
I was working a retail job and my boss would say something like, “You’re selling really well because of your exotic look.” I was working very hard. The comment just slapped my face. Everything that I did here — you think it was my look, my exotic look, that I was selling my face and body to sell something here?
Things like that made me want to make Giant Asian Girls, who are not upset. They are not crushing the tiny, chaotic world around them. They are above that. They are more powerful than going after somebody and hurting them. We’ve been through that, but we just rise above it. We have that calmness to us.
VTD: How do people react to your work?
A lot of people are inspired by it, empowered by it and want to learn more about it. Sometimes they start reading the statement, and then I see, usually like white middle-aged men, just chuckling, without knowing that I’m there, talking about how funny it is or how ridiculous it looks.
I think a lot of people do not understand the racism inside that they have. People ask me, “Where are you from?” or “Are you an international student?” or “Are you a nanny?” I don’t really think these people have bad intentions. I don’t think they think they’re racist. It comes out without understanding what impact it has on other people.
VTD: The shootings in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six Asian women, have brought the intersection of sexism and racism to the forefront of nationwide conversation. Your work addresses those issues. How did the event affect you?
MB: The Atlanta shooting really shook me. I quit my job, which really shook my community — the response I sometimes get is, really? They’re surprised that it shook me that deeply.
And I’m like, yes. It is a big deal. It made me gag when I heard the news. I didn’t have a job lined up after that. I quit without a plan. It really made me think about what I have been doing. I want to do something more important, where my passion is, and to help to educate communities.
VTD: How much are these stereotypes part of your daily life?
MB: People of color live with it every day. We teach our children about it. It’s not a new thing. A few weeks ago, when that tragic shooting happened, it was building up to that point. But it’s been there, ever since Asian people have been here. It just manifested in that terrible crime.
And now people are more willing to listen. It’s not like we weren’t talking about it. We were talking about it the whole time. People are listening, finally, maybe opening their ears a little bit more. I am scared that we might talk about it for a couple of months, and then it will just disappear. And then we’ll go back to whatever it was before.
VTD: When people are experiencing your work, what do you hope they feel?
MB: I definitely want them to break their stereotypes. I want them to question it. The collages, a lot of the time, are paintings from the Renaissance era, or like the Gothic architecture. Cathedrals and palaces and baroque — the high point of your culture. The girl in the middle is bigger than any of the collages, and she is just sitting there.
I want people to look at it and say, “Why is this painting different than my ideal of an Asian woman? Why is this Roman Catholic pope so small below her feet?”
Stereotypes of Asian women are quiet and small. I want them to see this Asian artist is sending a message of Asian girls who are yelling out that we are not your China doll. We refuse to be your sex toy. We are not here to fulfill your “yellow fever.” That’s what I want them to understand.
VTD: Who is featured in the Giant Asian Girl series?
MB: I started making these portraits with magazine images that I found, but they all had stereotypical Asian woman postures. So I started using myself as a model, and made a bunch of self-portraits. People saw it, and then many Asian people reached out who wanted to be my models.
I’ve never asked anyone to be my model. Everyone comes to me and asks. Giant Asian Girls and the giantess series are powerful women, and they are ready to talk about their stories. It is their choice to say “I am ready. I am powerful. I am bigger than what’s around me. Bigger than my environment, bigger than the discrimination. And I am ready to share my face, my name and my story to the public.”
I become a messenger, and I paint them.
VTD: It sounds like the women you paint have resilience in common.
MB: They are very powerful. They are ready to talk about the worst trauma in their life that most people avoid. It could be the racial injustice. It could be the sexual abuse that they went through. The topics, sometimes, are easier to not talk about. All of my giantesses are willing to talk about it. We are all survivors.