Yes, you Bay Areans, you APA Areans, it's that time of year again: the time when you're forced to remember that one out of four of you is ASIAN ... enough to make an army, enough to crowd you out of your coding job or spot at Cal, enough, perhaps, to finally get us all beyond the yawny immigrant tale and into the meat of the matter.
That last item -- developing Asian and Pacific Islander American stories beyond the required immigration and assimilation story -- is the job of the Bay Area's profuse and prolific APA arts and culture organizations. And now that May, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, is truly upon us, we can once again evaluate how that project is progressing. So here are some suggestions of where to go and what to see this month...
Naturally, the place to go for your APA fix is the eleventh United States of Asian America, the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center's annual APA Heritage Month festival. Two free exhibitions bracket the seven-week-long festival at the SomArts Cultural Center. 30/70, a restrospective of seventy-year-old Chinese American artist Flo Oy Wong's thirty-year career is housed in SomArts's main gallery. Wong, a native of Oakland's Chinatown and the daughter and sister of "paper people" (Chinese Americans who bought false identities to emigrate in spite of racist immigration restrictions), investigates the 20th-century history of Asians in the US with installations using rice sacks and quilting techniques. It's a tactic that could be boring in the hands of a lesser artist, but Wong's visual power and political fervor can convert even the most skeptical formalist.
SomArts's Bay Gallery hosts East of the West, a show featuring "Middle Eastern" American artists interrogating their regional grouping. East of the West would be more of a typical identity show -- part blossoming of contemporary techniques, part declaration of self -- if the region represented weren't so politically charged. Although few artists here grapple directly with current military conflicts (and few of them are Arab, much less Iraqi), it's impossible to view this show without becoming neck-tinglingly aware that we're at war, right this second. A must-see.
Other festival highlights at SomArts include The Cooking Show Con Karimi y Castro, Noodle Women, and American Idyll.
Robert Karimi, whose vivid one-man performance/storytelling joints about being Guatemalan/Iranian don't come to the Bay often enough, is collaborating in The Cooking Show with John Manal Castro. They'll be performing a literal cooking show complete with actual food samples, revolutionary politics, and, of course, stories Thursday-Sunday, May 15-18, 2008.
Longtime APA community artist Claudine Naganuma choreographs Noodle Women, a group dance performance, the fourth weekend of May. Inspired by Flo Wong's exhibition and taking place both within Wong's gallery and onstage, the piece is about eating long-life noodle.
And the Gay Asian Pacific Alliance (GAPA), whose smartass dance company delights me every time they take the stage, are presenting the free multi-disciplinary piece American Idyll on June 1, 2008, jumping on the intersection of queer, API, and artistic identities.
The United States of Asian America festival has been expanding of late, and not all events and exhibitions will be at SomArts. Some offsite treasures include exhibitions of Iranian photography, more Chinese American installation art, the requisite one-woman show, and the 4th Annual Queer Women of Color Film Festival, which overlaps the APICC Festival with the National Queer Arts Festival in June.
Of these, I'm particularly interested in the installation, Lure, by Chinese-American artist Beili Liu at the Chinese Culture Center on Kearny Street. Liu took the Chinese visual metaphor of the red thread that connects lovers from birth, and rendered it literal in a beautiful installation of flying disks. The exhibition rides a very fine line between sentimentalizing ethnic identity on the one hand, and trivializing tradition within a context of shallow conceptual art. But Liu has found the balance successfully. I don't know if this is the future of APA identity art, but it's a lovely piece.
For the full schedule of United States of Asian America visit apiculturalcenter.org. Admission to exhibitions is free; most performances and screenings charge an admission fee, so check the website for more information.