“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees…” – Unattributed
American Knees examines the notion of Yellowface, a pre-Hollywood-centric practice of casting Caucasian actors to play Asians and physically altering their appearances to give them stereotypical Asian facial characteristics. This practice gives Caucasian actors the “right” to represent Asian roles and mannerisms, thus allowing them control over Asian portrayal in Western media.
The English translated Chinese play, The Orphan in China (1767), gave birth to the act of Yelllowface in the United States, pre-dating Blackface origins in the United States by two years. This convention still dominates in Western cinema to this day becoming more prevalent than Blackface. The most recent examples are The Last Airbender and Dragonball Evolution. Both have lead actors of non-Asian descent playing Asian characters. The director M. Night Shyamalan defended his approach in The Last Airbender as “multicultural casting”. My intention with American Knees is to attempt to take back control of Yellowface by altering my already inherited Asian face and accentuating its traits with make-up, props, costumes and expressions. This act undermines the Caucasian-owned tradition of Yellowface by giving this “mask” to an Asian person. However, this act intends to solicit questions of my own identity as a Chinese American. Wearing Yellowface does not necessarily allow me the right to bear it, nor does it give me authority to edit the history of Asians in passive, mystic, benevolent, supporting, effeminate or weak traditional roles in Western popular culture.
Chinese-American photographer Tommy Kha is based in Memphis, Tennessee. His work has been exhibited in solo shows at venues including Five in One and Jack Robinson Gallery (both in Memphis, TN) and at group exhibitions in New York, Shanghai, Austin, and Memphis. In 2009, Memphis Crossroads Magazine named Kha one of the “Top Twenty Untapped Artists.” An alumnus of the New York Studio Residency Program and a Digital Photography Residency in Shanghai in summer of 2010, Kha received his BFA from the Memphis College of Art in 2011 and is set to receive his MFA in Photography from Yale University in 2013.