#WhitePeopleDoingYoga @ the Asian Art Museum

4 04 2014

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 01

Last night I went to check out #WhitePeopleDoingYoga at the First Thursday event at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga is an installation by *Pardon My Hindi / Chiraag Bhakta.
On view from March 28th – May 25th.

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 02

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 03

Kudos to the museum’s education department for exhibiting Bhakta’s project, which is showing in the Education Resource Center in conjunction with the feature exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation.  While I couldn’t find much information about the project on the museum’s website, *Pardon My Hindi posted a video and artist statement here.

Chiraag Bhakta

Click for more on Chiraag Bhakta

Artist Statement

This piece is a reflection of my personal relationship, as an Indian American, with yoga and its migration to today’s Western context. I call this piece #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, the hashtag symbolizing the commercialization and commodification of a culture.

Not too long before moving to the Bay Area seven years ago, I began to collect grassroots-level meditation and yoga ephemera from the 1960s through the 1980s. During that era, particularly in the Bay Area, yoga started making a big impact on Western culture. I became interested in how yogic practice was being mined and commercialized; how the South Asian face of the discipline was being removed in the branding and portrayal of the practice and culture. Today, an online image search for “yoga” mainly returns images of white people in various poses, followed by images of dogs and cats doing the same.

This project is not about the individual pieces in my collection, but the overall voice that is put out in front of us, which is overwhelming and suffocating to me. After you go through the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, you will notice a sharp turn as yoga enters a new level of commercialization in the West. The $27 billion yoga industry in the U.S. has rebranded a complex and rich discipline to make it easier to sell “yoga” as a line of products. Brands like Lululemon and Nike have started appropriating and trademarking phrases, postures, and clothing—aligning and embedding themselves in our understanding of yoga. Simultaneously the South Asian face and voice are relegated to an exotic caricature—cartoons, adoption of South Asian names by Westerners, mystical creatures, Hindu gods. One archival study of the health and wellness magazine Yoga Journal found that over the course of two years “there was never a South Asian person on the cover, and less than one percent of content contributors were South Asian.”1

The act of selectively choosing what works in popular Western contexts, while ignoring aspects of yoga’s core philosophy and historic practice, is telling. It shows an ironic attachment of one’s ego to a desire for ownership over an ancient practice of material denouncement that emerged from an altogether different, South Asian, tradition.

In the end, I feel compelled to draw parallels between the current state of yoga and the industrial colonization by the same dominant voice that now adds another conquest to its collection. Meet the new founders of Yoga™.

—Chiraag Bhakta

1 Roopa Singh, Esq., Archival study for the South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America, SAAPYA

#WPDY totebags available at PardonMyHindi.com

#WPDY totebags available at PardonMyHindi.com

Meanwhile upstairs in Samsung Hall, mostly WhitePeopleDoingChanting





2 responses

4 04 2014
Bob Lee

Can this be taken as a sign that the museum itself is changing its perspective?

5 04 2014

Hi Bob,

It’s a good sign, and it shows that the institution is not monolithic, but at the same time, it’s wise to keep a measured perspective since the institutional learning curve remains steep.

It’s worth noting again that #WhitePeopleDoingYoga is being exhibited through the Education department, rather than sanctioned through Exhibitions, which seems to fit a familiar pattern for museums in general when it comes to exhibiting or hosting critically engaged work that dares to challenge institutional status quo.

Contrast Bhakta’s installation with the Asian Art Museum’s recent “Proximities” exhibition series, wherein the museum hired a white male curator who admittedly had no background in Asian art or culture—contemporary or otherwise—to curate an exhibition series of local contemporary artists in the museum’s actual gallery space (i.e. not the educational resource room) on the theme of “What Is Asia?”

In the first installment of Proximities, six of the seven artists he curated were white, a number of whom had never even been to Asia. This is in San Francisco, where Asians comprise more than a third of the population, and whites are a minority. Despite the presence of a rapidly growing South Asian community in the Bay Area, South Asian artists were excluded entirely from the three part exhibition series.

I posted a critique of the racial politics of Proximities I on this blog which I’ve been told generated substantial discussion on social media, and Anuradha Vikram published critiques of the Proximities series at Daily Serving, but it’s unclear how much of either was comprehended by said curator.

[At the same time, since he was selected by the institution to curate the series, he now receives the benefits of being identified as an authority. So, for example, he will be speaking at the Association of Asian American Studies Conference in San Francisco next week.]

From what I can tell, the innovative programming of #WhitePeopleDoingYoga at the Asian Art Museum grew out of curatorial inspiration and support that unsurprisingly did not originate with a white male curator with no background in Asian art or culture (but I won’t name any names). And we can be fairly certain that, given the institutional history and memory, actually pulling it off was not without its challenges.

But it’s here now, and worth celebrating. Hopefully this will only help raise the museum’s profile while allaying conservative fears that the sky is falling, and open the door a little wider to greater equity in the future. But realistically, we may still have a long way to go before we see equity in the selection and promotion of feature exhibitions.

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