As a high school junior in 2017, I volunteered at the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s library and caught a glimpse at the inner workings of an arts institution. I never would have known that five years later I would come back to SAM and partake in the Emerging Arts Leader internship. Before becoming a SAM intern and as a recent college graduate, I struggled to identify a career direction and academic pursuits. While I was deeply drawn to the museum world as an outsider and a visitor, I was yearning to discover suitable career paths and learn about professional museum experience so that I could make well-informed decisions for my future.
Throughout my ten-week internship, I learned how to write object labels. I found myself using research skills that I developed in college to get acquainted with a group of Mithila paintings, despite my lack of familiarity with South Asian art. From speaking with professionals in SAM’s curatorial and education departments, I was able to better understand and keep in mind the intended audience of my descriptions. By the conclusion of my internship, I was pleasantly surprised by my evolving skills as a writer and in expanding my knowledge of Mithila art and Hindu iconography.
Another invaluable part of this internship was the opportunity to connect and conduct informational interviews with members of the museum, including museum professionals, docents, and other interns. While there seems to be an invisible pressure of figuring everything out in one’s 20s, I learned that each person arrived at their point in life and their position at the museum through a unique path. Many of them reminisced that they too did not know what they had wanted to pursue at my age and where they would end up. It is okay to slow down and take time to discover oneself. As I continue to discover my career path and academic directions, I was extremely grateful to everyone who shared their life story with me and offered guidance.
Shadowing both frontline work and behind-the-scenes work gave me different perspectives on viewing a museum’s relationship with the public. Behind the scenes, I witnessed the intricate measurements of displays and objects; I sat in on meetings that discussed exhibit rotations months in advance. On the museum floor, I observed docents translating curatorial visions for the public and was left in awe of their ability to recognize a visitor’s familiarity with SAM with just one look. Getting a glimpse of both sides of the museum allowed me to better understand a visitor’s typical museum experience and create labels that allow them to take new information away from their visit. The docent tours and visitor engagement sessions I took part in demonstrated how public tours are not one-sided lectures, but rather a continuous conversation among visitors, docents, artists, and curators. To put my skills and reflection to use, I crafted my final in-gallery tour on the Inari Worship Spirit Foxes from the museum’s collection while prioritizing audience engagement and participation.
As my SAM internship comes to a close, I have begun to set new goals as I look forward to attending graduate school and finding even more ways to stay involved in the art world.
– Doreen Chen, SAM Emerging Arts Leader in Curation
“The exhibition…brings together different cultural expressions to demonstrate that water is our shared concern and necessary to our shared survival. In that way, the Indigenous voices are the most resonant in their respectful and deep understanding. But seeing their work and their voices placed among so many other cultures demonstrates the interconnectedness of everyone on the planet.”
“This idea of dynamic identity and reclamation are echoed throughout Embodied Change and are told through the lens of the human body, specifically the female form. One thing that I believe unites these works is the burden of inheritance. There are certain things that we inherit through our heritage without us making the choice to do so. What we do choose, however, is how we carry this inheritance.”
“We want to show the more soulful and heartful way of Ukraine. That it’s not destruction, that it’s not a ruin, that it’s actually a very rich and deep history that gets passed on and carried on through generations.”
“Extraordinary Monuments to the Mundane”: The New York Times’ T Magazine profiles sculptor Woody De Othello as he looks forward to his inclusion in the Whitney Biennial. As we’ve shared in the past, a sculpture by this rising art world star was recently acquired by SAM for its collection and will go on view later this year.
“As if the result of a solo game of exquisite corpse, these composite creatures are oddly proportioned and at turns alluring and unsettling. Thus, Othello highlights the thrum of spirituality he finds in everyday environments.”
In celebration of the opening of Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, Natalia Di Pietrantonio, sat down with contemporary artists Mithu Sen and Bani Abidi to discuss their artistic processes and involvement in the exhibition. Both Sen and Abidi explore themes of gender stereotypes, structures of power, and self-representation while reflecting on their South Asian heritage.
