Hands are pulling petals off of a yellow chrysanthemum.

These Asian artists are tired of being the ‘good girls’

Meet five contemporary creatives who don't play by the rules

"The Chrysanthemum and The Men" artwork by Natsuki Takauji.

Courtesy of Natsuki Takauji

Words by Xintian Wang

For too long, society has expected Asian women to conform, to be the “good girl” who stays quiet and complacent. From the portrayal of Lane Kim in the TV show Gilmore Girls, who struggles with her strict upbringing in a conservative Korean household, to the character Kelly Kapoor in The Office, who often plays into stereotypes of being meek and subservient, despite her intelligence and ambition, Asian women were expected to embody a certain ideal of femininity, often depicting submissive characters. And these are only examples from the early ‘00s—it gets worse the further back you look.

Today, female artists still encounter barriers to fully expressing themselves, facing censorship or pressure to conform to male-dominated artistic norms. I recently talked to some of the most daring and influential Asian women and nonbinary artists in the U.S. contemporary art space and delved into their experiences, struggles, and triumphs in the realm of creativity. They are not just making waves in the art world; they are rewriting history, one daring stroke at a time.

Natsuki Takauji: Confront Vulnerabilities By Embracing the Complexities of Identity

Headshot of a woman peering through metalwork.

Natsuki Takauji uses her work to transcend past trauma.

Courtesy of Olga Federova

Growing up in Tokyo, young Natsuki Takauji commuted to school on crowded subways every morning. When she was 10, a serious incident of sexual harassment occurred on her way to school: a man cut her school uniform skirt while she was unaware and touched her. Subsequently, the man began to chase her every morning for a year following the incident. Sadly, encounters with sexual harassment persisted in public spaces beyond Takauji’s graduation.

“The perpetrators seem to target fearful girls, which only exacerbated my feelings of weakness and culpability,” Takauji recalls. “I became excessively self-conscious and anxious in public settings, making my youth painful and challenging. But I couldn’t articulate my struggles to others. The only certainty I had then was, ‘I will not be working for a company commuting in a crowded subway every morning; that’s not the life I want.’”

It was this resolution that propelled Takauji towards a career in art. After relocating to New York City for art education, Takauji opted to stay in the city after graduation, drawn to the dynamic and diverse art scene. Here, for the first time, she found the space to revisit her creative roots and reflect on her journey.

“Physically and mentally distanced from my past and my country, I could finally examine it closely and give voice to my experiences,” Takauji explains. “My recent works delve into my traumas, which, unfortunately, are all too common.”

A large white chrysanthemum made of cloth opens at the center to reveal a man devouring a chrysanthemum.

“The Chrysanthemum and the Men” (2024), Kapow Gallery.

Courtesy of Natsuki Takauji

Takauji’s art often draws from her own body and experiences. In her recent show The Chrysanthemum and the Sword at the Kapow Gallery, she delved into her Japanese heritage and womanhood. In “Goodbye My Chrysanthemum” (2022), she animates “raw sentiments and trauma of my girlhood,” referring to the sexual harassment incident, where her school uniform is cut into pieces and a Chrysanthemum grows from the clothing, representing feminine power. In “The Chrysanthemum and the Men (2024), she invites viewers to enter a suspended skirt to find footage of a man avidly devouring a chrysanthemum, inspired by a novel she wrote as a teenager. “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword - Engagement (2024) casts a dynamic projection of Takauji’s frozen eggs over a sculpture featuring the flower, a samurai sword, and traditional Japanese wedding attire.

An art show of various multimedia artwork. At the front is a black dress with branches and spikes protruding out from it.

Natsuki Takauji’s recent show "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" at Kapow Gallery.

Courtesy of Natsuki Takauji

As Takauji’s art continues to evolve, her upcoming exhibitions promise fresh insights into her expanding artistic repertoire. From “The Ankhlave Biennial: DNA Garden” at BronxArtSpace, Bronx, NY (Feb 29 to Apr 6), to “Constellation” at SLA Art Space, New York, NY (Apr 4 - May 30), Takauji's work resonates with authenticity and cultural depth.

Now 41, Natsuki Takauji has transcended her past as a fearful girl on the subway. Through her art, she invites viewers to confront vulnerabilities and embrace the complexities of identity, challenging societal norms and personal narratives alike.

