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Han Qin: Bridging Traditional and Digital Worlds in the Context of Migration and Identity

In this conversation, we venture into the cyanotype-colored art world of Han Qin, a digital and printmaking artist who also imparts her knowledge as an adjunct art professor at Stony Brook University in New York. Han Qin's artistic odyssey is a compelling synthesis of traditional and digital mediums, seamlessly weaving elements of her Asian heritage and her experiences as an immigrant in the United States. Through thought-provoking dialogue transcribed into the following texts, we delve deep into her creative process and the profound themes that have come to define her work, particularly her exploration of migration and identity.


 

XF: Hello, everyone! This is Xiaofan Jiang. I am the founder of Underground Art And Design. As we're diligently working on our new exhibition and publication called "Alt-Alterity," which delves into alternative perspectives on otherness and interconnectedness, we want to keep this conversation going around the theme.


So today, we're so happy to have Han Qin with us. She's not only an adjunct art professor at Stony Brook University in New York but also a digital and visual artist, working with themes such as migration and identity. I was eager to invite her to participate in our exhibition, but unfortunately, she’s deeply involved in two exciting exhibition and curation projects:


One of them took place in October at The Heckscher Museum of Art for the "Illuminations 2023: The Many Faces of Home" Light Show and Multimedia Installation, and the other, titled "My New Land - Cultural Fluidity," is set to launch on November 11th at the Patchogue Lighthouse in Long Island.


Han Qin, My New Land–Cultural Fluidity, 2023, Exhibition Poster. ©Han Qin Studio

Welcome, Han, and I have so many questions for you. Let's begin with your background. I know that your art is a blend of traditional mediums like printmaking and modern methods like digital art. So what contributed to this shift, and how do you navigate this intersection?


HQ: Thank you, Xiaofan. It's a pleasure to speak with you. Regarding printmaking and digital art, I think it's a natural progression for me, especially considering the materiality of art. Printmaking involves using prints, stencils, and various tools to turn the art-making process into a tangible result.


So the main motivation for me is heavily involved in the process. Printmaking emphasizes process control, which might seem unusual in art, but it's true. Another aspect is the potential for surprising results because, even with careful control, the process can sometimes lead to disasters or pleasant surprises. Surprises are less common, and disasters occur more often, but you learn from them and create new work. From a logistical perspective, printmaking involves understanding every aspect, from the nature of each medium to the tools, wood, and paper used in the process.


What is the wetness of the ink? How many layers are needed? What tools should be used? What's the perfect humidity for the paper and wood? All these details need testing. You start with an artist-proof print and then produce more artwork. This is somewhat similar to digital art, although digital art is more virtual.


Another significant aspect is the element of surprise. You don't know the result until the final step is completed or the tests are done. Even with meticulous control, the outcome can be playful or unexpected.


Some unexpected results can be surprisingly good, and that's a moment of cheerfulness. It's like, "Oh, hooray! We've created something really, really good," and you try to understand which step led to the unexpected positive outcome. It becomes another round of testing and logistical discovery of the process.


XF: Artists have agency in this process, but it's more like we are in a process of discovering and learning how to stay in harmony with this material or this medium because we're not entirely in control of everything. We're learning to adapt ourselves to work with it, and it can lead to those "aha" moments, enlightenment, or inspiration because we had no idea what would come up. So overall, it sounds very fun, and I can't wait to delve deeper into your work.


I know you've been working a lot with migrant stories and travel impressions. How would you define the core mission that drives your work? Has it evolved over time?


Han Qin, 2021
White Goddess 2, 3, 4
41*38 inch
Cyanotype on paper

HQ: I guess the core mission of my work is trying to understand myself during the art-making process. After the pandemic, I've realized what I am and where I stand. My mission has expanded to include my kids, my community, and like-minded people. It's more about helping others connect with artwork that can help them gain self-awareness, especially as migrants and marginalized groups. It started with my experience as an immigrant, transitioning from China to the United States, which was filled with loss, discomfort, and surprises.


