What if an account of a historical event or individual involved drag, humor, music, dance, pop culture and fantasy? 

While the standard history curriculum in schools may not yet be on board with including these elements, two San Francisco artists are — in their cinematic work.

This Thursday, the Asian Art Museum is hosting “Queer Pasts and Futures,” an online, hour-and-a-half program that focuses on the short experimental films of San Francisco artists TT Takemoto and Việt Lê

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In an interview, Takemoto explains, “For me, experimental film is a format that enables us to speculate about the past. But it’s different than documentary or narrative film that tries to tell a more definitive story, or the truthfulness of a story.”

Megan Merritt, the Asian Art Museum’s project manager for contemporary art, will moderate Thursday’s online event, scheduled for 6-7:30 p.m. Notably, Merritt is one of the “Seeing Gender” curators, the museum’s first gender-focused exhibition, open now through early September. 

Takemoto shares that “Queer Pasts and Futures” is connected to the exhibition: “This experimental film program came out of ‘Seeing Gender’ and the desire to have some public programming that was in conversation with this exhibition.”

Takemoto was one of the community advisors for “Seeing Gender”; in this role, they offered their insight and feedback to the exhibition’s curatorial team while also contributing a reflection statement to the exhibition, viewable in the museum’s Tateuchi Gallery.

The format of “Queer Pasts and Futures” stems from “Seeing Gender” as well. Takemoto comments that they and Lê thought it would be interesting to pair their works based on themes, similar to the structure of the exhibition. There are three pairings total, with each pair featuring one of Takemoto’s films and one of Lê’s films. After each pair is shown, Merritt will moderate a conversation about their themes, with a Q&A session reserved for the end of the program.

In their film “Looking for Jiro” (2011), TT Takemoto’s performs in drag as Jiro Onuma, a gay man who was incarcerated in U.S. internment camps during World War II. (Photo courtesy TT Takemoto)

Explains Takemoto, “It’s a little bit different than a more conventional film screening where you might show all of the films all at once and then have a moderated conversation.”

Takemoto and Lê work together at California College of the Arts — Takemoto as the dean of humanities and sciences and Lê as an associate professor of art and visual culture history. Both are also board members of the Queer Cultural Center.

And there’s their shared interest in experimental film to approach the past, and consider the future, in unique ways.

Takemoto says, “We’re using things like pop cultural references and humor to show that we’re not trying to create an accurate picture but one that has different kinds of emotional qualities.”

The two artists’ personal histories and identities routinely factor into their work.

Lê is Vietnamese American who came to the United States as a refugee; in his art, he focuses on aspects such as migration, Asian diasporas, spirituality, healing and sexuality. These elements, to varying extents, appear in the three films he’ll present on Thursday: “heARTbreak,” “eclipse” and “the memory of sky is enough.”

Việt Lê’s “eclipse” is one of the films that will be shown during Thursday’s online event. (Photo courtesy Việt Lê)

Takemoto is a fourth-generation Japanese American, and their parents and grandparents on both sides of their family were incarcerated in U.S. internment camps during World War II. 

Takemoto notes, “I think a lot about that history, and I also think about it through the lens of queer folks or folks who had same gender-loving relationships or were gender-nonconforming.”

According to Takemoto, a common feature of their and Lê’s art is a high-low aesthetic, involving unusual materials and the conventions of drag. 

“For me, I’m using things like food, [and] he’s using costume-type jewelry that he’s molding into these elaborate costumes.

(Photo courtesy Asian Art Museum)

J.L. Odom’s article on ‘Seeing Gender’

“So there’s this element of, I would say, a DIY aesthetic,” they continue. “It’s in the spirit of drag, this fabulous DIY sensibility.”

One of Takemoto’s films, “Looking for Jiro,” exemplifies this particular aesthetic. In the short film, they perform as a drag king, taking on the persona of Jiro Onuma, a gay man who was incarcerated during World War II. Onuma, who worked in a mess hall, was fascinated with “muscle men.”

TT Takemoto says their short film “On the Line” (2018) was inspired by Isa Shimoda, a masculine female whose San Diego restaurant was a hot spot for tuna cannery workers in the 1930s. (Photo courtesy TT Takemoto)

Says Takemoto about the film, “I put those spare elements together to create a kind of music video performance where the character is making these bread muscles and then ends up twisting them and becoming the kind of muscle man that he’s been dreaming about when he’s alone and incarcerated.”

Takemoto will also show “On the Line” and “Ever Wanting (for Margaret Chung)” on Thursday. The former focuses on a butch, gender-nonconforming immigrant who served meals to Japanese American tuna cannery workers in her San Diego-docked restaurant in the 1930s. 

Shares Takemoto, “I think of her as a distinctively gender-nonconforming person in this history, and so I wanted to create a space where I imagined this very butch restaurant owner inviting all of these women into the space after a long day of working at the cannery and that there will be this kind of space of potential lesbian desire or at least same-sex camaraderie and intimacy.”

TT Takemoto’s film “Ever Wanting (for Margaret Chung)” (2021) evokes the themes of same-sex desire, despair and euphoria. (Photo courtesy TT Takemoto)

The latter draws attention to the first Chinese American female physician, Margaret Chung. Takemoto says, “I wanted to make a film that was about her [Chung’s] complicated desires that could never quite be fulfilled either because of her Asian-ness or because of her queerness.”

The significance of showing these films to a wide audience on Thursday — during a time when legislation restricting or altogether rescinding certain rights is seemingly on the rise — is not lost on Takemoto.

As they share, “I think the work that Việt and I do is so much involved with the traumas of the past – how those legacies impact and have imprinted who we are in the present, but also the ways in which those histories continue to reemerge in the present and in the future.”

“Queer Pasts and Futures” experimental film showcase will be held online starting 6 p.m. Thursday. Tickets are $5. The “Seeing Gender” exhibition runs through Sept. 5 at Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco. Admission is $14-$20. For tickets to the virtual program, timed museum admission and more information, visit https://asianart.org/.