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At SOMArts, 'Jade Wave Rising' Is a Love Letter to AAPI Women

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Installation view of 'Jade Wave Rising: Portraits of Power' at SOMArts.  (Kristie Song/KQED)

When I was growing up, my grandmother’s wrist was always adorned with a thick jade bracelet, its smooth, cool-green surface prominent against her skin. At some point, my mother followed suit, and the jade became a permanent extension of her body as well. A symbol of protection, jade has come to represent legacy, strength and good fortune across many Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures. While these themes remain consistent, their presence shifts and metamorphosizes alongside the transformation of new generations.

The dynamic nature of the jade, AAPI heritage and the expansiveness of womanhood are all reflected in Jade Wave Rising: Portraits of Power, a new exhibit on view at SOMArts Cultural Center through May 21. Curator and artist Yeu Q Nguyen questions the concept of power in the representation of AAPI women — particularly, how sticky, elusive and vast it can really be. Power is subjective and takes shape in various forms: tender and vulnerable, subversive and brash, self-contained and participatory. The exhibit is angled through the lens of 20 artists, all of whom offer their own individual responses to power.

Melanie Paat’s ‘Grandma Elsie’ and ‘Mama Mirela’ (L–R). (Kristie Song/KQED)

San Francisco artist Mariel Paat’s vivid oil paintings, each representing a different woman in her family, are rendered with sharp color and delicate realism. In one, her grandmother is smiling, elated at being able to return to her home in the Philippines after years away. In another, Paat’s older sister Mirela breastfeeds her son. In the last portrait, her mother Melanie embraces herself as she looks towards the viewer.

One constant in Paat’s portraits is her subjects’ fixed, unbroken gaze. Their calm poses exude comfort in their surroundings, their strength and self-assuredness silent but commanding. Paat instills every painting with character and personality through precise attention to posture and expression. Beyond technical skill, the portraits are also full of love and sincerity, intimately capturing how the artist views the most important women in her life: resilient, powerful and vulnerable in their own ways.

Mariel Paat’s ‘Melanie Tolentino Paat-Bambang, Nueva Vizcaya.’ (Kristie Song/KQED)

Similarly, through a series of silk prints, artist Julie Lee weaves together a close and quiet look into one woman’s life before her immigration to the United States. In many of these photographs, she poses and smiles against scenic backdrops, the patterns of the silk reflecting the patterns and colors of her outfits. Looking at these portraits, I can’t help but think of my mother again. At home, there are scrapbooks filled with photos of her as a young adult posing amongst landmark American staples: shiny Las Vegas casinos, picturesque statues and glimmering bodies of water. She still wore her hair long, and dressed in peplum tops that have long been shoved into the back of her closet.

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Like my mother’s photographs, Lee’s silk portraits illustrate a young woman full of hope for her future. In moving to the states, she walks unsteady ground as she tries to discover herself in this new place. As second generation children of immigrants, it can feel conflicting to see our parents as they were young, with a longing to make something of themselves through the “American Dream.” Lee incorporates this yearning into the very fabric of her work, with silk symbolizing fortune and prosperity. She captures the familiar and deep desire of many immigrants to turn their lives around in the U.S., a place that beckons them with seemingly endless opportunity and a fresh slate.

Julie Lee’s ‘In Her Glory,’ a collection of silk print portraits. (Kristie Song/KQED)

This piece is full of emotion and curiosity. As viewers, we know nothing about the subject and are offered only pieces of her story. But the familiarity of the photos and the feelings behind them create a resounding work that encourages one to consider their own relationship to previous generations, and the hopes and dreams that they once held so deeply. They transform from parent or elder into eager adolescent, with similar doubts and fantasies of what years to come may hold. Lee hopes to tell her subject that she is inherently powerful and worthy, and that her efforts so far prove it. Even if the American dream fails her, as it does so many, she deserves a life that is abundant.

As I neared the end of my visit, I peeked beneath Of Wave and Stones, Nguyen’s large-scale tulle wave piece that hangs from the ceiling and gently spills onto the floor, pooling around a collection of rocks that carry messages of hope and strength. The only sounds present were the ambient noise and narration trickling from Jade Wave Rising’s sole video installation, providing an almost meditative air to the space. There is a sentence from artist Mariel Paat’s oil paintings that sticks with me: “We see you, we love you, and thank you.”

‘Jade Wave Rising: Portraits of Power’ runs through May 21, 2023, at SOMArts in San Francisco, presented by the Asian American Women Artists Association and the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center. Details here.

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