Women Artists Explores a Sense of Place

by Sura Wood

SOMArts multi-media exhibition features metaphoric spaces where the artist can find solace.

To have a place of one’s own is to have a refuge from the world. Whether it’s an actual physical location or a state of mind, this compelling concept has different meanings for different people.

In “A Place of Her Own,” a new multi-media exhibition at SOMArts Cultural Center, 20 mostly Asian American women artists, ages 21 to 89, express their visions of such a place in a variety of mediums: installations, written word displays, paintings, photographs, collages and sculpture. These works, which combine storytelling and recycled objects, grew out of a residency/workshop program where participants explored, through making art, their inner lives, identity issues, personal trauma and yearnings.

“The show is about a metaphoric space where you’re the one who’s in charge,” says exhibition curator Cynthia Tom, whose group of nine immersive, large-scale abstract paintings, “Maps of Consciousness: Place,” is in the show. As both curator and artist, Tom is particularly interested in highlighting issues facing Asian American women who come from traditional cultures that expect them to put the needs of others first and consider time spent on oneself as a luxury and an indulgence. “For my generation—I’m 57—fundamentally, politically, religiously, you’re…there to serve,” says Tom, who’s Chinese American. “That’s your role in life. It’s really important for women to claim a space to have their own thoughts, desires and aspirations.”

Tom’s mother, Sue Tom, who at 89 is the oldest artist in the exhibition, grew up poor and found solace in her imagination and the ability to take pleasure in small things. In her sculpture “The Swing,” a bare white tree—its gnarled branches supporting a fort equipped with miniature binoculars and a pair of child’s sneakers—looms over a small-scale version of the bright yellow swing set where Tom and her young son once swung. “Moving through the air, playing, free of any encumbrance, was an experience of delight,” she recalls.

But the first work visitors see upon entering SOMarts’ voluminous warehouse is Manon Bogerd Wada’s “Aligning Elevation,” a 16-foot-high, 10-foot-wide wood sculpture that speaks to home and the importance of family. She constructed it with four family heirloom Shaker-style chairs, each of which symbolizes an important person in her life. She added handmade stilts to the chair legs—the piece is inspired by Thai houses built on stilts to protect them from flooding—and attached extensions from wooden ladders to their backs; the interlinking elements peak at the top to form a roof. The extended chairs represent Wada’s family’s need for strength and structure; the stilt-like additions metaphorically keep the family safe from drowning.

For “Thirsty Ghosts,” Wada repurposed old liquor bottles that she frosted and transformed into a chandelier, beneath which sits another heirloom chair, sinking into sand. “I began imagining the concept of hungry ghosts in relationship to family patterns which have been passed down,” she explains in her artist statement. “I began altering everyday objects and furniture from my life to draw insight and express a story I carry.”

Indonesian-born artist and biologist Irene Wibawa takes a playful conceptual approach in her “Experiment D14-D15,” which consists of 35 baby jars containing tiny dioramas. In one, a petite female figure, arms extended upward, supports a massive cloud of fluff reminiscent of Atlas, who held up the sky with his hands; in others, a woman in a swimsuit sunbathes on an iceberg floating in the sea, and a man carrying suitcases approaches the entry to a model rocket ship.

Wibawa draws upon memories she can’t adequately describe in words—such as her experience as an immigrant—and, in these small works of art, makes them tangible. “[The dioramas] remind me of where I come from and how I got to be here today,” she writes. “They remind me of who I am.” Her second installation, “Cave,” is a round structure fashioned out of bamboo and chicken wire and covered with wool and felt. Visitors must contort themselves to wriggle through its entrance, which is shaped like the artist’s silhouette.

Maggie Yee has envisioned the ideal workplace in “Studio Euphoria Under the Big Top,” where she can be alone to create, free from responsibility. Anything she needs magically appears, including brilliant creations still residing in her imagination. A carnival banner beckons visitors to pass through heavy purple curtains and enter the 10-by-10-foot room, which is illuminated by a string of overhead lights. Inside there’s a life-size automatic food machine encased in metal and glass, a must for snacking artists; a notebook to jot down her brainstorms; and two large travel trunks. In the rear of the room is a makeshift window with a fantastical view of painted skies and puffy clouds. In front of the window and just behind a sheer curtain is a two-story dollhouse; its first floor has a kitchen and office and on its second floor is Yee’s art studio, scented by coconuts, a reminder of her native Honolulu. Instructions indicate when and where to sniff.

Embedded in Isabelle Thuy Pelaud’s six-foot-long tapestry, “Forgiveness,” is a painful history of abuse and abandonment by her father, who died a few years ago. Though Pelaud tore apart the books he bequeathed her, she retained their covers, glazing them with green paint representing his love of nature, and with red, evoking his rage, and added faded writing and ghostly images of her mother. A poem written on the wall reads, in part:

Would I have a place of my own,

I would have a warm and welcoming home with fruit trees.

I would know myself and understand my history

I would value what I have

how I make dreams come true.

”A Place of Her Own”

Through Dec. 11

SOMArts Cultural Center

934 Brannan St., San Francisco

(415) 863-1414/