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Ben Sakoguchi at Bel Ami

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Ben Sakoguchi spent several years of his childhood in Japanese internment camps during World War II. His current exhibition at Bel Ami in Chinatown, titled “Chinatown,” charts harrowing examples of violence and prejudice enacted on the Asian American community throughout the last couple hundred years — a potent reminder that violence and xenophobia against the AAPI community is nothing new.

The eponymous work in the exhibition consists of small paintings, hung to create a large assemblage. The central one focuses on the Chinese Massacre of 1871 — a lynching of 18-20 Chinese individuals in which no perpetrators were charged — that took place in L.A.’s old Chinatown, where Union Station now sits. The paintings framing the central image depict racist propaganda and stereotypes that span sports, theatre, and pop culture. Two paintings focus on stereotyped depictions of Asian characters in movies that were played by white actors (like Sydney Toller’s “Charlie Chan” movies from the 1930s and 40s). In the next gallery, Sakoguchi’s focus shifts to the coronavirus. While diverging in subject matter, these works highlight various inequities and abuses of power that have given some unequal advantage to PPP funding and vaccination access. As a whole, the exhibition highlights histories of racial and economic inequity, urgently insisting that there is much work to be done in building an equitable society for all that live here.

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Photo: Ben Sakoguchi, “Chinatown,” 2014. Acrylic on canvas, wooden frames (15 panels), 53 x 91 inches. Photo: Paul Salveson.

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