With their artworks in Embodied Change, each of these international artists seek to capture ephemeral gestures of the body. This virtual panel begins with an overview and introduction by Di Pietrantonio followed by a presentation from each of the artists on their artistic practices. The video concludes with a Q & A moderated by Di Pietrantonio.
Visit the Asian Art Museum between 10 am and 5 pm on Friday, March 25 for a day of free art activities and artist interactions including an artist talk with Humaira Abid, a Bharatnatyam and Kathak dance performance by South Asian art collective Pratidhwani, and a take-away Madhubani painting activity designed by artist Deepti Agrawal.
No matter where I encounter them, Naiza Khan’s artworks always transport me back to a classroom on the campus of SOAS, University of London. It was in one such space where I had the privilege of hearing the artist speak about her series Henna Hands and The Skin She Wears—both deeply connected to Cage-Corset (2007) and New Clothes for the Emperor (2009), currently on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum as part of the exhibition Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time.
These works and series illustrate Khan’s preoccupations with the female body. In thinking through the function of attire as a construct, Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor present clothing as a strategy to discuss gender. This is all the more relevant placed within the context of the back-and-forth between feminist activism and Islamicization in Pakistan that began in the 1960s and 70s, and gained much greater traction in the 1980s. As scholar Iftikhar Dadi has noted, in Khan’s works “the female body finally becomes visible in modern South Asian “Islamic” art as a subject itself, rather than simply remaining a decorative motif.”
Part of her Heavenly Ornaments series, in which Khan turned to metal to fabricate armor, corsets, chastity belts and lingerie, Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor highlight the artist’s engagement with the Bihishti Zewar, an Urdu text written by the Islamic scholar and Sufi Ashraf Ali Thanawi. Written in the beginning of the twentieth century, the text prescribes morals and behaviors pertinent to young Muslim women and girls. Noteworthy, the Bihishti Zewar was written with state and social reform in mind. It posited that Muslim women were capable of becoming educated and moral actors just as equally as men. Thus, the Bihishti Zewar paradoxically asked, why should women conform to the authority of men or the state?
Through her artworks, Khan also references the presence/absence of women within the public sphere, particularly in the context of the roll-back of numerous rights for Pakistani women under the Zia regime of the late 1970s and 80s. Despite these retrogressions, huge numbers of women entered both the formal and informal labor sectors, and the applications of female students to higher educational institutes significantly increased. While the Zia regime attempted to control the presence of women in the public sphere, it inadvertently brought attention to the emergence of the publicly visible female body as an issue that could not simply be “rolled back.” In other works, Khan, unlike women artists before her, made use of the calligraphic form that was purported by the state as within the line of its official policy. Thus, Khan’s artworks demonstrate that simply opposing any state sanctioned idioms and logics are not enough to ensure the freedom of women.
Khan’s Cage-Corset and New Clothes for the Emperor demonstrate the entanglement of social, political, religious, and spatial relations that inform questions of subjectivity, freedom, and control imposed upon females. Then, as a starry-eyed master’s student, as now, the quiet subtlety of Khan’s artworks ring true. The artist does not simply claim her works as agents of freedom for those living under repressive regimes, but rather, brings attention to the ways in which such systems and its mechanisms, just like her corsets, are constructed, negotiated and navigated.
– Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington
 Iftikhar Dadi, Modernism and the Art of Muslim South Asia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 2010, 198.
Images: Cage-corset, 2007, Naiza Khan, Metal and fabric, 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 x 11 13/16 in., Purchased with funds from Dipti and Rakesh Mathur, 2022.1.1, Ⓒ Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time at Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2021, photo: Natali Wiseman. New Clothes for the Emperor (II), 2009, Naiza Khan, Black & white digital photograph on archival Canson Infinity paper, 33 x 22 1/2 in., Purchased with funds from Dipti and Rakesh Mathur, 2022.1.2, Ⓒ Artist or Artist’s Estate.
Welcome back to #SAMSnippets! In this live series on our Instagram you get an up-close look at works in SAM’s permanent and semi-permanent installations. Each month, we choose a new gallery to walk through, offering you art appreciation wherever you may be!
