In her latest body of work, Chinese Panamanian artist MaiYap responds to racism against Asian Americans and the attacks many have suffered. Inspired by Chinese landscape art, her beautiful colourful pieces feature highly textured lily pads floating on top of the water in all shapes and sizes, painted in oils and using only palette knives.
Titled Reflections on Awakening, the abstract series explores Asian American discrimination by bringing attention to what is "beautiful and meaningful in Chinese culture as a catalyst to all the brutality brought on by hatred", as she puts it. It's based on a traditional Chinese mindset: 'With a little forbearance, you will find calm and peace; take a little step back, and you will find more space around you' (忍一時風平浪靜，退一步海闊天空).
"This is the mindset we were taught growing up in an Asian household, where conflicts should stay away from any kind of situation for the best outcome," explains MaiYap. "The idiom encourages one that if you are patient and remain silent in the moment of anger, you will escape sorrow and avoid unnecessary discomfort. But is it a good solution when facing discrimination? When encountering prejudicial treatment or disrespectful comments, Asians tend to brush it off to avoid potential problems and embarrassment, perhaps in an arduous, sometimes futile attempt to belong."
She adds: "Asians have consistently been used as scapegoats, from the whitewashing of railroad constructions early as the 19th century to Japanese internment to the murder of Vincent Chin to the 'China virus' – all the while being labelled the 'model minority'. Voices of Stop Asian Hate have never stopped; however, prejudice and hatred towards Asians increase over time, especially after 2020."
Deeply struck by the hate crime targeting Asian Americans, especially the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting, MaiYap started to reconsider her identity, roots, and what it meant to be an Asian woman in the States. Growing up as a minority in Panama, MaiYap often found herself the only Asian. She deeply felt the fear of being different. After moving to South Florida, MaiYap realised that Asian communities are still relatively invisible in many aspects of social movements compared to other minorities.
While racial issues have been brought under the spotlight during and after the global pandemic, racism towards Asian immigrants seems not to get enough attention as it should. MaiYap's new series of works aims to dig deeper into the issue by exploring and discovering her genuine feelings and presenting the process of finding one's true self through palette knife strokes and colours.
As such, MaiYap's paintings depict multiple layers of subjects, such as water, the reflection of the surroundings, and plants that ebb and flow in between. She uses water lilies and lotus leaves to symbolise one's state of mind. In Buddhism, the lotus is often a sign of peace, grace, and strength in the soul. In her paintings, however, there are no victorious blooming lotus flowers. Instead, only the leaves are portrayed. "Reflection on Awakening is a series that emphasises the ongoing healing process and the continuous journey of finding one's inner peace," she says. "The paintings do not wish to bring out the dark side but to approach the serious topic of Asian Hate from an aesthetic and meditative attitude. Holding the belief in bringing out the beauty of Chinese culture, which values craftsmanship and traditions, I also hope to heal my grief by digesting the information through the layers of my paintings. My process unfolds sorrow and empathy for my people, the Asian community."
The works also reveal a master colourist at play. Award-winning and with three decades of experience in the field, MaiYap paints oils in various techniques, ranging from realistic flowers using traditional brushes to landscapes and abstracts done exclusively with palette knives – the latter being the case here.
Based in Miami, Florida, MaiYap received her education at the University of Georgia, where she earned a degree in Advertising and Graphic Design. She presently teaches art at the prestigious Fairchild Botanical Gardens and is the founder of Palette Knife Artists of Miami. In the last decade, her work has also been exhibited in more than 100 galleries, museums and fairs in the United States, Panama, Korea, Morocco and China.
"The constant search for my identity, my place in the world and the struggle to preserve our planet is at the heart of my artistic pursuits," she says. "I wanted to be an artist since I was five. My grandparents and four siblings were moved to Panama's capital, some three hours away from the tiny town of Aguadulce, where we all lived. My parents decided they needed a better education. Remember how the old cars had a large space under the back window? One could say that my love for nature started in the back of my father's car on our way to visit the family every weekend. Lying down there, looking up at the sky on these long trips, I discovered the clouds, trees, and the blowing wind. Trying to convey this feeling of wonder has defined my art from the beginning."
On her palette knife technique, MaiYap tells us it's taken her about 120 paintings and five years to get where she is today. "Even though some of these paintings might begin with a difficult emotion, like anger or disappointment, by the middle of the process, my positive and happy personality starts showing on them. They ended up being voices of hope and gratitude. I honestly believe that no matter what, with love, we can change the outcome of our lives and our planet for future generations."