The Asian American Art Initiative aims to make Stanford a major center for the study of Asian American art.
With multiple exhibitions now open and a symposium planned for the end of the month, Stanford’s interdisciplinary Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI) aims to make the university a major center for the study of Asian American art.
Visitors to the Cantor Arts Center can view the initiative’s first three exhibitions: “The Faces of Ruth Asawa,” which opened in July and will be on display indefinitely; “At Home/On Stage: Asian American Representation in Photography and Film,” which runs through Jan. 15; and “East of the Pacific: Making Histories of Asian American Art,” on display until Feb. 12.
The AAAI is co-directed by Stanford assistant professor of art history Marci Kwon and Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, assistant curator of American art at the Cantor. When Alexander joined the museum staff in 2018, the chance to work with Kwon on the initiative was part of what drew her to the job.
“This is what I wanted to come and do here at Stanford: start the AAAI with Marci. We saw ourselves, being situated in the Bay Area, as having the perfect location to do this work,” she said, noting that Stanford’s own tangled Asian American history dates back to the institution’s earliest days, when Chinese laborers helped build the university (and the railroads that founder Leland Stanford profited from).
The contributions of Asian American artists, she said, have been “significantly underrepresented and under-acknowledged within the larger narratives in American art,” and the initiative strives to change that through research, preservation, exhibition and community engagement.
With Kwon leading the academic side of things, Alexander has been working hard to build the museum’s collection and exhibitions, including curation of both “The Faces of Ruth Asawa” and “East of the Pacific.”
Located in the Meier Family Galleria, “The Faces of Ruth Asawa” consists of 233 clay masks that previously hung in the San Francisco home of renowned Japanese-American artist, educator and activist Asawa. The sculptor used friends, family, and fellow artists as models for her masks.
“Looking at these faces, we are offered an intimate glimpse of Asawa’s democratic vision of the world, where anyone could become a work of art,” the exhibition materials state.
“East of the Pacific,” displayed in the Freidenrich Family Gallery, offers a historical survey of the museum’s growing Asian American art collection. Spanning the years 1880 to 2021 and including 96 objects, the largest of the three current AAAI exhibitions considers how American art – particularly in the Western region – has been and continues to be shaped by artists of the Asian diaspora, and by contact between cultures. Treasures abound in the wide-ranging exhibition, including Wing Kwong Tse’s exquisitely detailed watercolors; vivid depictions of San Francisco’s Chinatown; and works created during and reflecting upon the experiences of Japanese Americans imprisoned in internment camps during World War II, such as Henry Yuzuru Sugimoto’s striking linocuts. Alexander’s introductory text notes that while this exhibition focuses primarily on artists of East Asian descent, she hopes future projects will feature greater diversity of artists, including those of South and Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander heritage.
“At Home/On Stage,” housed in the Ruth Levison Halperin Gallery, examines varied representations of Asian Americans in photography, film and video – in both the private and public realms – and was curated by Maggie Dethloff, the Cantor’s assistant curator of photography and new media. The exhibition’s seeds were planted when, a few years ago, Alexander had the opportunity to acquire photographs by Michael Jang and invited Dethloff to partner with her on adding them to the collection.
“That was the first of many collaborative acquisitions we’ve worked on together in support of the Asian American Art Initiative. I was thrilled, because they’re incredible works,” Dethloff said, estimating that since the initiative began, representation of Asian American artists in the museum’s collection has increased fivefold. When Alexander was planning the launch of “East of the Pacific,” she invited Dethloff to curate an exhibition specifically highlighting the photo and video works the initiative had been accumulating, as well as looking at items already in the collection through a new lens.
“At Home/On Stage,” like “East of the Pacific,” includes a diverse array of work, including some on loan from Stanford Libraries Department of Special Collections. Stephanie Syjuco’s 2021 piece “Afterimages (Interference of Vision)” tweaks an archive photo from the 1904 World’s Fair, at which indigenous Filipinos were displayed as anthropological specimens in a “native village” recreation.
By obscuring the subjects’ faces Syjuco “manipulates the photo and makes the viewers question what right they have to be looking at an image like this,” Dethloff said.
Two works by Miljohn Ruperto – the film “Appearance of Isabel Rosario Cooper 2006-2010” and the screenplay “Dimples 2010” – reexamine and shed new light on the late Filipina American actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who, though she tried to make it in mainstream Hollywood, was relegated to stereotype roles and bit parts and is mostly known for being the former mistress of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, Dethloff said. Ruperto’s film highlights Cooper’s on-camera presence while blurring out those around her, while “Dimples” is a fictionalized script based on her own life – the starring role she never received. “Creating something for somebody that they didn’t have in life, that will never come to pass because that artist is no longer with us; I think that’s a really fascinating piece in the show,” Dethloff said.
On the “At Home” side of the exhibition, Jang’s photos are standouts. Taken in Pacifica in the 1970s, they offer a loving and sometimes humorous look at the artists’ extended family (including a few dapper family pets). While many of the works in the exhibition have a serious tone and contemplate problematic histories, appropriation and stereotypes, Dethloff said it was important that the show include a happier “emotional register,” as well, with Jang’s quirky, playful photos exemplifying the lighter side of life.
And while the contrasting settings of “At Home” and “On Stage” are juxtaposed, Dethloff said the two sides have more in common than might be expected.
“Ultimately, when you think about identity, in a lot of ways it’s performative no matter if you’re at home or out in public. We construct our own identities in a way. Representation has an effect on the way you see yourselves,” she said. Whether captured by a formal portrait or a casual snapshot, “identity and representation in the public and private spheres are so interconnected.”
Dethloff said curating this exhibition has reiterated to her the interdisciplinary nature of the AAAI, with Kwon and Alexander weighing in on how conversations and issues in Asian American studies have evolved in recent decades.
“There was a lot of learning about the ways different areas of study are engaging with the same questions,” Dethloff said. “As a curator, that was definitely a really valuable takeaway that makes me really excited about the work – being able to learn from a whole different group of people.”
On Oct. 28-29, Stanford will host “IMU UR2: Art, Aesthetics, and Asian America,” a free, public conference of artists, academics and curators, which takes its title from a phrase by the artist Martin Wong. “IMU UR2” celebrates not only the launch of the AAAI but also public access to the Martin Wong Catalogue Raisonné (a collaboration between AAAI, Stanford Libraries and the Martin Wong Foundation).
“Being connected to a university, it’s not just museum work; we’re doing academic research trying to bring people together,” Alexander said.
Speakers at the two-day event will each offer a presentation on a single image, followed by response and discussion, with panel themes including “Global Intimacies,” “Race & Aesthetics,” “Art & Activisms,” “History & Memory,” “Gender & Sexuality” and “Institutional Interventions.” Author Cathy Park Hong and artist Jen Liu will offer the keynote conversation at Bing Concert Hall, moderated by AAAI’s Kwon. The event will also be livestreamed via Zoom.
Plans for the future of the initiative include expanding publications related to works in the collection and exploring the possibility of establishing a permanent gallery space. Alexander’s hope, she said, is that the AAAI becomes as central to the Cantor’s identity as its Auguste Rodin collection.
“This is an indefinite project,” Alexander said. “What you see this fall is really just the beginning.”
Cantor Arts Center is located at 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford. Admission is free; reservations are required and are available at the door. More information on the Asian American Art Initiative is available at museum.stanford.edu/AAAI. Registration for “IMU UR2” is available at museum.stanford.edu/aaai-events.