The works of artists Katrina Bello and Bovey Lee highlight key themes about immigration, identity, and family.
Immigration and Identity: The Works of Bovey Lee and Katrina Bello
“Should we have stayed at home, / wherever that may be?” Elizabeth Bishop wonders at the conclusion of “Questions of Travel” (1965). It is a resonant query—a question that may linger not only in the minds of travelers and wanderers, but also in those of many immigrants.
It is certainly a line of thought I contemplate from time to time. Bishop evokes the state of mind of those whose anchors were dislodged so long ago that even when they conjure up the idea of “home,” they are no longer certain where that is; its mental image may be splintered into two, three, or more. I find such sentiments and life experiences captured in the works of many diasporic Asian women artists who move between their countries of origin and the United States, their adopted home.
Katrina Bello and Bovey Lee Highlight Important Themes About Identity
In particular, I want to highlight two artists whose works speak to me, as does Bishop’s “Questions of Travel,” with their contemplative moods and expansive sense of longing and questioning: Katrina Bello (b. 1973) and Bovey Lee (b. 1969).
Bello was born in the Philippines and is based in New Jersey and Manila, and Lee is a Hong Kong-born and Los Angeles-based artist. Their bodies of work are shaped by their own experiences of being uprooted and transplanted, of being frequently on the move, crossing the Pacific Ocean with packed suitcases to be united with or separated from their families—floating back and forth between two cultures on two distant continents. While their artistic style, expression, and medium differ greatly, I find a shared emotional landscape in their work.
Lee Brings Forth Key Elements of the Immigrant Experience
Bovey Lee is renowned for her intricate cut paper artworks made of Xuan paper (a type of Chinese rice paper). Lee uses an X-Acto knife to cut away negative space, leaving delicate lattices laden with figurative symbolic motifs and linear patterns. She takes up a traditional craft Chinese women have practiced in their communities for thousands of years, revitalizing and heightening its effects. Her precision astounds, but even more impressively, she captivates viewers’ imagination by interweaving fragmented stories and visual memories, derived from her experience as an immigrant drifting between two cultural, geographic realms, into these delicate, complex patterns.
Resonating even more deeply with me is the ample capacity of her work to create empathetic, intersectional dialogues within the broader context of migration stories. As she says in her artist statement: “My cut paper work explores the concepts of departure and arrival in the context of the diasporic self and communities, and our collective divergence from nature to the urbanized world.”
Lee’s works, such as Briefcase Vacation–Spring (2012), eloquently represent the immigrant experience as a life on the move, with one’s existence—or rather, one’s belongings and memories of places arrival and departure—all packable in a suitcase. In another body of work that includes Application to Adjust to Permanent Resident Status II (2016) and Letter from the White House for New US Citizens (2020), Lee transforms photo-transferred immigration-related documents and official letters into images of ocean waves, evoking the bureaucratic immigration process as well as perilous ocean journey that innumerable migrants risk.
Highly relatable, Lee’s work captures the Odyssean saga of immigrants and migrants and eloquently represents their mental, emotional landscape.
Bello Helps Us Examine Our Connections to Distance and Family
Katrina Bello’s monochromatic charcoal drawings, which render carefully observed patterns and textures of ocean water, tree barks, and rocks, engage us with notions of memory, displacement, and geological time. When I first met her in 2019, she was experimenting with a new video piece later developed into her Hawak/Hold series, while also creating small drawings of water.
Using a photograph of her daughter’s hands, Bello projected a video of gently moving water slipping through those tenderly cupped palms—the lapping water symbolizing the Pacific that separates yet also connects her with her family in her native country. How does one explain the decision to live apart, or express the emotions arising from living apart from one’s daughters and mother? How to live away from one’s family, while simultaneously longing to be with them? Resilient women artists like Bello express these conflicting ideas in a tranquil, contemplative manner, alluding to the time and space that have power to shape, separate, heal, as well as unite us.
In her artist statement, Bello says, “I’m interested in the idea that the most ordinary things carry extraordinary potential when translated into still and moving images, and how even the most minute and lightest forms of representing them can carry the weight of the whole thing being represented.” Bello’s works seem to me expressions of a diasporic interiority, with an undeniable gravitas about them. Her charcoal drawings, which possess as sublime a quality as her subject, reveal her patient attentiveness to nature. The same balance of weight and lightness shows in her moving video images, like lyric poetry that captures an emotional landscape with a particularly steady, undergirding cadence.
Expanding the Notion of Home—and Its Cultural Nuances
Earlier this year, while packing my suitcases for a trip to see my family in South Korea and then later while flying over the Pacific, I kept picturing Bello’s and Lee’s work in my mind. I felt an undeniable connection with them—a kind of an implicit understanding of their work through shared experience of living in this adopted homeland while having family ties in the countries thousands of miles away across the Pacific Ocean and reconciling the split self-identities.
Lee and Bello are at home on both sides of the Pacific, and perhaps somewhere in between, too. Their process-oriented works may, for the artists, have the meditative power to soothe their angst and anxieties, to process and assuage nostalgia, and to cultivate patience and resilience. Not simply aesthetic exercises in virtuosity, the artists’ understated, poetic works draw on their diasporic experience to evoke emotional depths and interiority that are sources of resilience. Both seek connection across the body of the Pacific Ocean. And both help to bring the reality of the Asian diasporic experience from the margins to the center of our current discussions about belonging and diasporic identity in the contemporary art world. Bello’s and Lee’s compelling works invite us to join a conversation with these multifaceted voices.