Female artists find expressions of home in ‘A Place of Her Own’

SOMArts_Maggie Yee
Maggie Yee/Courtesy

If you had a place of your own, what would it look like? “A Place of Her Own,” the latest exhibition at San Francisco’s SOMArts gallery, poses this provocative question. The multimedia art collection spotlights 20 artists, most of whom are Asian American women.

The artists, who range from age 24 to 89, capture spaces of hope and refuge for women. Though deeply personal, their works are seldom indulgent. Rather, the pieces collectively strike a curious balance between contemplative and playful, making the exhibition emotionally accessible for viewers from all backgrounds.

Maggie Yee’s installation “Studio Euphoria” illuminates a space that actualizes the artist’s most fervent desires and basic needs. The viewer enters a dreamy room that is partitioned from the rest of the exhibit. The room, shrouded with sheer fabric and lit up by LED lights, harnesses the ethereal quality of a child’s imagination while containing pragmatic supplies such as cooking pans and (fake) fruit. Perched at the center of the room is a miniature version of the room expanded into a two story dollhouse. The top story contains art materials and books, while the lower story consists of everyday amenities such as food and furniture. Yee’s installation goes beyond the responsibilities of day-to-day life and highlights a personal necessity for her artistic creativity.

Other pieces in the exhibition transform objects associated with hurt into objects of reflection and healing, such as Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s “Forgiveness as a Place of My Own.” Pelaud, a UC Berkeley alumna and professor at San Francisco State University, grew up with a Vietnamese mother and a French father. In her piece, she paints patches of bright colors over ripped book covers and faded Vietnamese letters held together by masking tape. The piece is based on Pelaud’s memories of a violent father, who left her the very books used in the piece, and her mother, who passed down the letters and photographs.

In her artistic statement, Pelaud writes, “To make this tapestry, I transformed objects toward which I have ambivalence into an object I can embrace. The making of the tapestry served as a ritual that helped me to accept the void my father’s violence carved inside my heart and to forgive.”

Next to Pelaud’s piece is Marlene Iyemura’s “To All Persons.” Though haunting like Pelaud’s piece, Iyemura’s installation speaks more blatantly about a historically rooted, systemic issue — racism, particularly in the context of anti-Japanese policies during World War II . In the piece, Iyemura, an undergraduate student at Mills College, arranges colorful origami balloons that pour out of an old treasure chest. The chest sits atop a surface plastered with black-and-white government issued anti-Japanese flyers that date back to Executive Order 9066. A small breath of air sustains each individual balloon. Each puff of air paradoxically signifies both hope for the future and wariness of the persisting racism in the contemporary world.

Near the gallery exit stands “The Cave,” Irene Wibawa’s piece — a wooly, off-white grotto internally supported by a bamboo structure. “The Cave” is somewhat cocoon-like, which is interesting because Wibawa herself is a biologist by day. The form of Wibawa’s installation speaks to its broader thematic significance. In its homespun appearance, “The Cave” tells a story of meditation, something the artist only could have done through repetitive and laborious crafting. What ostensibly appears to be a homely personal project then transforms into a symbolic refuge of sorts and gains depth in the process.

“The making of “The Cave” was a transformative process. I had to clear out physical space, which involved discarding, recycling, deciding on, and letting go of the things that no longer served a purpose in my life,” Wibawa said in her artistic statement.

Never pedantic, “A Place of Her Own” is an important exhibition. It serves as a platform for presence as well as a surreal space of dreaming for a demographic of women whose voices are seldom heard within the pristine walls of the art world. Its power lies in its very abandonment of power — all in the name of meditation and healing.

“A Place of Her Own” will be on view at the SOMArts gallery until Dec. 11.

Stacey Nguyen covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].

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