By Anes Lee
#StopAAPIHate Voices is a collection of interviews that feature artists from the online exhibition #StopAAPIHate: The Voices Behind the Movement. The artists share some insight into how the movement has impacted them and their art, as well as shed some light on their own personal journeys as creators.
This interview features accomplished artist, filmmaker, and journalist, Maya Lin Sugarman.
How did you get your start as an artist? What made you want to start making art?
I first got my start as an art photographer. I grew up in Oakland, Calif., raised by my Jewish American father and second-generation Chinese American mother. My dad was actually an artist, he got his MFA in painting. His visual sense definitely had an influence on my wanting to be an artist. When I was 16, I picked up his Nikon 35mm film camera for the first time. At that time, I went to a high school in San Francisco. I fell in love with street photography and would walk through the city for hours making pictures. From there, I studied at UCLA’s Department of Art and discovered photojournalism. I went on to have a career as a photojournalist and later progressed into filmmaking. Throughout those years, I’ve continued my art practice. Three years ago, a friend of mine started doing collage. Her work inspired me to start exploring the medium, which has now evolved into photomontage. I’m really interested in the surrealist nature of this process — it enables me to move between reality and the imagined.
How would you describe your overall collection of works? Do they fall under a particular style or medium?
As a visual artist, my work has evolved over the years but it has always been photography-based. I’ve always been interested in exploring peoples’ inner worlds, and how our innermost thoughts and feelings affect our relationships in the outer world. I also just love the challenge of distilling complex, intangible ideas into visual subtleties.
Do you have any inspirations or favorite artists?
So many! I find new inspirations every day, and a lot of inspirations from other mediums. But when I first got my start, I loved the work of artists like Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, and Cindy Sherman. An influential photo book I’ve had since college is Quach Thai Cong’s “My Parents,” which features a series of portraits of his parents modeling designer fashion.
How do you think the works you submitted for the show tie in with the #StopAAPIHate campaign? Were there any particular messages you wanted to convey?
In this series, I use self-portraiture as a means to explore how my experiences as a mixed-race Chinese American woman manifest in my relationship with my body. While working on this ongoing series, I think a lot about the history of the fetishization of Asian womens’ bodies in America and how that manifests in our relationships with our bodies today.
I also think of the body as this representation of my creative identity. This is the message I hope to convey: Countless times, Asian storytellers and creatives reshape their visions to appeal to a White audience. Gatekeepers say our stories are too niche. The “model minority” myth taught us not to push back. Across generations, we learned that success is the product of hard work and obedience — that we only do the unspoken work. But, that’s a decades-old stereotype designed to reconcile and distract from flaws in America’s democracy, including Jim Crow laws. As an Asian American creative and journalist, I want people to know that we have crucial stories to tell.
What advice would you give emerging artists or people thinking of getting into art?
I think particularly for BIPOC artists and those who come from immigrant families, it’s sometimes difficult to square our identities as creators with the fact that creating is a privilege — one that maybe wasn’t accessible to others in our family. I can feel a sense of guilt over that sometimes. I don’t really have an answer to that other than: don’t let that stop you from sharing your innermost thoughts, ideas, and creations with the world. Remember that you have a unique story to tell and that you are the only person who can tell it in the way you imagine.