In January, we featured a diverse collection of artworks from Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time. The first special exhibition to open in the remodeled and renovated Seattle Asian Art Museum, the featured works explore social, political, and religious perceptions of humanity and the human body through the lens of past and contemporary South Asian artists. Many of them utilize female and feminized forms in a myriad of ways, including as a devotional object, as a mode of self-representation, and to question the safety of public spaces. Watch the video now to get a peek at what’s on view at the Asian Art Museum now and learn more about the works shown below. Get your tickets now to see the entire exhibition before it closes on July 10!
The tour begins with a look at Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s Kali (I’m a Mess). For more than 30 years, Burman has used a variety of mixed media to advocate for female empowerment, racial equity, and her Punjabi heritage. Kali (I’m a Mess) was a part of Burman’s recent installation titled Remembering A Brave New World, superimposed over the Tate Britain’s entrance. Perched atop the building’s pediment, the Hindu goddess of destruction and protection obfuscated the statue of Britannia. The text above Kali reads, “I’m a Mess,” a message usually not associated with Kali. Burman takes Kali seriously as a potent symbol of liberation and rebellion and uses this text to speak to political and social concerns that occurred in 2020. Kali (I’m a Mess) is one of a few works in Embodied Change which was acquired into SAM’s permanent collection as a result of being included in this exhibition.
As we enter the exhibition, the camera pans across five earthenware and clay terracotta figures. Originating from the Indus Valley civilization in modern day India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, these works date back to 2600–1900 BCE. Archaeological digs in the area have revealed numerous small, female figures, usually sculpted with wide hips, small breasts, stocky appendages, and abundant jewelry. Early scholars deified these figures as “mother goddesses” (a manifestation of Devi), creating a tie between past religious beliefs and present-day Hindu practitioners. This interpretation has been reevaluated, questioning whether these items were truly representative of religiosity. Their meaning remains a mystery but the near absence of male figures suggest the body held significant importance.
Next, we see two photographs by Brendan Fernandes: As One III and As One IX. Fernandes is Canadian of Kenyan and Goan (South Asian) descent, and his last name evokes the complex circuits of exchanges between the Portuguese colonial apparatus and western India. In his work, Fernandes is invested in bodies that move, showing that the human body has a range of permutations, meanings, and identities. The artist and his practices does not hold a fixed identity or a singular idea of Europe, Africa, or India. Overall, he envisions “a different process of communication,” one that is body-driven.
These two photographs were created locally. Fernandes used dancers from the Pacific Northwest Ballet in the auditorium of the Seattle Art Museum alongside African masks from SAM’s permanent collection. Using gestures derived from classical French ballet, the two dancers address the African masks with formality and etiquette. Compositionally, the dancers’ heads are hidden, which allows for the masks to stand in for the dancers’ missing faces. Through such juxtapositions, Fernandes forges a bridge between the inanimate and the animate.
Adeela Suleman’s Helmet is part of a series repurposing kitchen objects. Made from utensils including a colander and tiffin (lunch box), the form is gendered as it uses objects typically located in the interior space of the kitchen, often associated with female domesticity. In performance photographs, Suleman dons these helmets, suggesting that women need special armor in their day-to-day movement in the public arena. The rigid and hard helmets provide little real protection. One wonders how much protection Suleman wants her pieces to afford; she seems to gesture to the futility of such an attempt.
In a glass pedestal adjacent to Suleman’s Helmet, we see Humaira Abid’s Sacred Games-I. Made entirely out of wood, the open suitcase contains clothes, a holy book, a cap, and prayer beads, all the possessions of a religious practitioner who is undertaking a spiritual journey. The gun that is placed alongside the belongings symbolizes both religious extremism and violence toward religion, including attacks on mosques, churches, and other religious buildings. In the artists’s own words, “all societies have extremists who twist religion as well as other social institutions and use it to their own benefit, to oppress women and vulnerable and defenseless people.”
