Peeling Back the Layers of Religious Devotion

The naked body — or parts of it — appear a few times in Devoted: Religion in Asian American Art at EFA Project Space. In Dew Kim’s Till I Know What Love Is series (2023), arrows pierce through silicone nipples. From far away, they look like they might be earrings or other jewelry, but the arrows refer to the artist’s interests in BDSM — and how domination and submission play out in congregation. 

In Heesoo Kwon’s video “A Ritual for Metamorphosis 탈피를 위한 의식” (2019), the artist reimagines traditional scenes like a Catholic wedding with the digital presence of “Leymusoom,” a fictional feminist religion inspired by Korean shamanism and the Korean word for asexual (무성별). The snake goddess of Leymusoom and Kwon’s nude digital avatar show up in these pieces, protecting the women in the family. 

Devoted, presented by the Asian American Arts Alliance, is an ambitious show with quiet, powerful works that slip between humor, grief, and peace. The six Asian-American artists engage with religion in a US context and, as the exhibition text notes, they sit between two Orientalizing visions of Asian religion — that of the mystic and that of heathen who need salvation — offering complex perspectives grounded in their lived experiences.

One such experience is baptism. Sunnie Liu’s “施洗 (To Baptize)” (2022) features three baptism robes of various sizes placed in red buckets. The installation plays out over time as each white robe soaks up a different liquid: black tea, Dr. Pepper, and wine stand in for empire, capitalism, and Christianity. An altar with Chinese dolls and religious pamphlets stretches out in front of two television screens that show Liu in a baptism ritual of her own design.

A number of works in the show exude an air of unease with religious institutions and structures. Shelly Bahl’s Songs of Lament series (2024) is composed of black wax candles in the shape of devadasis (women dedicated to worship in a temple) arranged in a Rorschach-like pattern. Burned and therefore transformed, the installation is a reflection on how mass production gives us iconographic figures, which themselves have meanings that change with their context. 

In other cases, the works look at the comforts of religious objects and rituals. Like Sunnie Liu, Zain Alam’s “Meter & Light: Day” (2024) turns to the number three — in this case, three screens, to explore Islamic ritual in the form of breath and prayer. As the sun moves through the sky in locales as far afield as Morocco and Staten Island, the three-channel video shows us gorgeous images of how time moves through the day, such as a close up of hands and fingers moving through prayer beads.

This installation stands in dialogue with Baseera Khan’s Law of Antiquities series of photographs (2021), which show the artist with objects from the Brooklyn Museum’s Arts of the Islamic World collection. In this time of examining museum collections’ provenance and intentions, the series lays bare the social context of a devotional object in the space of a museum, where culture demands no touching or interaction. So much of religious expression takes the form of objects, and in Khan’s work — and the entire show, really — I see a longing to make sense of the ways we worship and pray, and what happens when we engage with religion on our own terms. 

Devoted: Religion in Asian American Art continues at EFA Project Space (323 W 39th Street, 2nd floor, Hudson Yards, Manhattan) through June 4. The exhibition was curated by Danielle Wu. 

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