#institutions #representation #access #sustainability #visibility #regionalism #globalism
Two shows at San Francisco museums this past July proposed to reconcile gaps between local and global concerns. For Proximities I: What Time Is It There? at the Asian Art Museum, guest curator Glen Helfand asked a group of Bay Area artists to consider the concept of Asia from the perspective of the culturally uninitiated. Migrating Identities, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, curated by Director of Visual Arts Betti-Sue Hertz, assembles a group of artists with international lineages to address migration, displacement, and hybridity from a global perspective. At first glance, these shows would seem to offer a necessary and long overdue rejoinder to San Francisco’s navel-gazing reputation. Instead, each show’s attempt at a global scope serves to reinforce regional biases with respect to the city and the larger world.
Proximities I is the first of three scheduled exhibitions of contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum that propose to address Asia as contemporaneous to the West. Given that the museum has historically treated Asia as an ancient and static place from which to import timeless artifacts and wisdom and that the museum’s contemporary art programming has been sporadic, the Proximities series represents genuine progress. Still, the show suffers from a lack of focus, which may be inevitable when a group of artists are selected to tackle a vague concept about which they understand little. Helfand, an independent curator and educator, articulates the theme as “focus[ing] on place, in particular dreamlike visions of distant landscapes inspired by Asia’s creative influence. With rich color; a range of materials; and literary, historical, and natural references, the works evoke ideas of travel, escape, celebration, and nostalgia for places we may or may not actually have been.” [Exhibition wall text] Participating artists Elisheva Biernoff, Lisa K. Blatt, Ala Ebtekar, Andrew Witrak, Tucker Nichols, Larry Sultan, and James Gobel have varying degrees of familiarity with specific Asian cultures. Many of the artworks, particularly those by Biernoff, Blatt, Ebtekar, Nichols, and Sultan, are visually interesting and well executed.
However, it is simply impossible to express a vision of Asia as a unified concept, defined according to Western criteria, without marginalizing Asian peoples and cultures as “other.” The problem here is that the Asian Art Museum has elected to kick off the series with a show that supports, rather than confronts, a Victorian mindset of cultural appropriation and economic colonization that marked the museum’s founding and the establishment of its historic collections. At best, these artists can address their own ambivalence toward exoticization, as Witrak attempts with mixed results, and the late, great Larry Sultan does to better effect. At worst, their efforts read as scattershot (Gobel), colonizing (Biernoff), or self-othering (Ebtekar) in the context of Proximities I. It remains to be seen whether Proximities II and III will do more than update the Asian’s legacy of marginalizing actual Asians and Asian Americans in a city where Asian heritages are claimed by nearly 35 percent of residents. By excluding all but one artist of Asian heritage and failing to include any artists from San Francisco’s other two major nonwhite groups (African Americans and Latinos), Proximities I unconsciously retreads an old idea that only those of European descent have the capacity to experience Asia as a creative influence or to define the continent as a space of imagination.