The final section of the video is focused on portraits. Here, the featured artists use the theme of portraiture to challenge bodily ideals and the role of the female body in the arts.
The first portrait we see is B. Prabha’s Untitled. Active in the 1960s when there were few professional female artists, her trademark was elongated figures of rural women with a subdued color palette. Hailing from the small Indian village of Bela, near Nagpur, India, Prabha gravitated to rural village scenes. She painted lower caste women at work and at leisure. In this portrait, the unknown woman rests her back against a tree as she enjoys the company of a bird. Although Prabha typically depicted the silent labor of rural women to show their plight and suffering, she also endeavored to give them grace and personhood by depicting them enjoying moments of rest.
The camera next pans two works by Chila Kumari Singh Burman: Auto-Portrait, from Fly Girl series and Punjabi Rockers. In this first large collage work, Burman distorts her portrait through a range of different guises and manipulations. Her face is stretched, magnified, compressed, and painted with bright colors. Through the act of repetition and the reproduction of the print form, Burman crafts new personas, enacting fantasies of the self as the goddess Kali and as pop icons. As Burman explains, “These self portraits position the construction of racial and sexual identity as a process that is crafted and fluid within the process of representation. My manipulation of the photographic image questions the idea of the photograph as a document of the empirical reality to reveal ‘an image of myself.'” In other words, Burman resists a singular identity. Through the act of printmaking, she can reconstruct multivalent identities for herself.
In Punjabi Rockers, Burman, a member of the British Black Arts Movement, mines both South Asian histories and pop culture to overwhelm and challenge Euro-American perceptions of South Asian women. She has declared, “My work is about reclaiming the image of Asian women, moving away from the object of the defining gaze, toward a position where I, [an] Asian woman, become the subject of display. My self-portraits construct a femininity that resists the racist stereotype of the passive, exotic Asian woman, imprisoned by male patriarchal culture.” Together, these two prints burst forth with levity and joy to convey Burman’s political message of empowerment.
We then see Rekha Rodwittiya’s Untitled. Consistently, Rodwittiya paints female figures with vibrant, bold colors. The scale of her portraits tends to be quite monumental to celebrate the female form. Even in such large compositions, a sense of intimacy is present. In this canvas, a local schoolgirl shows off her spinning top. With her content smile, she is both anonymous and knowable. Regarding her practice, Rodwittiya states, “I live and breathe as a feminist so therefore that is the prism through which I perceive everything around me, and so therefore it would patina my art as well.”
The final work in the video is Mithu Sen’s Miss Macho (Self Portrait), from the False Friends series. Sen paints a mustache on her self-portrait along with overgrown floral vines in her hair and a phallic building on the bridge of her nose. Consistently throughout her practice, Sen applies a confrontational approach to topics related to the body, including sex. This work is part of the series called False Friends, in which Sen asked strangers to take photographs of her. According to Sen, during her childhood, she was considered the “literal black sheep” of her family since she was visibly darker-skinned than her light-skinned female family members. Here, Sen’s face occupies the entire canvas, making space for herself in her social and professional world. Her gaze is both otherworldly and visceral.
