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Maya Lin, Ai Qiu Hopen, and acceptability of art by Chinese-American artists – some things never change

Some works of art are initially resisted before they become beloved. It’s fair to say that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is beloved today. When you consider the opposing opinions on the war, it’s miraculous that people aren’t protesting over the memorial even today.

But there was a little controversy when the winning design was selected – or, more accurately, after the winner was announced.

According to Kristal Sands, the competition took place in 1981:

All entries were judged anonymously by a jury of eight internationally recognized artists and designers who had been selected by Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. The winning design was chosen on May 1, 1981. The designs were displayed at an airport hangar at Andrews Air Force Base for the selection committee, in rows covering more than 35,000 square feet of floor space. Each entry was identified by number only, to preserve the anonymity of their authors.

So the winner was selected, and the winning name of Maya Lin was announced.


Many critics, veterans, veteran organizations, and public figures argued that Lin was too young and of the wrong nationality to be designing this “American” monument. Many Americans of that time did not see Asians as United States citizens. To these people, the definition and image of an American was someone who is white or of European descent. It is hard for any Asian American artist to see their works as an individual ability to create without anyone judging their work because of their ethnicity/race. With all the hardships and criticisms, the Vietnam Veteran Memorial is the most visited national park today. As a result, Maya Lin was one of the many Asian American artists who has struggled and overcome discrimination.

So at the end of the day, Lin was vindicated – although she does say that people often praise her English language skills, despite the fact that she was born in Ohio.

Well, all of that happened back in the 20th century, when creating a monument to a controversial war. I’m thankful that all of those issues have gone away in the 21st century, and we can all come together as people to create a monument to something like the civil rights movement.

OK, maybe not. Pradheep Shanker shared a story from the Tennessean (warning: limited accesses to the story before the paywall goes up) about a planned monument in Nashville. No one has been selected, but one of the finalists has already been criticized:

A Chinese-born artist competing for the chance to produce a civil rights memorial calls an outspoken Nashville activist a hero but says he’s wrong to question her age, ethnicity and ability to do the project justice.

Ai Qiu Hopen, one of five finalists for a public art project being organized by the Metro Arts Commission, said the students who helped sit in at Nashville lunch counters made them accessible to people like her, too.

So what exactly did former Freedom Rider Kwame Leo Lillard say?

In a story published March 19, Lillard told The Tennessean, “There’s no way in the world a Chinese kid from California who’s under 50 years old can come here and develop a piece of art that symbolizes the struggle of the Nashville Movement.”

For the record, Hopen is from West Virginia, not California. But she’s not from Tennessee, she’s under 50 years old…oh, and she’s Chinese.

But it gets worse. According to this 2006 video, Hopen has created a sculpture of Charlie Chaplin. Some would argue that she has no business creating a sculpture of an English-American filmmaker who became popular during the silent era.

But it should be noted that it is not only Chinese Americans who are subject to this kind of criticism. After all, Edward Gibbon wrote about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, even though he was not Italian and lived 14 centuries after the Roman Empire fell. He therefore had no business writing about the Roman Empire, and he was roundly criticized for even attempting to do so…

Wait…he wasn’t criticized?

Well, that’s different.

Never mind.

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