By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) has a vision of itself as a wellspring of diversity, inclusion, rich history, and contemporary lessons, and that vision is fully realized in its newest exhibition, “Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Time,” running through July 10, 2022. The inaugural show by Natalia Di Pietrantonio—the new assistant curator and the first South Asian curator at SAAM—“Embodied Change” features works from the museum’s standing collection, as well as freshly displayed loans and impressive acquisitions. Built upon the theme-based gallery concept unveiled in the SAAM’s re-opening in 2020, the show spotlights the female body, and all that it entails, with art from South Asia and the South Asian diaspora.
“It focuses particularly on modern contemporary artists that are activist artists that are emboldened and trying to change norms within society,” Di Pietrantonio explained. “I decided upon the theme based on current events, and what I thought Seattle audiences would be drawn to during this particular time.”
Showing change over time through the body, particularly the female form, is part of the diversity and equity work that drew Di Pietrantonio to SAAM in the first place. Previously a professor with a PhD from Cornell University, specializing in South Asian art, both historical and modern, Di Pietrantonio lists some of her research interests as Islamic art, Imperial histories; cross-cultural dimensions of Southeast and South Asian art; and feminist, gender, and sexuality studies. She has done art historical work with Cornell and the Metropolitan Museum, among others, and reveled in this chance in Seattle to connect with the community, and work with SAAM’s other two curators, Xioajin Wu and Ping Foong.
Many common threads run throughout the exhibit, such as the use of the garden, a symbol of paradise in Western tradition, where the Bible is the primary religious text; while in South Asian tradition, an idyllic place, no doubt, yet also a place where change and liberation are possible. Rather than being cast out, we are encouraged to return, and to transform into something better. Gardens can be found throughout the museum, in historic and contemporary works. One notable example is a work of video art by Chitra Ganesh on one end of the “Embodied Change” exhibit, titled “Before the War,” which showcases violence, but also a possible utopia if we can make this transformation for the better. Highlighted in the video is another motif of the exhibition and South Asian life—the Earth Goddess, featured prominently in ancient South Asian art, and whom artists strive today to redefine and reconnect with.
This idea of transformation is fully embodied in the goddess Kali, who, as Di Pietrantonio described, destroys us so that we can be liberated. The show starts with a dynamic neon work called “Kali (I’m a Mess)” by Chila Kumari Burman, which demonstrates contemporary efforts to seek out spiritual sustenance, as well as notions of what it means to be a woman under the influence of prominent female goddess traditions, that are also transformed by new societal needs. Di Pietrantonio dubbed Burman a “democratic artist” because she “wanted everyone to have access to her work.” When this piece was displayed in Great Britain, where Burman lives, it was set outside, so that the public could still appreciate it without having to purchase a ticket.
Destruction, war, unpleasant rites of passage in our lives of ups and downs, and a world undergoing massive change are harrowing and yet can ultimately result in freedom from violence, prejudice, and self-doubt. Liberation is a primary topic of “Embodied Change,” liberation from expectations of gender, race, how we use our bodies, and what our bodies mean. In the works presented by Mithu Sen, the artist asked others to take photos of her and then embellished them with sequins and, in the case of “Miss Macho (Self Portrait),” a mustache. The idea that we can be free to use both natural and imaginary elements in art, and in life, runs throughout “Embodied Change,” as does this challenge to conservative tradition. Sen confronts what it means to be female, but also the injustice of colorism that many people around the world face, and which the artist dealt with in her own family, where she was considered “too dark.”
Asking others to participate in the art is another current of “Embodied Change” and of the museum itself, that intends to involve the public, seeking subject matter to fill unfilled niches, while taking care also to provide smartphone talks and handicap accessible spaces. Careful attention is paid to the best way to angle an artwork for optimum viewing, and labels feature feedback from patrons unveiled during the museum’s 2020 re-opening. SAAM and its curators recognize the huge impact art can have on residents who might have visited repeatedly throughout the years and retain fond memories of what they see and learn within its walls (and the camels outside!).
“These objects are not just part of the museum, but part of the community,” said Rachel Eggers, Seattle Art Museum’s associate director of public relations.
During a visit to “Embodied Change,” guests are welcome to engage with the other galleries in the museum which, as part of an ongoing plan to change up the art works on view every six months (in large part so that light-sensitive objects are not harmed), have both new and familiar works on display. There are recent additions of an abstract work by Filipino American Alfonso Ossorio, brought in to fill a relative gap in Filipino art representation; or three royal portraits that demonstrate the importance of pearls in South Asian ancient kingdoms. Fan favorites known colloquially as the “crow screens” have also been put back on view, based on popular demand.
All in all, “Embodied Change” is an exhibit that asks the question, “How can we make things better?” Both in the world at large, and here in our Seattle community. How can we strive to be more equitable, more diverse, more liberated? In some cases, it answers the question as well.
A talk by South Asian artist, Naiza Khan, will take place on March 9 for SAAM members, and a free community opening for “Embodied Change” is scheduled for March 25. For more information, visit seattleartmuseum.org/visit/seattle-asian-art-museum.
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.