After the pandemic, I began a project called "White Goddess" related to Mid-Autumn Day, a Chinese tradition that involves gathering with family. Separation triggered my thoughts about separation and homesickness, and why I still felt separated after living in America for over five years. So, I started creating cyanotype artwork based on moon motifs, using drawings as negative stencils for photos. This exploration made me ponder why the moon symbolizes homesickness and why reality doesn't alleviate this feeling. This prompted me to dig deeper into my life and social support.


In the year I had my third child, I found myself without the usual family support. This forced me to seek out community support in various roles—as a mom, a family member, a working woman, and an artist. I needed help with tasks like picking up the kids, preparing dinner, and taking care of the house when I had to leave. The pandemic felt like a vacuum, casting doubt on everything I needed to control and establish. My longings didn't hold the same significance they once did. So, I made the decision to be my own anchor, relying less on external support.


Moon Face, 2022
Han Qin
3D image printed on fine art paper
6 x 6 inches each, 18 images in total

The loneliness I used to attach to my homeland or motherland no longer held sway. It was time to stand where I was and seek support within my community for my life's needs. This realization led me to transform the moon phases, which had been a dominant motif in my artwork, into images of myself. I used 3D scanning to create a round face sculpture that resembled mine, incorporating moon-like textures. These textures added intricate details to my face, and I printed 18 phases of it. This symbolized my belief in self-control and my decision to stand independently in "My New Land".


Later on, "My New Land" became the theme of a new series in my work, focusing on how people discover their own identities. This was inspired by my personal experiences as an immigrant. I collaborated with immigrant groups to identify community leaders and unsung heroes who had inspired their communities. To select these individuals, I adapted a voting system, turning it into a political statement.


We conducted voting events within various immigrant groups, including Chinese, Spanish-speaking, Asian American, Pakistani, and Indian communities. Each group had its unique culture, making the process exciting. After months of voting and sorting, we identified community leaders who shared their stories and perspectives on community, shedding light on their personal growth. These experiences deepened my understanding of life.


One touching moment occurred during a Spanish-speaking group's voting event. Despite my lack of proficiency in Spanish, my teaching assistant, a first-generation immigrant, translated for me. A young immigrant child, around 10 years old, watched her translate and explain the project's mission. The child looked up to her as a hero and a role model for community involvement, despite her young age and limited fluency in Spanish. This project gave something back to the community.


These statements provide insight into my personal journey and the evolution of my artwork, which explores themes of self-reliance, identity, and community support.


Han Qin, My New Land–Cultural Fluidity, 2023, Mockup installation mapping at Heckscher Museum of Art, Huntington, NY. ©Han Qin Studio

XF: Thank you for sharing your beautiful story, starting with your own experiences and how you found common ground between your story and those of immigrants from different communities. Regarding the final presentation of this project, you transformed local architecture into a storyboard. What inspired this decision, and how do physical spaces enhance or detract from the stories of immigrant communities?


HQ: Right. So this idea came from why I still feel that many Asian communities have been underrepresented in public arts. When we talk about public arts, it typically focuses on representing mainstream art, but there hasn't been much representation of Asian Americans in public arts. However, Asian Americans have been a significant working force and contributors to our history. This gives us a reason to believe that we have been doing well. I wanted my art piece to evoke people's recognition of themselves in the public eye, treating ourselves as equals and giving us a reason to believe that we have a right to be here and that we have roots. That's why I connected virtual images or virtual portraits to something solid with historical backgrounds.


When I started the "My New Land" project, my initial idea was about immigrants arriving at the shore, standing upright. While brainstorming with friends, the concept of standing upright at the lighthouse stuck in my mind. I wanted people to stand there, face the land, and feel solid. However, it's a digital image, so it's ironically not a physical, tangible object.