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Video Artworks: Kali (I’m a Mess), Chila Kumari Singh Burman, 2020, 6mm 12v silicone LED neon, galvanized weld mesh, 12v switch mode transformers, IP67 plastic box, 137 13/16 x 70 7/8 × 1 3/16 in. (180 × 35 × 3 cm), Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, 2021.25. Goddess Figurine, India, Earthenware, 2300–1750 BCE, Earthenware, 4 3/8 x 1 3/4 x 11/16 in. (11.11 x 4.45 x 1.75 cm), Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 41.23. Half Figure of a Goddess, India, Earthenware, 2300–1750 BCE, Earthenware, 2 3/4 x 3 x 1 in. (6.99 x 7.62 x 2.54 cm), Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 41.24. Fragmentary Figure, India, Terracotta, ca. 3rd millennium BCE–2nd century CE, Terracotta, 7 1/2 x 2 5/8 x 2 in. (19.05 x 6.67 x 5.08 cm), Gift in honor of Millard B. Rogers, 93.31. Fragmentary Figure, India, Terracotta, ca. 2nd–1st century BCE, Terracotta, 3 7/8 x 2 1/2 x 1 1/2 in. (9.84 x 6.35 x 3.81 cm) Overall h.: 4 3/4 in. Overall w.: 2 3/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 39.36. Fragmentary Figure, India, Terracotta, ca. 3rd millennium BCE–2nd century CE, Terracotta, 4 1/8 x 1 3/4 x 3/4 in. (10.48 x 4.45 x 1.91 cm), Gift in honor of Millard B. Rogers, 93.32. As One III, Brendan Fernandes, 2017, Digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.1. As One IX, Brendan Fernandes, 2017, Digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.2. Helmet, Adeela Suleman, 2008, Metal with foam and cloth, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Sacred Games-1, Humaira Abid, 2020, Carved pine and wenge woods, Collection of Christopher and Alida Lantham. Untitled, B. Prabha, ca. 1960s, Oil on canvas, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Auto-Portrait, from Fly Girl series, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, 1993, Mixed media and laser printer, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Punjabi Rockers, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, 1993, Mixed media and laser printer, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Untitled, Rekha Rodwittiya, ca. 1990s, Acrylic and oil on canvas, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan. Miss Macho (Self Portrait), from the False Friends series, Mithu Sen, 2007, Mixed media photocollage on archival paper, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan.
The Stranger’s Chase Burns catches up on Sundance flicks; Matt McCormick’s short 2002 film the subconscious art of graffiti removal, narrated by Miranda July, is the one that sticks with him.
“The relationship between tagger and remover is an ongoing one. Often, a remover will cover an original tag, only for the tagger to return and tag on top of the remover’s masking. This back-and-forth can continue for years, with the remover coming back and using different shades of paint, creating a layered, more colorful image. This can be accidentally beautiful.”
Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time opens this Friday, January 14! Our first special exhibition to open in the reimagined and renovated Seattle Asian Art Museum, Embodied Change sees past and contemporary South Asian artists—including Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Chitra Ganesh, Mithu Sen, and Naiza Khan, among others—question social, political, and normative realities tied to humanity and the human body.
Ahead of your visit to the museum, learn about the exhibition from the curator herself. Watch this overview from Natalia Di Pietrantonio, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, to discover the histories and stories behind the works on view in our newest special exhibition.
Want to see the exhibition for free? Attend our community opening of Embodied Change on Friday, January 28 and participate in an artist talk with Humaira Abid or grab a take-away art project designed by artist Deepti Agrawal. As a reminder, every Last Friday is free at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Reserving tickets in advance is recommended. Click here to learn more about discounted admission opportunities at all of SAM’s locations!
– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
Image: Miss Macho (Self Portrait), from the False Friends series, 2007, Mithu Sen, Indian, born 1971, mixed media photocollage on archival paper, Collection of Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan, T2021.15.2.
Colorful, riotous, and vibrant are but three words that come to mind when thinking about Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman’s neon artworks. Burman’s neon lights first appeared on the Tate Britain’s façade in 2020 for her commission Remembering a Brave New World, which disrupted the neoclassical building’s exterior with a roar of color. Her installation was awarded the 2021 Dezeen Award for Design of the Year.1
The artist traces her love for neon to childhood visits to Blackpool, a seaside resort known for its annual lights festival. While traditional glass neon lights were not conducive to achieving the shapes and structures that Burman wanted, new developments in the medium allowed her to bend and shape silicon neon lights to create complex and multi-colored sculptures. Some of her signature works include pouncing tigers, images of Hindu deities, uplifting quotes, and her father’s ice cream van. Burman’s Tate Britain installation was unveiled in time for Diwali, the South Asian festival of lights, but also in the midst of the global Black Lives Matter movement and raging COVID-19 pandemic.
