MATTE’s new Senior Brand Manager, Chester Huynh sits down with Kate Ahn for an intimate conversation on being first generation children of immigrants, how the act of making work is as much healing as it’s about moving forward, and big ole’ titties.
Kate Ahn is a Korean-American multimedia artist based out of Los Angeles, California. In just a few short years Ahn, has amassed a large following of fans lusting after her fantastical self-portraits. Kate creates large-scale canvases plastered with hyper-realized anime depictions of Ahn’s likeliness — through her distinct lens, these works exist both as an act of rebellion against conservative ideals of sexuality as much as they are a celebration of the reclamation of Ahn’s womanhood. A self-sufficient creative unlearning, while also making the space to grow from everything she’s letting go of.
CHESTER HUYNH: Hi Kate! How are you?
KATE AHN: Hey Chester, it’s so great to finally meet you!
[Chester & Kate exchange brief friendly intros + giggles, this has been edited out for length]
CHESTER HUYNH: Someone like Wolfgang Tillmans does this a lot…there’s this beauty in the sick? Right? There’s this distinct depiction of grotesque moments or images but presented with such beauty…and in a different light.
KATE AHN: Yeah, exactly.
CHESTER HUYNH: It’s almost grotesque. But the beautiful thing is that it's a response that comes from the origin story. The context, that's the beautiful part. The images you paint are a direct response to the [perhaps] more sensitive story of oppression. Repression?
KATE AHN: Right. That’s exactly it. It comes from a deep place of oppression, and the work is my response to that.
CHESTER HUYNH: There is something so beautifully human in your work, yet everything about it visually screams larger than life. It’s like your ‘feelings’ or ‘thoughts’ become the main characters through this palpable personification.
KATE AHN: Right. Yeah, exactly! There’s real beauty in realizing the things that once held you back (in society) can also be some of your biggest opportunities to grow. While one culture feels strongly about hiding, another can feel so powerful in the open.
I’ve always had a love for subcultures and spaces in Japan because I see the rebellion from the oppression people face in their culture. The beauty that comes from this rebellion is simply just beautiful. Like, I really Love Hotels that were built before 1985. You can see that each room was built to support the freedom and acceptance of equality and sex. The way these Love Hotels were created, the fantasy, the beauty, the embrace and acceptance of sex and love, and the rebellion against conservative ideas is something I’ve always been inspired by.
CHESTER HUYNH: Is that what we're doing? Are you owning it in a way then?
KATE AHN: I'm definitely owning my sexuality as well in my pieces because I just think that was one issue. I mean I was a very rebellious kid, but that was one thing I really could not understand or accept how oppressive my parents were when it came to…relationships. My sex talk was like…don't have sex or else, I'll kill you!
I understand that there’s this double standard that gets passed down through trauma generation to generation. But I will never and was never going to accept this. And since I was young I always wanted to make it known that I wasn't going to accept it.
Which is what essentially became the message behind my artwork and why I feel like I continue to paint. I just want everyone to be freed from it. One of the first times I felt repressed in my life is the freedom to be a sexual being or expressing my sexuality and this is why I use sexuality as the forefront of my work to represent freedom of being yourself and being just whoever you want to be.
I mean, I don't know if I want to have kids but like I'm trying to send a message saying: You know, I just want everyone to be free. And that’s the message I want to pass down.
CHESTER HUYNH: Dude! You’re really touching my own emotional strings here because I think that what you're speaking to is we're both kind of first gen. Yeah, really because both our parents weren't born here.
KATE AHN: Yeah!
CHESTER HUYNH: We're both fully raised in America in this generation where I think… it gave a lot of these first gen kids, the agency to find out what is beyond their ‘Asian’ teachings, right? There’s this weird deep rooted pervasive guilt that just doesn't leave any Asian child, right?
Anyways, I'm really touched by that. What you're talking about is that you don't know if you want kids but your art is kind of like your baby and so, you’re almost teaching your art not to be shy of itself.
KATE AHN: That’s exactly it.
CHESTER HUYNH: You're teaching your art, to almost be like: Don't be what my mom taught me. You know what I mean?
KATE AHN: Yes, I know exactly what you mean!
CHESTER HUYNH: It's this POV of like sex is fine, sex is healthy, sex is great! That's what I feel in your work, that the colors, the tones, the stances of the figures, right? It's all about sex in a powerful light and I think that it’s really telling a full story here in the sense of it came from repression right. Perhaps repression and oppression?
KATE AHN: Yeah, it came from oppression, it came from insecurity. That's why there's that fantasy element of me just imagining myself with really f****** huge tits. You know and -
CHESTER HUYNH: Maybe it’s like your 14 year old self sketching with microns on a piece of paper unconsciously thinking the same thing.
KATE AHN: Yeah.