And when I was talking to a representative of our district, she asked: Why do you have to work with Asian people? I told her that I still feel that many people perceive not only me but also many generations of Asian people in the United States as foreigners. She shook her head because she said it's such an easy way to recognize Asians. It doesn't matter if you don't know the person well; their face stands out due to the forever difference in skin color.


Welcoming and accepting different looks, especially for our kids, is important to me. It gives people and places the right to stand. That's the purpose. When working with the portraits and conducting interviews with unsung heroes, it was essential. The interviews delved into how they felt about themselves, the colors of their personalities, and how the material texture related to their identity.


The sound was especially crucial. Margaret Schedel, or Meg, the composer, and I started brainstorming together for the storyboard, thinking about how the faces, colors, textures, and stories connected to the inner selves of their souls. The sound piece reflects their inner selves—some are calm, while others are vibrant. This reflects the stories behind their life experiences, connecting their personalities to the sounds.

Han Qin Testing At The Patchogue Lighthouse. ©Han Qin Studio

XF: I know that you are working with a lot of poets for the "My New Land" project to do poem reading at the Patchogue Lighthouse. So it's more like you're going beyond as an artist, but more as a curator. How do you balance these roles when presenting a deeply personal and community-driven project like this?

HQ: That's a good question. I haven't thought about it. Curating comes quite naturally because I've been teaching and curating student works with museums and local organizations for many years. Working with museums, such as Illumination at the Heckscher Museum, was my first museum-level curating experience, and I co-curated it with Chiarina Chen, an independent curator from India. I think artist-curators have their advantages because we understand the process and technical aspects, which can be helpful for others. I can assist people in formatting their digital forms and provide guidelines on how to submit their work. It feels like teaching a class, and it comes naturally, making the process more structured and efficient. Collaborating with historians and humanists like Chiarina Chen, whose curating is based on her knowledge of art, history, and humanity, creates a collaborative and advantageous process. For poetry reading, I just wanted to do it. I like poetry, and it adds a poetic touch to my work.


I was trying to find inspiration when I talk to people. I'm a people person, so I can easily tap into the energy of individuals and feed it into myself. When I interview these people, I can feel their strength and their mission in becoming their true selves. It's like self-wayfinding, and it's quite powerful. Even if it doesn't directly translate into drawing something on paper, it fuels me. It becomes a source of energy and support that keeps me going, pushing me through obstacles.


XF: You extended beyond the Chinese community and worked with other marginalized groups, bringing their stories to light. How was the outreach process? Was it challenging, especially with the diverse language barriers?


HQ: Initially, I started from my own community because it was easier and I had strong connections. However, organizing public voting experiences was something that most artists didn't want to do. But I had to. During the first public voting event, it was at a Chinese school year barbecue party with around 600 people gathering in a state park. We set up a tent that looked like a commercial tent, and two of my teaching assistants (TA) helped explain the voting process and the meaning of the artwork to the public. But most of them didn't seem interested. They found it strange and couldn't understand what it was about. It didn't seem to be selling anything.


I really appreciated it when the Board of Chinese Schools members introduced the artwork and asked me to talk about it. However, it felt quite unusual. I had to stand on a dead tree stump and discuss the artwork with people who were holding hot dogs and watermelons.


Han Qin, My New Land Voting and Selection, 2023. ©Han Qin Studio

During the in-person voting process, we opened up to everyone who wanted to add names to the list. Surprisingly, someone's name was added and quickly became a popular choice. I was surprised to learn that this person had made significant contributions to our community.


Approaching other communities was more challenging because we needed to find well-connected individuals within those communities. Finding suitable places for advance voting wasn't always successful and required collaboration with the starting organization. Each authentic group had to be resourceful.


XF: And it’s really beautiful that you chose the lighthouse symbolically. What you do is serving as a lighthouse for the immigrant community. I have two more questions for you. The first one is, in the context of otherness, which is often tied to immigrants, how do you perceive the tension between assimilation and preserving one's original cultural identity?