With all of this in mind, Burman communicated an uplifting message, but, more importantly, highlighted the significant role and contributions of Black and Asian British artists in the United Kingdom. Burman has also noted that the neon works are an extension of her previous practice, stating, “paradoxically, [the installation’s] concerns are the same themes I explored back in the 80s along with my colleagues in the Black British Arts Movement [that] are still so prevalent today…”
“It’s undeniable that the Tate Britain commission I was awarded was finally a step in the right direction, in acknowledging the significance of my work and practice—as well as the significant contributions of my contemporaries—that have, to be frank, been overlooked for so long,” Burman said. “In doing so, Tate have sought to re-address the biases and hypocrisy often prevalent in both our British art establishments and the wider art sector. This shift, inevitably signifies a slow erosion of the inequalities prevalent in the art world.”
“That being said,” she continued, “I saw my selection for this commission not as a final step in this process of erosion but as a beginning. I was adamant, therefore, that my commission serve as an opportunity to critique the role of the Tate—and by extension all of our British establishments—in much the same way as I have done throughout my practice.”
SAM acquired one of Burman’s neon works, Kali (I’m a Mess) with funds from the Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global and Contemporary Art, and additional support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation. Previously perched atop the Tate Britain’s pediment, obscuring the statue of Britannia, the piece will be on view in the upcoming exhibition, Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time, opening January 14 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.2
Kali (I’m a Mess) brings both a disruptive and inclusive message of liberation and rebellion. Through this artwork, Burman asks: Can Kali fast forward us into a brave new world where we will no longer be in a mess?
– Ananya Sikand, PhD Candidate, University of Washington
The author wishes to thank the artist, Dr. Chila Kumari Singh Burman, as well as the artist’s studio team, especially Kemi Sanbe, for kindly providing answers to interview questions. Thanks also to Dr. Natalia Di Pietrantonio, SAM’s Assistant Curator of South Asian Art, for providing the opportunity to write this blog post.
Following the debut of the reinstalled and reimagined Asian Art Museum, SAM deepened its commitment to South Asian art by appointing Natalia Di Pietrantonio as the museum’s first-ever Assistant Curator of South Asian Art. In this new role, she’ll foster the next direction of the South Asian collection at SAM and collaborate with curatorial colleagues, especially Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, and FOONG Ping, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art. Rachel Eggers, Associate Director of Public Relations, interviewed her to learn when she fell in love with South Asian art, her first exhibition for the museum, and the natural beauty of Seattle.
Tell us about your background and how you came to specialize in South Asian art.
I’ve loved art since I was very young and decided to study art history at UC Davis. During a required Asian art survey course, I found myself falling in love with South Asian art. It was completely unexpected! I had not been exposed to South Asian art before then, but starting with that one class it became my career.
I further developed this interest in the classroom of Heghnar Watenpaugh, a notable Islamicist who brought a gender studies approach to the study of art history. Based on a research paper that I wrote during one of Professor Watenpaugh’s courses, I decided to continue my studies and pursue graduate work at Columbia University. After completing a masters at Columbia, I completed a PhD at Cornell University. Both Columbia and Cornell have wonderful South Asian centers with excellent language programs, which were pivotal resources that enabled my research. After I completed my studies, I held two postdoctoral positions: one as the Consortium for Faculty Diversity Visiting Professor in South Asian Art History at Scripps College, and the other as a postdoctoral fellow at the Bard Graduate Center’s Islamic Art and Material Culture. Being hired in both South Asian and Islamic art history fields highlights my interdisciplinary training and diverse professional experience.
My personal and familial background is very different from my chosen career. Both of my parents were immigrants to this country: my father from Italy and my mother from Mexico. My mom in particular was very unsure of my chosen path in the arts but she remained supportive. As a museum curator, however, she recalls her own experiences in museums and sees a lot of value in my work bridging scholarship with community engagement and education through the arts.
Your inaugural exhibition for SAM at the Asian Art Museum, Skin as Allegory (working title), is tentatively scheduled for late 2021. How did you choose the focus for the show?