Ran Hwang: Seek Resilience Through Buddhist Artistry

An Asian woman in a white top, black skirt and white leggings, stands with her arms folded, against a red background with white flowers and dark branches.

Ran Hwang and her installation work.

Courtesy of Ran Hwang

Witnessing the tragedy of 9/11 in close proximity spurred a profound introspection in NYC-based Korean artist Ran Hwang. Reflecting on her childhood visits to Buddhist temples, where the resonant sound of the wooden instrument moktak evoked a sense of tranquility, Hwang embarked on a journey of rediscovery through her art.

In her immersive wall installations, Hwang utilizes materials such as pins, buttons, and threads to achieve a meditative state akin to her experiences in the temple. Drawing inspiration from artists like Richard Serra and El Anatsui, her creative process becomes a fusion of personal introspection and global influences.

A head of a bird in red, with multi-colored wings, with a black net in the foreground, against a white background.

Installation view of Ran Hawang's “Echoes in Eternity,” 2024.

Park Joon

Hwang's latest exhibition, Echoes in Eternity at the AHL Foundation Gallery, invites viewers into a world where threads symbolize the intricate tapestry of life's struggles and resilience. Through meticulous attention to detail, she creates environments reminiscent of sanctuaries or nurturing wombs, where avian life serves as a metaphor for human vitality and endurance.

"I perceive a profound connection between the beings ensnared and entangled within the constraints of the net and those ascending freely into the sky," explains Hwang. "In this suffocating world, the imagined white eagles encapsulate both the agony of restraint and the liberation of transcendence. The vibrant vitality symbolized by the red habitat emerges from the fervor of these beings, defining the essence of our existence."

Despite the meticulous addition of layers of thread and mesh, Hwang adheres to the Buddhist principle of “letting go,” dismantling all the pieces once the exhibition concludes. "I finalize each project based on my extensive experience, responding to the space and conditions as necessary," she elaborates. "Yet, akin to our transient lives, the installation dissipates once the exhibition ends."

A woman in black stands facing a wall with a tree with red flowers.

Ran Hwang in the process of creating “Buddha Camp,” 2006.

Courtesy of Ran Hwang

While her installations are ephemeral, Hwang embraces the Buddhist concept of impermanence, recognizing the significance of each painstakingly placed pin and button as a representation of ordinary existence.

As she prepares for the Venice Biennale in April and her upcoming solo show at the Leila Heller Gallery in September in New York, Hwang continues to delve deeper into Zen spirituality and the interconnectedness of all beings. As we navigate her exhibitions, we are reminded of the enduring beauty that arises from adversity, much like the phoenix rising from the ashes.

Yi Hsuan Lai: Feminity, Sexuality, and Body – My Source of Inspiration

Headshot of a woman.

Yi Hsuan Lai explores femininity and sexuality in her artworks focused on the body.

Courtesy of Yi Hsuan Lai

For Brooklyn-based artist Yi Hsuan Lai, growing up in Taiwan had been marked by insecurities and anxieties surrounding body image and sexual expression.

“The societal expectations ingrained in the culture of my upbringing weighed heavily on me,” Lai shares. “There was this pervasive notion of a standardized aesthetic for women, dictating who is deemed ‘attractive’ or deserving of attention.”

However, upon moving to New York City to pursue her MFA at the School of Visual Arts in 2017, Lai found herself immersed in a more inclusive environment where she could express her sexuality shamelessly.

“Femininity and sexuality have become guiding forces in my creative process,” Lai explains. “Sexuality, to me, encompasses a profound awareness and acceptance of one's body, reclaiming agency, and celebrating its inherent beauty and vitality.”

In her recent exhibition, Gut Feeling at the NARS Foundation, Lai drew upon her experiences as an immigrant to explore themes of adaptation, uncertainty, and femininity through sensual visual language. Through staged photographs using discarded and found materials alongside portions of her body, Lai created ambiguous yet evocative assemblages.