Migrating Identities at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts follows on a comprehensive effort by that museum to distance itself from its prior regional focus. Formerly the only prominent San Francisco institution to consistently show Bay Area artists alongside those from other art centers—and a career-building venue for curators of color such as Arnold J. Kemp, René de Guzman, and Julio César Morales—YBCA has been dominated by high-profile artists in recent years. Migrating Identities features eight American artists with international backgrounds: Michelle Dizon, Ala Ebtekar, Naeem Mohaiemen, Meleko Mokgosi, Wangechi Mutu, Yamini Nayar, Ishmael Randall-Weeks, and Saya Woolfalk. Of these, five are based in New York (Mohaiemen, Mutu, Nayar, Weeks, and Woolfalk), two in Los Angeles (Dizon and Mokgosi), and one in San Francisco (Ebtekar has the dubious honor of being the only Bay Area artist at YBCA and the only Asian American artist at the Asian Art Museum).  Hertz describes the artists as “profoundly informed by their deep relationships with multiple cultures, which were forged by their shared experience of traveling frequently between disparate home sites. Guided by their ability to move fluidly between cultures, and drawing from the uniqueness of their individual journeys, these artists reveal the ways in which their identities have been transformed by the confluence of mobility, cultural retention, and personal history.” [Exhibition press release]
Despite this statement’s promise of openness and the strong technical and formal qualities of the majority of works on view, the entire project is circumscribed by American expectations with respect to the artists’ treatment of the developing world—appropriating styles from anthropology (Woolfalk, Mutu, Ebtekar), social realism (Mokgosi), or historiography (Mohaiemen). Only three artists (Nayar, Dizon, and Randall-Weeks) work abstractly or create speculative or fictional spaces that eschew fetishization of bodies or “difference.” This is indicative of how strong the pressure remains on artists of color to rely on approved modes of expressing their identities in order to be accepted as contemporary by a market-driven art world that maintains a capricious relationship to cultural diversity. These artists are migratory by design rather than by displacement; members of a global elite capable of dropping in and out of the developing world at will while maintaining the comfort and stature of assimilation in the West.  If that fact was treated as germane to the concept of “migrating identities,” the exhibition’s critical posture might have some bite. Instead, Hertz asserts that this work “eschews conventional narratives focused on socio-economic status, cultural negotiation, and assimilation.” [Exhibition press release]
This may be so—if to “eschew convention” is synonymous with to “omit discussion.” The contemporary “post-racial” paradigm functions by omission rather than reinvention of essential critical dialogues around access, integration, and tokenization. It resembles the utopia of Saya Woolfalk’s The Empathics (2013), in which cultural specificity is replaced by generic New Age spiritualism and an indiscriminate mélange of folk motifs. The YBCA’s thematic grouping underscores how frequently American-based and Western-educated artists of color remain segregated to shows about “identity,” while European-descended artists based in the United States are free to address formal, conceptual, or material interests. Exotic origins in distant lands are emphasized by American artists of color who might otherwise be denied high-profile exhibition opportunities, while exposure for artists from economically and socially marginalized ethnic communities in the United States is severely limited. Race and cultural origin are performed as a function of double-consciousness, and that performance is constructed in response to external expectations of authenticity rather than individual experiences of community or culture. This reality is the show’s true and unspoken subject. The inclusion of artists who unpack the subtext of global cultural exchange (such as Vietnamese American, Los Angeles–based collective The Propeller Group), migratory artists from Europe (such as Lithuanian-born, New York–based Tobias Putrih), or artists whose ancestors migrated a few generations back (such as African American, Baltimore/New York–based iona rozeal brown) would have counterbalanced the reductive act of asking first- and second-generation immigrant artists to filter their cultural origins for a Bay Area audience who are not expected to have their own global frames of reference.
This last point constitutes the crux of my objections to both shows. There is a pervasive failure of imagination on the part of San Francisco museums when it comes to understanding the concerns of their potentially vast regional audience. Bay Area art viewers are simultaneously homogenized as uniformly white and affluent and dismissed as hopelessly provincial, which is an underestimation of this community’s true capacity for engagement with and appreciation of challenging contemporary art. In fact, the Bay Area is very much on trend with respect to studies showing Americans turning away from visual art museums in droves. This reflects museums’ lack of relevance to today’s audiences, as institutions fail to accommodate their visitors’ backgrounds, worldviews, and interests. As we transition to a “majority-minority” society—another national trend in which the Bay Area leads—it behooves our local cultural institutions to take the lead rather than bring up the rear.
Proximities I: What Time Is It There? was on view at Asian Art Museum from May 24 to July 21, 2013. Migrating Identities is on view at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through September 29, 2013.
 Full disclosure: I have been and continue to be a supporter of Ebtekar’s art, having curated the early stages of his Emergence series [included at YBCA] for Richmond Art Center in 2006 and spotlighted him for numerous publications. My critique of his presence here should not be read as an indictment of the artist but of his placement within art world structures.
 Again, a disclosure: This characterization applies to me as well. My concern is that such a social position is integral, rather than marginal, to the hybrid construction of identity articulated in the exhibition statement and so warrants acknowledgement.