Due to Covid-19, we’ve had to be nimble. Initially, my first show would have concentrated solely on our historical permanent collection. However, as I became more aware of the important holdings within the private collections of the Seattle community, I expanded the theme of the exhibition to weave in these special works. Skin as Allegory will be the first special exhibition at the Asian Art Museum that blends contemporary and historical objects from South Asia. It will explore visual practices that contain representations and refigurations of the human body, featuring objects from the 3rd millennium BC to present day in a range of diverse material such as terracotta, bronze, metal, painting, and textiles.
You’ll see the poignant works of Chila Kumari Burman (b. 1957) and F.N. Souza (1924-2002) who were active members of British Black Arts Movement after they immigrated to London. In their work, they connect the representation of the body to the broader development of feminist, gender, and racial justice as they struggled against anti-Black racism as South Asians in England. Through their art, they fought for social and racial justice on behalf of communities who were part of the British crown’s former colonies, including those from Africa and Asia. Alongside these exciting loans will be works from our permanent collection, such as photographs by Pushpamala, whose work restages herself and her body to question gender norms in religious and national mythologies within the Indian public sphere.
As you see it, what is the future of this newly formed curatorial department at the Seattle Art Museum?
The future of the South Asian collection is in the hands of all of you! I see my role as an educator, facilitator, and more importantly someone who cares for the collection. I have many ideas of how we can grow the collection while at the same time balancing the need to do justice to our current permanent collection. I have devoted the majority of my career to the study of South Asian objects and have the privilege of working on behalf of this collection everyday. However, I also work on behalf of the public; curators do not act alone. Internally, we work in teams with wonderful colleagues. Externally, we speak and network with many students, collectors, donors, and art lovers.
SAM is the largest museum in the Pacific Northwest, and I have a duty to preserve and honor the current South Asian collection. At the same time, I need to explore how the collection can better reflect the Pacific Northwest community in all of its diversity. For instance, we can become a center for South Asian folk art, showcase more contemporary South Asian female artists, or highlight more artworks in new media to reflect this tech city. It’s a yes/and, not an either/or. I look forward to holding conversations with all of you about how you would like me to honor and grow the South Asian collection.
This exciting new position at SAM came at a very challenging moment in the world. How has it been for you, joining the museum in the midst of a global pandemic?
The SAM staff has been very welcoming. But it has been somewhat difficult to connect with the rest of the Seattle community. The general public is integral to curatorial practice. As a nonprofit, SAM holds its art collection in a public trust. For my work to be meaningful, it has to reflect public needs and desires. For the safety and health of everyone during the pandemic, we must all physically distance ourselves based on the information and advice coming from public health experts. Right now, a large part of my job as a curator and cultural facilitator cannot be undertaken in the usual manner of one-to-one meetings or large group gatherings.
So I, along with the rest of the SAM team, have moved to digital platforms to continually serve the public and bring art into your homes. I have also embraced more of the research aspect of my job, such as writing and researching on SAM’s permanent collection, since it can be undertaken in a more isolated fashion. In this regard, I recently published a research article in one of the most influential journals in my field, Modern Asian Studies. I look forward to the day when we can all safely be in front of the art again and develop more lively connections.
Tell us what you’ve been enjoying about Seattle so far. Any favorite places or experiences?
I have been enjoying the natural beauty of Seattle, waking up everyday to the sight of snowcapped mountains and the Puget Sound. As a former Californian, I forgot how much I missed seeing the mountains everyday! To live with such beauty is truly a gift. To soak up the sunshine as much as possible, I’ve been taking long walks to the Arboretum. My favorite place in Seattle so far is Golden Gardens Park. Any place where I can see and hear the ocean will forever be my favorite place to be.