For instance, in the piece titled “Cave” (2024), Lai employs water-filled balloons, metal clips, and fabric to simulate the experience of women’s reproductive organs undergoing torment by tools like speculums. Through this composition, she evokes bodily sensations such as compression and release, skillfully capturing the tension between opposing forces. Similarly, in “Nail Flower” (2024), Lai utilizes stockings, withered flowers, and press-on nails to convey a visceral sense of aliveness juxtaposed with the melancholy of passing times.

An artwork depicting wilting flowers using stockings, flowers, and press-on nails

"Nail Flower" (2024).

Courtesy of Yi Hsuan Lai

Employing studio photography and digital collage, Lai's work traverses boundaries between the constructed and deconstructed, animate and inanimate, transforming disposable materials into bodily and otherworldly representations.

Despite her artistic evolution, Lai acknowledges the challenges of exploring her body in her work due to cultural taboos. “This deeply ingrained fear subconsciously drives me to adopt strategies of masquerading or utilizing props to conceal my body,” she admits.

A hand holds up an abstract, skin-colored vessel, with a finger in the middle, surrounded by dark hair.

“Love Letter”, 2021, by Yi Hsuan Lai.

Courtesy of Yi Hsuan Lai

However, Lai confronts this fear by rendering it grotesque under scrutiny, creating a dynamic interplay between attraction and repulsion in her artwork. Thus, her face often remains unrecognizable or muted, adding layers of mystery to her pieces.

In her upcoming exhibition, Ongoing Narratives: Go Left, Go Right, or Go to the Other Side, at Gallery 456 in NYC on April 19, Lai continues to explore the intricate relationship between the human body and inanimate objects. She confronts the complexities of identity and embraces the fluidity of expression in a world where the personal and the universal intersect.

Jiaoyang Li: ‘Enter My Speakeasy Bookstore, where Straight Males Need a Chaperone’

An Asian woman with half black and half blonde hair, sits with long black and white braids wrapping around her body.

Jiaoyang Li.

Courtesy of Jiaoyang Li

Jiaoyang Li wore many hats: poet, interdisciplinary artist, author, curator, and creative writing teacher at New York University. But it's her role as the co-founder of the beloved Jersey City speakeasy bookstore and art space, Accent Sisters, that truly steals the spotlight.

Li's journey from London to New York in 2017 was fueled by a desire for creative freedom and a taste of the vibrant city life. However, it wasn't until 2019, when she co-founded Accent Sister with New York City-based fiction writer Na Zhong and poet Hongru Pan, that her vision for a platform supporting Chinese bilingual writers and creators across languages and mediums truly took shape.

"Establishing Accent Sisters was our way to maintain our authenticity, protect our love and passion, and continue doing what we want to do, even if it's not conventionally allowed," Li explains.

Accent Sisters isn't just a bookseller—it's a mixed space serving as a publishing studio, a speakeasy bookstore, and an art space for Asian female artists. It's a haven for immigrant artists like Li, who have often felt pressured to conform to mainstream tastes rather than embrace their authentic voices. Currently, Accent Sisters is hosting an exhibition of award-winning illustrator Vanilla Chi, whose work embodies a unique blend of cuteness and profundity.

Li's dedication to creating spaces where marginalized voices can flourish is evident in Accent Sisters' rule on Instagram that "straight men need to be supervised by their female and LGBTQ+ friends to enter the space." While this rule may have started as a joke, it reflects Li's commitment to curating a diverse array of queer and female Asian artists and writers.

"I never think of being queer and female as a marginalized thing," Li says. "Though China is still pretty conservative, I was born in Sichuan, the feminist and gay capital of China. Raised by generations of great women in the family, I feel comfortable ignoring patriarchal trash and just being princesses and sisters with my queer and female friends."

A woman in white hair, white makeup and white clothing stands in front of a mirror with her hand to her ear.

Jiaoyang Li acting as the two-spirited alien for the video drag performance "Doll Doe Doodle."

Courtesy of Jiaoyang Li

Li's focus on gender and sexuality in her artistic endeavors stems from a deeply personal place, driven by a desire to explore modern love and relationships. From writing these confusing modern love poems to working on a video drag performance called Doll Doe Doodle, where she acted as a two-spirited alien, her work embraces vulnerability and pushes boundaries.

