An Art Show Exploring Taste, Light, and Chatter

For AAPIHM, BOBBLEHAUS will host THE NIGHT MARKET, an immersive art exhibition.

No. 206
Article by:
Leona Chen

In 2020, Kaarina Chu Mackenzie was almost 7,700 miles from Taipei’s Raohe Night Market.

But as that spring became demarcated by increasing isolation and anti-Asian hostility, in her upstate New York living room, Kaarina began to paint an escape. As the underpaint dried on her canvas, the smoke of incense and grilled shacha corn wafted in. Then, the stickiness of a stranger’s jostling hand; a grandmother shushing a wailing child; the meaty patter of blue Taiwanese flip flops on damp asphalt. Alone in Woodstock, Kaarina missed home, taste, and touch. So she painted them back into her life.

"... A part of me, but apart from me. "

Kaarina is a Taiwanese American photographer and painter, an intersection of identities she’s now exploring in a new way. Her maternal grandmother had been a Chinese migrant, seeking refuge in Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War. Her mother was born in Taiwan, but raised Kaarina in Beijing. There are exactly thirty years between grandmother, mother, and daughter, but each woman’s life spans a completely different cultural and geopolitical environment. 

“My family lives in Taiwan now,” Kaarina adds. “It is technically home because it is where they are. But it will also always be distant… a part of me, but apart from me. [I am] half in, half out, but fully belonging to both.” 

Kaarina also recently reclaimed her Chinese middle name, Chu. “I don’t think it’s necessary to explicitly identify as half-Taiwanese, half-white. I’m just Taiwanese American… It's like being a photographer and a painter. I’m not half-photographer, half-painter. These mediums inform each other just as my identities inspire each other.” 

“There’s such a difference between heritage, belonging, nationality, and home."

This relationship can be literal– her paintings are often based upon her own photography. The dynamic can also be complex, as Kaarina invokes a fluid Taiwanese-Chinese-American identity from a Beijing-raised, New York-based vantage point. 

“There’s such a difference between heritage, belonging, nationality, and home,” she says. “I feel like I have different answers for each of these things. [My art] is a way for me to bring all of these confusions together.” 

Kaarina’s art is also a refraction of her particular experiences, choices, and hopes: “With everything happening to the AAPI community as well…  I wanted to paint Asian faces as a statement, but also as a way to represent how I want to fit into this industry.”

"When I paint, I know it’s authentically my own style."

But each of these identities can carry their own anxieties, and Kaarina is forthcoming about how she struggles to negotiate a sense of belonging. The whole point of her art is connection, she shares. “I only recently started painting full time at the start of the pandemic and I immediately noticed the lack of Asian community representation in traditional fine art spaces. I wanted to be and create something that others could relate to.” 

Her earnesty reveals a tender belief that she might earn this connection through her art, and that her depictions of home may inspire others to dream of theirs, too: “I want to offer my work as a contribution to the people around me and bring them together in meaningful ways.” Solidarity, her work proves, is not always rooted in a shared origin or singular experience; it’s the act of extending and accepting invitations into each other’s spaces, stories, and curiosities. “The scenes depict specific moments,” Kaarina shares, “like ‘Taiwanese chess’ or ‘Girl on a bus in Yangon.’ But they are meant to be accessible, to welcome connection with and from anybody.”

Kaarina’s background has had advantages and tradeoffs. It’s immersed in an artistic world, but not formally within the fine arts academic pipeline. “I was never conditioned by teachers and their preferred styles… I didn’t have experiences that caused me to be jaded about existing within traditional parameters. When I paint, I know it’s authentically my own style. I want my art to be shown. [More importantly] I want it to be shown on my terms.” 

Those terms include chaos, juiciness, vivid textures, and sex appeal. “My paintings take me weeks to finish because there are so many layers. That’s part of why I paint them so big, too, so they’re brought to life. They’re literally life size. I want someone from one part of the world to look at the painting and feel like they can step into another person’s version of home.” 

For her exhibition at BOBBLEHAUS, Kaarina envisions those terms brought to life. “The night market is a very Taiwanese thing, but there are also elements that are universal. Everyone loves to eat good food. Everyone wants to feel like they can walk right up and enjoy themselves. Everyone wants to go somewhere where they feel connection and belonging.” 

Her paintings invoke a sort of fleshy closeness, almost alien to their pandemic origins. Hands touch, bodies nudge and appear in frenzied motion. Fluorescent lights flicker, bathing her subjects in hedonic glow. There’s something oxymoronically intimate about a night market, we muse. 

Everything is laid bare for all to see: a school-aged boy crouching beside his mother, absentmindedly hosing off a basket of leafy vegetables; a grill cook tapping at his propane tank; a street vendor sliding the cellophane off cheap wares before dumping them onto a spread blanket. 

There are no secrets, no exclusive privileges, no fuss or fanfare - and yet, you feel you belong to something meaningful. You eat among strangers, shoulder to sticky shoulder, inches away from the cook. There are no servers and patrons, only bodies that have cycled through these rhythms for generations. 

In our conversation, we wonder if this is a full circle moment: to paint the contours of connection at a time of unprecedented isolation, to crave home as its very notion is disrupted by emigration and transnationalism. This exhibit of night markets, created in solitude, will finally bring people together. But if this is Kaarina’s full circle moment, I see her narrative not as a closing loop, but as an orbit propelled by the gravitational forces of connection and identity. 

We claim identities to connect with others; we identify with whom we can connect. These are the spiritual physics driving Kaarina’s art; we invite you to experience them for yourself.

Kaarina’s exhibition will occupy both floors of the Bobblehaus flagship, featuring her photography and paintings. The exhibition will run from May 3 to June 18, 2023, with an opening reception on May 3 from 6-8PM.

RSVP for free here.