Naoko Wowsugi: Thank You for Teaching Me English
I was scrolling through the winners of The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and came across the project of Naoko Wowsugi. I was immediately struck by the humor in the presentation, but I quickly recognized the poignancy of an immigrant’s experience with learning a new language and her ability to create art about it. Thank you for teaching me English is a series of portraits of various subjects captured while mouthing words in English.
Using art as a form of communication, Naoko Wowsugi, an artist of Korean-Japanese descent, creates playful interactions between various local communities. Through a cross-disciplinary practice in performance, video, photography, sound, and community participation, Wowsugi’s work presumes a shared human desire for kindness and connections. She received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and her BFA from both the Kansas City Art Institute and Osaka University of Arts in Japan. Thank you for teaching me English is part of The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery which runs through January and will then travel from the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. to the Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA (Feb – May 2017); The Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi, TX (June – Sept 2017); and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO (2016-2018). Wowsugi recently exhibited Come Back to Rockville at VisArts, Rockville, MD (2015). Her works have been reviewed in The Washington Post, Washington City Paper, Smithsonian Magazine, and Photograph Magazine. Wowsugi will be an Artist-in-Residence at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in 2017.
Thank You for Teaching Me English
I arrived in America in 2001 with the ability to speak a single English word: “Yes.” In Thank You For Teaching Me English, I guide viewers on a tour of 30 portraits. Each photograph depicts a person pronouncing an English word that they had taught me along with the handwritten word on a plaque below.
My experiences in the US have greatly expanded my vocabulary. I learned the language not only through immersion, but in particular conversations around my community. These words form a more intimate lexicon reflecting my growing network of relationships and integration into new cultures. The portraits operate as a universal map of personal growth and demonstrate the development of agency and self-realization through the inhabitation of language.
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