Friday, September 18, 2020
Asian American women artists on creativity, activism—and COVID racism

Asian American women artists on creativity, activism—and COVID racism

Jenifer K. Wofford's new Asian Art Museum mural helps transform Civic Center. She joins others for a virtual conversation

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While the Asian Art Museum, like other arts institutions, is closed during the COVID crisis, the staff is stepping up its museuming from home, offering many digital programs, including teacher packets, storytelling videos and an Instagram account from Art Speak—a paid teen internship program, where they post how-to activities, like making collages or zines. 

The museum is also hosting virtual public programs for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and on Thu/28, three Asian American women artists, Jenifer K Wofford, Chanel Miller and Jas Charanjiva, will talk with Abby Chen, the head of contemporary programs at the museum. In the discussion, the artists will “share how the COVID lockdown and the rise in anti-Asian racism have impacted their practices. They offer insights into how creativity can nurture positive social change and self-transformation.

Abby Chen, head of contemporary programs at the Asian Art Museum.

Chen came to the museum about a year and a half ago. In a recent expansion, the museum added an exhibition pavilion and an art terrace, as well as an art wall on Hyde Street that people walking around the neighborhood will see. Chen thought carefully about how to fill that space, wanting to take the neighborhood around the museum—the Tenderloin, the Civic Center, the BART station, and the farmers market—into account. 

When Chen got Wofford’s proposal for Pattern Recognition for the space, it was what she’d wanted to see: visually appealing and energetic. 

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is it. It has this vibrant color scheme. If you go on Google maps, the area is very gray—our building is gray, and the library is gray. We thought we needed to add some color,” Chen said. “And that is only the form. What’s most important is the content which draws on the patterns in the Asian Art Museum. From outside you get a peek for what’s inside and certain community groups will recognize some of the patterns.”

Jas Charanjiva, Chanel Miller, and Jenifer Wofford.

That’s what Wofford was going for when she designed the mural. She says she didn’t want to use stereotypical images like dragons or pagodas, but instead thought about both patterns inspired by art in the museum and communities close to the museum, such as references to images from the Yakan in the Philippines and Hmong communities in southeast Asian countries. 

“I am hoping for a certain degree of joy with a bold and graphic and fun mural,” Wofford said. “Sort of a party on a wall.”

She also wanted to include names of some Bay Area Asian American artists. Narrowing that down was hard to do. She opened the question up to people on social media, talked to artists and consulted with her friend, Mark Johnson, a professor at San Francisco State University, who literally wrote a book on the subject, Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970.

A view of the Asian Art Museum’s colorful additions

Wofford decided to shout out artists born before 1940 who were also activists, involved in organizations like the Kearny Street Workshop. She included one of her mentors from the San Francisco Art Institute, Carlos Villa as well as Jade Snow Wong and Bernice Bing.  

Wofford says she hopes to blur the boundary between who’s outside and who’s inside the museum. Chen wants to do that as well, and she hopes the names will peak people’s curiosity in a chapter of art history they might not be aware of. 

“If you’re vacant from history, you feel like you want to make that void visible, and that’s part of healing,” Chen said. “The theme of the talk is acting, learning, and healing, and all three of these artists embody that in their practice.”

ACTING,  HEALING, LEARNING: ARTIST TALK
Thu/28, 4pm, online, donation requested
Tickets and more information here. 

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