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Arts + CultureArt'Cross Currents' brings Black and Asian heritage together through...

‘Cross Currents’ brings Black and Asian heritage together through striking art

Curators Larry Ossei-Mensah and Micki Meng assemble a cross-cultural show for 'this very fragile, questionable time'

Group show Cross Currents (through February 16 at Four One Nine, SF), is meant to celebrate “the profound influence and dynamic relationship between communities of the Black and Asian heritage in shaping contemporary culture.” The viewer has lots of access points, according to Larry Ossei-Mensah, who curated the exhibition with Micki Meng

As an example, Ossei-Mensah points to two paintings by Tajh Rust in the show. 

One, entitled The Hum of a Faint Glow, 2023, shows a man wearing a blue hoodie, outside reading In Praise of Shadows, an essay on Japanese aesthetics. Rust spent a semester abroad in Kyoto, Ossei-Mensah says, and the essay is instrumental in his practice. 

“He has another portrait of one of his oldest friends from that time in Japan with her two daughters [Mihoko and Her Daughters, 2023]. The father of the daughters is Jamaican, and Rust of Jamaican descent,” Ossei-Mensah told 48 Hills on the phone. “So, there’s that connection to the Jamaican identity, that connection to his friendship with her, and you also see a different level of intimacy because they knew him growing up, so he’s almost an uncle like figure in the family, right? He’s not a stranger.”

On a walk-through of the exhibition before opening, PJ Gubatina Policarpio, the associate director of Micki Meng Gallery who organized Cross Currents, also brought up the interior nature of the show, with many of the works set at home. 

“There are intimate moments, and spirituality really comes out, as well,” Policarpio said. “Empowerment, too. I would say all of those are really strong threads.” Policarpio points to a painting by Alvin Armstrong, The Listening Skies, 2023, which shows three figures with their mouths open, singing. 

Alvin Armstrong, ‘The Listening Skies,’ 2023. Acrylic on canvas

“Alvin’s family is originally from the south, on his father’s side, and they were part of the Great Migration and moved into Crenshaw in LA. Once they were in LA, they were very active in their Black church there,” Policarpio said. “This captures that intensity of the passion and belief and spirituality through music. I can almost hear them singing. Then, on his mother’s side, he’s also part Japanese, so there’s those cross currents.”

Ossei-Mensah, who lives in New York, says he and Meng, who is here in San Francisco, started talking about Cross Currents a couple years ago when he was working on a show, Ghosts of Empires II, about the relationship between the African and Asian diaspora through the lens of colonialism. At the time, Meng introduced him to some artists, including Cambodian American painter Tidawhitney Lek, whose painting, My First, 2023, is included in this show.

“We wanted to figure out a way to continue that dialogue, particularly when you look at San Francisco and the history of the Asian community and the African American community there in terms of solidarity and collaboration,” Ossei- Mensah said. “Also how do you tell the stories in a different way that’s interesting and nuanced? Just the simple action of putting them adjacent to each other isn’t something that you normally see in exhibition format.” 

That’s what people who have seen the show tell him, Ossei-Mensah says. He brings up Li Wang, who moved to New York from China to go to Columbia, who has three paintings in the show.

“He’s using the practice as a platform to share stories about what it’s like being Chinese, being an immigrant, being queer, being young, trying to find yourself,” he said. “If you look at some of the paintings there’s almost this Peter Pan-esque quality to it where you’re in this state of being and becoming who you are as an individual.” 

Ossei-Mensah also brought up Eunnam Hong’s painting, Japanese Teapot, 2022, which shows two women sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea, their posture very straight, their stockings bunching, blond curly wigs on their heads. “I was talking to someone, and they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s my family,’” he said. “That tension, that performance of identity.”

Eunnam Hong, ‘Japanese Teapot, 2022. Oil on canvas

The show includes another way to spur conversation. Ossei-Mensah, who calls himself a “library geek,” asked Policarpio to work with people at the San Francisco Public Library on a book list for the show. Librarians Anissa Malady and Shawna Sherman came up with 30 or so books, including The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century by Grace Lee Boggs, Angela’s Davis’ An Autobiography, Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation by Jeff Chang, and Perceptual Drift: Black Art and an Ethics of Looking by Key Jo Lee, the Chief of Curatorial Affairs and Public Programs at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora.

On opening night, Sherman and Maladay brought boxes of the books for people. They were all taken. Malady says she loves these types of book giveaways. She’s looking forward to doing another one at Lovers Lane on Sat/10 from 11am-6pm in the Mission’s Balmy Alley, which will also have kids’ activities, crafts, dance classes, and vendors. 

Besides scoring a book to take home at the opening of Cross Currents, 40 people signed up for library cards. Sherman says she was excited to reach new patrons. She enjoyed coming up with the list of books, researching the artists, and finding out nuggets like how much April Bey liked the African fantasy Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, and that Hong mentioned how poet-painter Yi Sang’s work influenced her. 

Ossei-Mensah says he hopes that experiencing the art, and reading the books, will encourage people to think about these issues. 

“We want to get people to understand that we need each other in order to move forward in this very fragile, questionable time and that no community is able to survive on its own,” he said. “People have really visceral reactions to the show, which was interesting. Like, ‘That’s my grandmother,’ or ‘I’ve been in that familial situation,’ or ‘That’s me.’” 

CROSS CURRENTS through February at Four One Nine, SF. More info here

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Emily Wilson
Emily Wilson
Emily Wilson lives in San Francisco. She has written for different outlets, including Smithsonian.com, The Daily Beast, Hyperallergic, Women’s Media Center, The Observer, Alta Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, California Magazine, UC Santa Cruz Magazine, and SF Weekly. For many years, she taught adults getting their high school diplomas at City College of San Francisco. She hosts the short biweekly podcast Art Is Awesome.

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