Despite her creative prowess, Li faces numerous challenges as a Chinese artist in New York City. From work visa restrictions to navigating tensions between the U.S. and China, the road to artistic success is fraught with obstacles. Yet, Li remains undeterred, channeling her experiences into her work.

Multiple images of nude bodies and body parts against a gray wall, connected by wires.

Accent Sisters “The Chain” Exhibition; Pictured: Lisa Wang, Body Commodity, 2023 Installation

Courtesy of Jiaoyang Li

Two of Li's most notable curated exhibitions, Women in Chinese Characters and Chains, tackle pressing social issues with thought-provoking artistry. The former explores gender bias in Chinese society through immersive visual spaces designed by Zoe Cui’s text presentation, and personal writings by 20 young Chinese women. Meanwhile, "Chains" boldly confronts the exploitation of women's bodies under capitalism and patriarchy through photography, installations, and sculptures.

Looking ahead, Li has no shortage of projects in the pipeline. From developing the script for a retro pixel narrative game “Go to Sea” by the ZZYW team to releasing her bilingual poetry collection "Gasta曱甴" by Accent Sisters Press this summer, her creative journey shows no signs of slowing down.

Crys Lee: Paint Life's Portraits Through the Lens of Identity

A black and white portrait of an Asian woman with long dark hair, siting with her arms and legs crossed.

A self-portrait of Crys Lee.

Courtesy of Crys Lee

Born to a Filipina mother and a U.S. military father in Germany, Crys Lee's childhood in Kansas was fraught with misunderstanding and assumption.

"In Germany, everyone thought my mother was our nanny, and in the U.S., everyone assumed I was Latinx—most still do," shares Lee, who prefers she/they pronouns. "As a child in a mostly white community, I was both pained and embarrassed by the way people spoke to my mother, assuming her accent meant she lacked education or must've met my father at a bar to immigrate."

For years, Lee grappled with finding their voice until photography offered an escape and a means of self-expression. Moving to Los Angeles proved transformative, as Lee found a vibrant community that resonated with their multi-racial, API, and BIPOC identity, fostering empathy and camaraderie.

A nude woman holds another nude woman over her shoulder, in black and white, against a white background.

"Untitled" (2021) by Crys Lee.

Courtesy of Crys Lee

Lee's artistry is deeply personal, reflecting their journey through gender, cultural identity, and sexuality. In response to the pandemic-driven violence against Asian Americans, Lee participated in the group show On Becoming, organized by community group Proud Asian Women+. Through photography, Lee explored the fluidity of identity within queer Asian communities, symbolized by an intimate portrait of two nude, queer, API women embracing.

This exhibition marked a pivotal moment for Lee, catalyzing an embrace of their otherness and a commitment to uplift those who share similar identities. Abandoning a nine-year experience in commercial photography, Lee has shifted focus to filmmaking and photography centering on queer, trans, and nonbinary Asian and BIPOC communities.

Two women with gray hair stand together looking at each other, with an iron door in the background.

From left, Mia Yamamoto and her partner.

courtesy to Crys Lee

In 2022, Lee worked on a transformative project, photographing California's first openly trans trial lawyer, Mia Yamamoto. "I had never met a queer, trans, Asian elder until I met her," Lee reflects. "Being present to document her presence, to take her portrait, was a dream."

As Lee's artistic journey evolves, their focus remains on storytelling that amplifies marginalized voices. Projects like HOTPOT, documenting queer spaces in Koreatown, and their upcoming film His Body, a dark comedy challenging narratives of body autonomy, exemplify Lee's commitment to creating change through film and photography.


Published on May 20, 2024

Words by Xintian Wang

Xintian Tina Wang is a bilingual journalist covering cultural stereotypes and innovations, including gender and sexuality, arts, business, and technology. Her recent work appears in TIME, ARTNews, Huffpost, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Daily Beast, Inc. Magazine etc. She is also the director of events for the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) New York Chapter. As a journalist of color and a visual storyteller, she is constantly speaking for cultural minority groups whose voices are buried in mainstream discourses. Her documentary Size 22 won the "Best Short Documentary" at the Boston Short Film Festival and an "Audience Award" at the New England Film Festival. Her photography work is featured in TIME, HuffPost, The Sunday Times, Air Mail, etc. Visit her website at www.xintianwang.net.