This newly-created position would not be possible without the vision and generosity of the following individuals
Mimi Gardner Gates Anu and Naveen Jain Rajesh Jha and Sudha Mishra Shirish and Mona Nadkarni Sanjay Parthasarathy and Malini Balakrishnan Suri and Mala Raman Darshana Shanbhag and Dilip Wagle Gursharan and Elvira Sidhu Rubie and Pradeep Singh Narender and Rekha Sood Vijay and Sita Vashee
Skin as Allegory Supporting Sponsor Blakemore Foundation
Over the years, SAM has from time to time brought together a group of community members from diverse backgrounds and affiliations to advise on the presentation of a special exhibition. In 2009, SAM met with leaders of the city’s South Asian community when a set of exquisite royal paintings from Jodhpur would be presented at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. A group of fashion designers and instructors advised the museum—and helped create a fashion show featuring local designers at the museum—for SAM’s fall 2016 exhibition celebrating the work of the legendary Yves Saint Laurent.
These, and numerous other examples, signify the importance to SAM of connecting with people outside of the organization to fulfill its mission of reflecting the community it serves. This ethos guides much of SAM’s work already; for example, the Education & Public Engagement Division nurtures ongoing relationships with local artists, performers, writers, and other culture-makers in presenting dynamic programming and events.
Now it’s official: going forward, the museum will bring this community-centered process to the development of all major special exhibitions presented throughout the year, convening Advisory Committees who will meet and advise the museum throughout the planning process.
The exhibition would be held for the sesquicentennial of the birth of photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952), but far from a celebration, SAM would present a richly nuanced re-evaluation of his legacy. “While Curtis made many contributions to the fields of art and ethnography, his romanticized picture of Native identity has cast a lingering shadow over the perception of Native peoples,” noted Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art. “Today, Indigenous artists are creating aesthetic archives reclaiming agency over their visual representation.” Brotherton worked with three contemporary Indigenous artists—Marianne Nicolson, Tracy Rector, and Will Wilson—to conceive of Double Exposure, an exhibition that would thread their works in conversation with Curtis’ iconic photographs, as well as objects from SAM’s collection.
This collaboration between curator and contemporary artists also included the advisory committee, whose feedback helped make space at the museum for a reckoning with Curtis’s legacy. With Double Exposure, SAM took a big step in its efforts to decolonize the museum. We’d like to acknowledge the committee members once again: Dr. Charlotte Coté (Tseshaht / Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation), Jarrod Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Colleen Echohawk-Hayashi (Pawnee Nation / Upper Ahtna Athabascan), Andy Everson (K’ómoks First Nation), Jason Gobin (Tulalip Tribe), Darrell Hillaire (Lummi Nation), Madrienne Salgado (Muckleshoot Tribe), Lydia Sigo (Suquamish Tribe), Asia Tail (Cherokee Nation), and Ken Workman (Duwamish Tribe).
To bring together the advisory committees, invitations are sent to leaders, artists, and thinkers whose own work and communities are reflected in the particular themes of an exhibition. These selections are drawn from SAM’s already-rich network of partnerships and more importantly provide opportunities to create new connections with community leaders and organizations in the region. Reflecting the value of this work, and ensuring that the opportunity to serve is accessible to everyone, SAM offers a stipend to all committee members. Each committee meets with a cross-divisional group of SAM staff who are charged with taking the feedback and guidance of the members back to their colleagues. Interacting with each step of the exhibition-making process over the course of multiple meetings—including curatorial, marketing, education, and more—the committee’s input contributes to the development of exhibition content, communication, and interpretation.
Advisory Committees for upcoming exhibitions are already at work. SAM is grateful for their dedication—and eager to experience how this community-centered model contributes to SAM’s mission to connect art to life.
– Rachel Eggers,SAM Equity Team Outreach Taskforce Chair
Photo: Natali Wiseman. Pictured, L to R: Ken Workman (Duwamish Tribe), Jarrod Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Dr. Charlotte Coté (Tseshaht / Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation), Curator of Native American Art Barbara Brotherton, Double Exposure artist Tracy Rector, Asia Tail (Cherokee Nation), Lydia Sigo (Suquamish Tribe), Madrienne Salgado (Muckleshoot Tribe). Not pictured: Colleen Echohawk-Hayashi (Pawnee Nation / Upper Ahtna Athabascan), Andy Everson (K’ómoks First Nation), Jason Gobin (Tulalip Tribe), Darrell Hillaire (Lummi Nation).