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'SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot,' opens at the Oakland Museum of California

Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of groundbreaking alternative art and culture magazine Giant Robot, OMCA features the major exhibition, "SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot."
Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of groundbreaking alternative art and culture magazine Giant Robot, OMCA features the major exhibition, "SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot." @OCMA

When many of us hear the word "robot," we think of Robbie the Robot, evil cyborgs or even C-3PO from Star Wars. But "SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot," opening Saturday at the Oakland Museum of California, is a magazine, an avatar of the emerging American-Asian and pan-Asian culture and very unlikely to run amuck and destroy the East Bay.

"SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot," opening Saturday at the Oakland Museum of California,
"SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot," opening Saturday at the Oakland Museum of California,@Oakland Museum of California

"Giant Robot" was a bi-monthly magazine of Asian and Asian American popular culture founded in 1994. Eric Nakamura, the founder, single-handedly produced it out of his parents' Southern California home.

The publication grew from its original format—a small, photocopied zine, folded and stapled by hand—to its current full-color format. "Giant Robot" was one of the earliest American publications to feature prominent Asian film stars such as Chow Yun-Fat and Jet Li, as well as Asian musicians from indie and punk rock bands. The coverage later expanded into art, design, Asian American issues, travel, and much more. The artists and their work for the magazine has been featured in three well-received shows at the Japanese American National Museum.

Nakamura was not intreated in main-stream and disposable American stars; he was fascinated by a blend of American history and Asian pop culture. He is still surprised by his success. "I was an infant, publishing a magazine without spending any money," he says. "I just went with what I liked." However unknowingly, he tapped into the emerging zeitgeist of young people interested in manga, Japanese movies, tattoos, skateboarders and a certain style of graphic art.

“SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot will emphasize the larger pop cultural context that informed so much of the early days of Giant Robot.” says Carin Adams, OMCA’s Associate Curator of Art & Material Culture. “In addition to recent work, OMCA is excited to present new installations such as a custom mural by David Choe—who painted a mural on the Facebook campus, as well as a large scale outdoor mural in our Oak Street Plaza by Andrew Hem.”

"Giant Robot" grew from a one man labor of love into into a brand that included retail stores, galleries and restaurants in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and a still-hot website. Along the way, emerging artists moved from the magazine's covers to the American mainstream. They include Adrian Tomine, whose work has appeared on New Yorker covers, and James Jean, whose artwork has been used by Prada, ESPN and Atlantic Records.

The exhibition features Giant Robot magazines and ephemera, vinyl toys, custom vending machines, and the original Giant Robot Scion XB. Designed by Eric Nakamura, inspired by Nintendo’s Famicom gaming console, and fabricated by Len Higa, the car-turned-interactive gaming station boasts built-in sound and projectors. Visitors will be able use the car to play the original game Return of the Quack by Chevy Ray Johnston with graphics by Matt Furie.
The museum has also scheduled family flip book workshops, SuperAwesome Salons featuring zine history and conversations about anime and manga during the course of the exhibit, which runs through July 27.

An entire room devoted to Giant Robot ephemera -- or "things pulled out of my parents' house," Nakamura says -- announces that Giant Robot was created not only by a man ahead of his time (he was a 20-something living with his parents before it became fashionable), but by an artist who found himself in tune with society's perpetual pivot.

'SuperAwesome: Art and Giant Robot'

When: Saturday through July 27
Where: Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland
Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, and Saturday-Sunday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $6-$15; museumca.org

The exhibition connects to OMCA’s other spring exhibition "Vinyl: The Sound and Culture of Records" through programs and in-gallery experiences celebrating how a range of communities comes together to create shared popular culture.