“Reorient” at Wing Luke explores the connection between art and healing
By Kai Curry
Northwest Asia Weekly
In troubled times, art can be a means of healing for both the individual and for society as a whole. The Wing Luke Museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Reorienting: Journeys Through Art and Healing,” brings together four established artists who have deep experience in the power of art to help meet life’s challenges. Guest curator Lele Barnett brings together these artists and their work with her passion for stories of immigration and diaspora, particularly in the Asian community.
“I strongly believe that the act of creating art heals and all of these artists have done that with a lot in their lives,” Barnett said. The Barnett artists chose to approach their art with a spirit of experimentation and exploration, often using unusual materials and methods, which made their work unique and enabled them to overcome the personal and collective pain attached to their stories of relocation from their home country and “reorientation” to a new country and culture.
Suchitra Mattai, for example, speaks in her work of “healing the pain of her ancestors” by weaving sarees together, Barnett explained.
“Art heals both in the making and in the viewing. It creates space for empathy and understanding,” said Mattai, who struggles with bipolarism. “The process of creating art has given me an effective, emotional and unprecedented path to healing. I think many people with mental illness also experience shame. Sharing our experiences makes us realize how these diseases are common and hopefully reduces the stigma associated with them.
Mattai recognized several potential meanings in the show’s title: “Reorienting,” is it to find a new direction? Is it the terms “orient” or “oriental”, mostly abolished? Both.
“The title, to me, refers to ‘Historical Western Orientalism’, the lens once used to view ‘the East’, and asks us as a society to reflect and reinvent the way we view Asians. and Asian Americans.
As Barnett prepared for the exhibition, each artist set themselves up as she realized connections between them. Jean Ngai has spent a lot of time on issues of social injustice, as well as mental health. Barnett remembers seeing Ngai speak on a panel when he was living in Los Angeles.
“Back then, he was bottling smog out of his tailpipe…and painting with it.”
Smog, pumice, Ngai uses non-traditional materials to argue serious issues such as “the trauma of being a part-time migrant worker, or the overwhelming force of corporations and their manipulation of our government to destroy our sense of self , time, and energy.
Ngai finds the title of the show very moving. The works he has contributed deal with the process of “reorientation” that immigrants go through.
“We try to learn the language, we learn the trade, the games, or the clothes, etc… We adapt to connect or camouflage ourselves.” Ngai has held several migrant jobs, such as in the fishing industry in Alaska or weed trimming in California. He considers his paintings in the exhibition “a tribute to the true ‘world power’ of this planet, which are the working people who strive to have a better life for themselves and their families.”
Barnett came up with the idea of ”Reorienting” a few years ago. COVID-19 and other considerations got in the way. She worried that one of the artists she wanted to spotlight, Victor Kai Wang, now 90 and suffering from poor health, might not be able to see the fruits of their labor. Wang, who has not shown his works to the public often, has been very humble in his approach to the exhibition.
“He didn’t want fame. He just wanted his work to be seen and experienced,” Barnett explained. Wang experienced the Cultural Revolution first hand. In the 1980s, he brought his family to Seattle, where he ended up raising his two sons alone, due to his wife’s mental trauma from her experiences in the manual labor camp in China.
“Victor had to ‘reorient’ to the West with his Eastern roots and mix cultures, as well as art forms, in a way that made sense to him,” Wang’s son Will Wang explained. Graylin. “Through experimentation and everyday life over the decades here in America, he was able to express himself through his art in new, innovative ways that affected those around him.” Like Ngai and Mattai, Wang was open to experimenting with his art and the crucial connection between art and healing.
“Art has been his life from a young age, and his devotion to it was endless. It gave him a meaning that many others could not understand,” said Graylin. whether in China or the United States, Wang turned to his art in a constant search for beauty. He was never opposed to the use of unusual materials, as evidenced in the exhibition, such as when he made art on sacks of rice during the Cultural Revolution, or after working in photo-correction, he started his “marking color” paintings on photo paper.
As Barnett recalled, Wang and “Reorient’s” fourth artist, Tuan Nguyen, “experimented with unique materials and found joy in them, taking that pain and turning it back in that act of creation.”
“My recent work on the ‘painful body’ on the show is kind of a material manifestation of intergenerational societal trauma,” Nguyen explained. “For me, the completion of the work is the first step towards forgiveness, healing and love.”
A child of the Vietnam War, Nguyen also experienced “societal violence, racism, trans and homophobia, misogyny, war, etc. plaguing the United States right now and affecting us all” and considers his artistic practice as one of the tools in his toolbox to get through it all – “an important element…I gravitated towards art at an early age because it was a way for me to access the bigger world and to dream and imagine a better world. It was also a way for me to carve out a place for myself and make room for things that didn’t fit into the existing categories.
Barnett is delighted to show some of these works for the first time. “Seattle needed to see it.”
“Reorient” runs from June 10 to May 14, 2023 at Wing Luke’s George Tsutakawa Art Gallery.
Kai can be reached at [email protected]