HQ: Hmm! First, I think it is ever-evolving. The original cultural identity may shift in everyone's life experience. Some have this kind of culture, some slightly different. So it really depends on each individual's life experience to define which aspect of their culture is related to their identity.

For example, my deep appreciation of Asian culture is closely tied to poetry, dance, and music. I was introduced to these art forms at a young age, with traditional dance practice, my mother's exceptional singing abilities, and my father's passion for poetry all contributing to this immersion. So it's kind of a lifestyle embedded in Asian arts that has been glowing like a halo of classic Asian culture around me. Right? But there are also other aspects, like my grandfather who went through World War II in China against the Japanese. These are all parts of Asian culture or Chinese culture history that I grew up with. But it doesn't mean these are similar to other people. Some may be more influenced by the Cultural Revolution, while others are more influenced by China's economic development. So different aspects of culture shape individuals differently.


It's our job to define which is the most important backbone to feed your creative soul. And it's not about stereotypes or preconceived notions. It's more about the choices you make to shape yourself.


The Age of Migration 1, 2018
Han Qin
Cyanotype, inkjet on silk
28 x 56 inches

XF: That is so empowering. And the final question is, as you continue to establish yourself both in the art world and academic circles, what do you envision for the future of your practice, especially as it relates to the themes of immigration and identity, and what visions do you hold for the international art community, especially concerning the mentioned themes?

HQ: Right. So my next step in research is connecting art and science, especially in bioscience and psychology. Since I've worked with the community and people, I want to understand the driving technology behind our way of thinking. I want to discover what the newer science is, how the signals in our brains influence our choices in immigration, moving, or living in a community. I've started working with a scientist whose main research is in neuroscience and psychology to visualize patterns behind our actions. However, there are differences in how artists and scientists approach this. For example, the scientist told me that we need to be very specific, but in art, we bring things together, and those connections may not be specific to one particular area of research. Artists inspire. We find a common ground where science solves problems we don't understand. Artists can inspire more questions for science to answer. That's where I'm digging in.

XF: Sounds like a very interesting combination, and I know that it works well with your teaching experience at Stony Brook University because you have students from various scientific backgrounds. I'm looking forward to seeing your future work and thank you for being with us today! Do you have anything else you wish to add?

HQ: Oh, I think this is perfect. We've been talking a lot actually. I appreciate your website and platform's combination of art and design aspects. This is often lacking in many aspects of fine art and contemporary art. Your approach and this inclusive feeling of the platform provide artists with a broad space to showcase and discuss art with a general audience.


XF: Thank you! So I'm just going to conclude this, and for those who are interested in Han Qin's art, you can find her on Instagram with the handle @hanqinart, and I'll put it on the screen for easy access. Thank you so much for listening to our conversation, and I hope to see you again in the next one!


 
About Han Qin

Han Qin Portrait by Benny Migs Photo

Han’s inspiration comes from her own life, and also draws from travelers and wanderers she encountered. Through migrants’ stories, and travel impressions, she seeks to visualize the movement and connection between who we are and where we go. While primarily focusing on digital art, Han’s work also extends to printmaking, video, installation and performance art. She earned her B.F.A. and M.F.A. in Printmaking from China Academy of Art and her M.F.A. in Digital Arts from Pratt Institute.


Han is a winner of NYSCA artist award 2023 (New York State Council of Arts), a jury of New York Foundation of Art on Digital Arts 2020, a founding member of US Immigrant Artist Network. Her work has been covered in askART, US; Whitehot Magazine, US; Neocha, Shanghai; Sinovision, NY; CAFA, Beijing; China Academy of Art Media; Qianjiang Evening News, Zhejiang Daily, Heyshow, Taipei, ect. Currently, She lives and works in New York as an artist and adjunct professor at Stony Brook University (New York State University). Han’s work has continued to exhibit world wide, including recent solo shows at Nassau County Museum of Art; Heckscher Museum of Art; Gallery North, NY; Fou Gallery, NY.

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