Breathtaking and arresting, Livien Yin’s series Paper Suns explores the “desires, uncertainties and pleasures” of Chinese American immigrants

Through the series, the Wisconsin-based artist demonstrates deft artistry and attention to detail whilst also expertly recentring historical narratives.

8 March 2022

Artist Livien Yin is most inspired by photography, and, more specifically, what it has the power and potential to represent. Greatly admiring Deana Lawson’s portraiture-weaving and staged scenes “that are both very present and future oriented”, in a very different way, Livien also tells us that they are fascinated by Arnold Genthe’s 19th century photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Heavily altered to make the scenes look more “exotic and foreign”, Livien tells us that they are inspired by the way in which the photographer could “other” a community simply through the editing process. “I thought if photographs could influence perceptions of Chinese people to be unassimilable, then I could use image-making to embrace perceptions that I would like to see.”

This desire to rectify perceptions of their Chinese-American community culminated in the project Paper Suns. Being completed over the past two years, the series is inspired by the “paper sons and daughters” who entered the US during the exclusion era by obtaining forged documents that stated they were children of American citizens, Livien explains. In the series, the artist seeks to “obscure the sense of time between the early years of Chinese immigration and the present”. Doing so through portraying their own likeness and the likenesses of their friends in combination with historical references, throughout the series Livien also examines how laws like the Page Act – which prevented Chinese women from migrating on the basis of suspected prostitution – still influence hypersexulisation of Asian women today.


Livien Yin: Coaching Notes I (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)

The child of parents who grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and immigrated from Beijing to New York in the early 1980s, Livien was compelled to explore her history after realising that through her childhood in Massachusetts she had “adopted a visual memory of American history which did not highlight the immigrant communities that evolved here”. Captivated by the photographs of Genthe and John Thomson’s ethnographic surveys of Chinese trading ports, but simultaneously troubled by their misrepresentations, Livien developed a desire to create “portraiture from within the Chinese community”.

The artist’s interest in painting began in childhood, when they began practising traditional Chinese painting. Later taking oil painting as a college art major, Livien got into acrylics and gouache when living in Oakland, California. They now reside in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where they work from their apartment studio.

Being drawn to colours that they “associate with sunrise and sunset-times of transition and daily possibility” Livien’s paintings have an awe-inspiring palette and such a delicate, considered finish. “I try to render the way that sunlight feels against the skin, like a caress of the subjects in the painting.” Another recognisable quality of the artists work is their repetition of imagery, specifically hands and fruit. Sometimes the hands frame the face of the subject, and the fruit lies half eaten. And, sometimes the two images come together – a model's hands lazily peel an orange, another clasps an apple, mid-bite.

Livien explains that their focus on hands is a means a of referencing both manual labour that characterised the first major wave of Chinese immigration and their connection to Chinese culture and cooking; “I like to paint hands to commemorate the cultural legacies and ‘acts of care’ passed down from the generations before us.” Whereas the fruit has a more specific reference – “when ‘paper sons and daughters’ were preparing to be interrogated at Angel Island Immigration Station, they memorised the details of their new identities using something called ‘coaching notes’ which were sometimes secretly sent to them inside fruit.” And, simultaneously, when placed in the hands of women, Livien intends for it to be a metaphor for sexual agency. Paper Suns is a series that demands people's attention, not only with its enrapturing beauty, but also with its rich, and enlightening context. You can currently see Livien’s work at their exhibition Ka-la-fo-ne-a, which is running at Friend's Indeed gallery in San Francisco until 23 March.


Livien Yin: Pear Picker (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: Kin Gee Zapateria (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: Self Portrait: Orchard (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: Cherries (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: Cherries (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: After Washerwoman's Lagoon (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: Coaching Notes II (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: Early (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: Nightstand (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: The Promotion (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)


Livien Yin: Coaching Notes III (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)

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Livien Yin: Vice Report (Copyright © Livien Yin, 2021)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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