In 1988, Gayatri Spivak asked, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Sadly, a full quarter century later, the answer at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco is still, “Just barely.” For the Proximities 1 exhibition, the Asian Art Museum hired a white male curator with admittedly no background in Asian art to curate a show of contemporary work by local artists with a central theme of “What is Asia?” This white curator in turn put together a show where six of the seven artists are white, a number of whom—like Ruth Benedict—have never even been to Asia. What is “Asia”? And who gets to answer?
“Does an artist or viewer have to be Asian or Asian American to consider the subject?” — Glen Helfand, guest curator, Asian Art Museum
“At the level of racial representation… whites are not of a certain race, they’re just the human race.” — Richard Dyer, The Matter of Whiteness
“I don’t think this is a show about race.” — curator Helfand, interview at Bad at Sports
“Basically we have a system where people are calling it color blind when it’s really blind to privilege. It’s blind to bias, it’s blind to racism.” — Makani Themba, The Praxis Project, heard today on KPFA’s Flashpoints
“It is not simply that White is a normate. It is a preference. It is also the case that in each arena, decision makers are acting inequitably and that their decisions have a cumulative impact. These practices of racial inequality are clearly unfair. They reveal that acting in ways that are unfair is part of a cultural norm.” — Imani Perry, More Beautiful and More Terrible
Proximities 1‘s “concept of ‘Asia'” revives the 18th century quest for paradise called Orientalism, a racial ideology of absolute difference in the false binary between here and there.
Answer: Consider the whiteness of Proximities 1 against 2010 Census Data:
- The Bay Area is home to the third largest Asian population in the United States.
- Six of the Top 10 Cities with the Highest Percentage of Asians in the U.S. are in the Bay Area (Daly City, Fremont, Sunnyvale rank #1, 2, 3, respectively in the continental US).
- More than one third of the population of San Francisco identifies as Asian. (Note: one third of Sanford, Florida, where Zimmerman was tried, is black).
- Whites are a minority in San Francisco.
Final Question: Why is “Asia” at The Asian always Over There? Or: Why this could never happen at MOAD or the Mexican Museum This summer we’ve seen a lot of art by local Asian-identified artists at Bay Area museums. Oakland-based Hung Liu recently had a major retrospective at the Oakland Museum and currently has a show at the San Jose Museum of Art. SJMA is also showing “New Stories from the Edge of Asia,” which consists entirely of the work of Asian American artists. In 2008-9, the de Young hosted a major survey of work by Asian American artists spanning 1900-1970. Why is art by Asians living in the U.S. always at museums other than The Asian? Why is “Asia” at The Asian always already “somewhere else” other than here? In contrast to the Museum of African Diaspora and the Mexican Museum, the Asian Art Museum makes no acknowledgement of centuries of transnational migration in its mission statement. Contrast this with the “Migrating Identities” show currently at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. How does The Asian’s narrative disavowal of the history of Asians in America contribute to the pernicious ‘perpetual foreigner’ stereotype that reared its ugly head last week?