A Place of Her Own
May-lee Chai, WEEKENDER | Wed, 11/30/2011 3:24 PM |
San Francisco’s Asian American women artists are finding strength in numbers.
What does it mean to be an Asian American woman artist today?
Apart from superstars like Maya Lin and Yoko Ono, very few Asian American women artists ever make it into the public eye.
But one San Francisco-based art group is working to change that invisibility.
“Most of this country has not talked to an Asian person,” says artist Cynthia Tom.
She recalls participating in an art exhibition in Indianapolis where she stood in a room full of people, but no one came up to talk to her. At first, she felt perhaps they hadn’t liked her paintings. After she approached a few people, she realized that the problem was far more basic: “They weren’t sure I could speak English.”
That’s one of the reasons Tom has dedicated herself to increasing the public’s awareness of Asian American women artists.
Tom is the current president of AAWAA, the Asian American Women Artists Association based in San Francisco, the first national organization dedicated to promoting such art.
“We fight for recognition all the time,” says Tom.
For this reason, for the past few years AAWAA has created an innovative series of exhibitions and workshops to connect artists with the public. Called “A Place of Her Own,” after the famous Virginia Woolf essay about a woman needing her own room in order to be creative, the project asks, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?”
Space to Create
Asian American women artists were invited to create original art installations that would answer this question and allow members of the public to participate in this “space”.
For example, artist Vivian Truong made a giant bathtub filled with foam “bubbles” and surrounded it with giant papier-mâché boulders covered with her own Post-It note “To do” lists. Members of the public were encouraged to write down on Post-It notes things that they wanted to let go of and stick them onto a giant corkboard on the wall. Then they could climb into the giant tub and relax.
Also immensely popular were Irene Wibawa’s miniature dioramas that fit inside baby food jars. People could walk around her mini-worlds and imagine the life of the tiny characters depicted therein.
“I wanted to make my dioramas in jars using everyday materials. I wanted to say you don’t have to have a lot of money to make art. It’s accessible to everyone,” Indonesian-born Wibawa says.
Wibawa, who is a biological science technician with the US Department of Agriculture, says she came up with her idea because of her work.
“I work with plants and insects. I look into a microscope, looking for damage to leaves. Some of the insects are so small, you have to pick them up with an eyelash attached to a toothpick. So I thought, ‘If I were this mite or this beetle, I’d want to hide. Where would I hide?’”
Besides engaging the public, the art exhibitions also allow the women to get to know each other. Because most of the women have day jobs outside the art world, it can be hard for them to meet other artists or develop any sense of community.
Wibawa has felt this lack since immigrating to the United States from Indonesia when she was eight.
“I’m always disappointed when I go to the Asian American section of anything and Southeast Asian women are less represented. The numbers aren’t there,” she says. “I wanted to join AAWAA if for no other reason than to say, ‘I’m Indonesian and I’m here.’”
Through AAWAA’s exhibitions, Wibawa was able to meet San Francisco-based artist Nining Muir, who also was born in Indonesia.
“Prior to joining AAWAA, I didn’t know there were other Indonesian American women artists!” Wibawa says.
Muir echoed that excitement. In fact, she said her primary reason for joining AAWAA was to counter the sense of not having a community in the United States since moving to San Francisco with her husband in 1996.
“I think it was a little surprise that there’s such a group of Asian American women artists,” Muir says. “Not that I wanted that label. But then I ran into Irene so I joined. I’m here as a foreigner, no family, so it’s a comfort thing.”
Muir feels their Indonesian heritage is in many ways more conducive to creating art than America’s culture. “In Indonesia, we think of art as a part of life. It’s a little bit exclusive here [in America],” she notes.
Muir, who liked to work with wood as a sculptor in Indonesia, now primarily paints, because wood is prohibitively expensive in the United States. Her artwork has been featured in 11 exhibitions and 10 group shows in San Francisco since 2006.
Most recently, Muir’s oil paintings have been of cows. “I’m fascinated by cows because of the Hindu background, the ‘holy cow’ concept from Indonesia,” she said.
Her latest series, entitled This Little Sapi, using the Indonesian word for cow, was inspired by a recent trip back to Indonesia to visit family.
When she discovered her nephew was thrilled with the English nursery rhyme “Five Little Pigs”, Muir decided to make paintings of the rhyme, but substituting cows for pigs.
The result is a series of five delightfully whimsical paintings depicting life-size cow heads poking out of a red barn, each titled after one line of the re-invented nursery rhyme: “This Little Sapi Went to the Market”, “This Little Sapi Went Home”, “This Little Sapi Had Roast Pork”, and so on.
Muir is amused by the reactions from the public. She remembers at one show, a few male patrons came up to her and expressed their surprise. “They were shocked. They didn’t think a small female would paint such cows!” she says.
It is exactly this type of reversal of expectations that fuels AAWAA and its members.
“Some people question us, [asking] do you still need a women’s organization?” says artist and AAWAA board member Shari Arai DeBoer. “And we say, ‘Yes!’”
Visitors to San Francisco can check AAWAA’s website to see which events, galleries and exhibitions are featuring members’ work in any given month: www.aawaa.net. (For more of Nining Muir’s work, check the artist’s own website: www.niningmuir.com.)