CHESTER HUYNH: It's like one day I'm gonna be able to be this girl if I want to be—
KATE AHN:Yeah. It hurt me so much. Being oppressed by my culture but also dealing with the beauty standards of both my cultures definitely plays into my work too. From 10 years old I was waiting for my boobs to grow but they never did and it bothered me so much because it made me feel less of a woman. I was suicidal throughout a lot of my life because of this and maybe a lot more reasons but the boobs were a big part of my misery. [laughs].
It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what bothered me to a point where I felt hopeless. But at 23 I finally got a boob job, I was really happy! They came out amazing but it also made me sad that I wasted so many years crying about something that could be fixed in an hour. Two things I realized, it's not that I am ugly, it’s that I don’t have money [laughs], and the second, I’ve realized that it didn't fix my self esteem issues either. I am still insecure, I am still the same on the inside even with my new fake boobs.
And this is where my art becomes therapeutic for me. Where I can imagine and fantasize myself in any way. It's where you see my obsession with breasts and body. It's just a place where I can dream and let go and just step away from my issues and be whoever I want to be.
CHESTER HUYNH: There's so many layers to that but you know, like I do think that almost the boobs are a big character of your work. It's a big through line. No pun intended. Maybe a little.
KATE AHN: Yeah! Yeah.
CHESTER HUYNH: It's big, big, perky tits.
KATE AHN: The BIGgest!
CHESTER HUYNH: What are your parents POV of the work? Have they seen the work?
KATE AHN: So my parents hated it. Well, they still hate my work. I actually… I didn't speak to them for a very long time, due to many different things. Me dating guys that they didn't approve of because of their race or their class. I mean, the funny thing is we don’t have it like that either but [laughs]
CHESTER HUYNH: You can be broke as fuck, right? And still want to be best dressed at H. Mart! Am I wrong? It's not about what you have, it’s what you present. I think that's a distinctly Asian thing? I mean I can’t speak for the entire race, so [laughs]
KATE AHN: Right!
CHESTER HUYNH: It's crazy.
KATE AHN: Like “even if it's fake, like at least I have it” energy.
KATE AHN: So, yeah, I mean, I've always had issues with them and even before just growing up, because like I said, I was just, I was never the perfect Asian kid, that they wanted me to be. I'm a very individualistic person because we're American, right? So they didn't understand that,…
CHESTER HUYNH: Yep.
KATE AHN: When I started painting, you know, these paintings…this is what I've always wanted to paint since I was very young, but I just I couldn’t. I was under-age and also I wasn't ready at that point.
KATE AHN: So I always explored other objects that represented the female form, that was my thing before. But, I've always wanted to do self-portraits. And I never did until after college when it was my own, you know, I was on my own, I'm financially independent, I can do whatever the fuck I want now, right? So I did that.
For my first real real self-portrait, I was brave enough to really paint everything. Before that, I would always change things a bit to where you would question if it was me, but would never really know.but my face was fucking right on that, just slapped on that bitch !
When my parents saw this , they of course lost it.. I mean, it's very understandable. I don't think that their reactions are unwarranted because I think that especially as a father, like, you know, your daughter is basically posting nudes, right? It's so funny.
CHESTER HUYNH: Yeah. Because we grew up in America where we were exposed to the fact that this could also be art. We're exposed to the idea that this does not have to be pornography,…
KATE AHN: Yes.
CHESTER HUYNH: Right? Your parents don't know better till they know about it. So they were taught that these are pornographic images. There's no context. There's only black and white. So, I think that our generation is also learning a lot about how to deal with things with grace. How there's two truths to one story.
KATE AHN: Exactly.
I also see no difference in my painting and porn. I think porn is art and visa versa. This is why I named one of my pieces: 'I just paint porn and because someone commented online "You basically just painted porn (with a vomiting emoji)."' I completely agree with you saying that my parents only see black and white and for me, and for our generation, we can see gray with everything.
CHESTER HUYNH: Yep! So I think that again…I see my story in you, right? I do see a part of my experience. But I think that what I really love about the story is that you're happy, you're laughing and you're also painting at such massive scales! It's almost now like, you know what? fuck these tiny little portraits. Look at this baby, it’s huge. You know, LIFE-SIZED.
KATE AHN: Yeah. Yeah!
CHESTER HUYNH: But Kate, I think your voice is very much needed. Even more so in communities like ours.
KATE AHN: Thank you!
CHESTER HUYNH: Like we need more ‘Kate’s' in the sense of like for young Asian women and girls (and in between) to be like you can be whoever the fuck you want and just have some patience because you know time will help you shape everything.
KATE AHN: Yeah..
CHESTER HUYNH: And I think that you're a great example to a lot of young Asian girls of showcasing that it takes us a little bit of time and confidence to really pull out like the hot bitch that you really know that you are. You know?!
KATE AHN: Yes! Thank you. [laughs]
CHESTER HUYNH: You really are that girl, girl. Such a pleasure.
KATE AHN: Yes, and I'll talk to you soon. Love you! Bye!
CHESTER HUYNH: Bye babe!
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