Two nude figures stand facing forward, one in front of the other, looking like replicas of the same body entangled in androgynous characteristics that resist gender stereotypes: delicate fingers, broad chests and shaved heads. The back figure wraps their arms around the other, strumming the banjo that forms their perfectly rounded stomach, materializing the painting’s title “Musical Bodies: Banjo.”
Wilson Shieh’s painting is just one of 16 artworks on display at “Seeing Gender,” the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco’s first exhibition with a focus on gender and sexuality. Open through Sept. 5, 2022 in the Atsuhiko Tateuchi and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Gallery, “Seeing Gender” refigures the museum’s long-held collection, highlighting the timelessness of gender representation.
When emerging curators Megan Merritt, Maya Hara, Shinhwa Koo and Joanna Lee were given the opportunity to curate an exhibition that framed pieces from the museum’s collection in any way they wanted, gender immediately stood out to them.
“We really wanted to highlight a theme and topic that was important to us as younger emerging curators and engage with younger visitors too — something that people would be thinking about the next day after they left the gallery, putting out more questions than answers,” Merritt said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “We’re really opening up the topic, allowing visitors to challenge their preconceptions about gender by thinking beyond the binary of male-female.”
From photographs and paintings to shoes and shrines, the curators incorporated works from various parts of Asia that span 1,000 years. They also made creative use of the small space by grouping together pieces within a subtheme of gender, such as “Interactions” and “Relationships,” inviting attendees to connect with the complexities of gender across time and cultures.
“We really wanted people to see themselves in this exhibition,” Merritt said. “We don’t have artworks that are going to speak to the spectrum of gender identities that there are — and definitions are also changing all the time — but we wanted to include as many (pieces) as we could and share different examples.”
As the project manager for contemporary art, Merritt rarely works with the museum’s older pieces, so collaborating with curators from assorted departments was especially exciting. Under the “Transformations” subtheme, three Guanyin (a prominent Buddhist deity) from differing time periods and cultures demonstrate how one individual’s gender can be perceived and portrayed in contrasting ways.
“I learned so much from Joanna Lee, who is our Chinese (art) curatorial assistant, about how different cultures during different periods of time came to see (the Guanyin) and how it could transform from being this masculine strapping male kind of deity to this feminine and curvaceous, more rounded figure,” Merritt expressed. “It was interesting to see how we think of gender as a very contemporary topic, but of course it’s always been something people have thought about.”
Many of the exhibit’s subthemes are paired with quotes from artists, lecturers and writers from the local community. Their personal experiences, questions and interpretations offer museumgoers additional lenses to peer through while engaging with the exhibition.
“I’ve been thinking about how the (subtheme) groupings are obviously together as one little coupling, but also how they speak to other artworks across the gallery that they might not necessarily be related to,” Merritt said. “I always think about it as a conversation happening in the gallery.”
Conversations are also sparked by the museum’s Art Speak interns, a group of innovative teens deepening their experiences with art and culture through their work with the Asian Art Museum and local art community. A section of the exhibition is dedicated to video narratives that express how the interns specifically see gender.
“They bring in such a personal perspective on how they think about (gender) in their everyday lives and how gender changes for them in different contexts,” Merritt said.
Merritt explained that one of her favorite moments from the Art Speak videos was when the interns explored how their gender identity representation might change based on their environment or the people they’re around.
“It was such a crucial part of the exhibition, and with everyone’s voices included, it makes (‘Seeing Gender’) so much more well-rounded,” Merritt said.
Though “Seeing Gender” features merely 16 of the museum’s 18,000 artworks, the framing of these artworks has inspired a conversation that can ripple through neighboring galleries and possibly even future installations. It has crafted a space for museumgoers to contemplate their own ways of seeing the gradations of gender, even after they leave the exhibition.
“I don’t think we’re trying to answer any questions or reveal anything,” Merritt intimated. “We’re just asking people to be open-minded about this topic and understand that there’s different embodiments and representations of gender — of course in Asian art, as we have on view in the gallery, but (also) in life.”
Contact Amanda Ayano Hayami at [email protected].