“When She Rises” – Asian American Women Artists on Resistance and Resilience

"When She Rises" draws on the experiences of women who are forced to navigate racism informed by gender-based oppression.

Origami cranes hang overhead in loose playful rows along the right wall of the art studio. Standing beneath the canopy of their carefully folded wings, I felt welcomed to the exhibit currently on view there called When She Rises. Co-presented by Galería de la Raza and supported by the Akonadi Foundation’s Beloved Community Fund, the show features work from three artists: Cece Carpio, Erin Yoshi and Nisha Sembi. When She Rises is the latest show to go up at Studio Grand along Oakland’s Lake Merritt neighborhood that raises conversations about significant issues in our current social and political climate. Timed to open during Women’s History Month, the exhibit originally sprouted from the desire to “elevate the stories of women who have endured violent and oppressive acts” while also paying homage to women’s strength and resistance both today and throughout history. Each of the artists, either from or with roots across Asia—the Philippines, Japan and India, specifically—draw from personal narratives and larger stories about Asian and Asian American women who have faced adversity and pushed for change.

Underlining a commitment to critical dialogue, Carpio, Yoshi and Sembi are all members of the artist collective Trust Your Struggle. Based in California and New York, the collective is comprised of “visual artists, educators, and cultural workers dedicated to social justice and community activism through the medium of art.” As a collective they have gone on national and international tours designing and creating large scale community art projects; as individuals they work as illustrators, graphic designers and muralists (the list goes on). Carpio and Yoshi both articulated that the friendship, collaboration and support built and sustained through Trust Your Struggle is integral to their work. Carpio shared that as the show’s opening drew near members of Trust Your Struggle who folded and hung the cranes and arranged lights, provided helping hands critical to making the show a reality.

Carpio’s four portraits of Filipino women hang directly beneath the cranes. They take form on large, square pieces of wood painted on with acrylic. The women differ in age and social circumstance but share experiences of violence and erasure. Carpio, originally from the Philippines, depicts these women, the persecution they faced because of their identities and the justice they deserve but in many cases have not yet received. The richness of their stories originates in their differences. Rather than framing one homogenous struggle, Carpio celebrates diversity through her use of distinct colors and backgrounds. The work illuminates the many ways that women, especially indigenous, transgender, poor and/or abused women are targeted, highlighting individuality while reflecting a larger dialogue on women’s struggles and resistance. Together, the portraits create a pantheon in tribute to Filipino women’s resistance in the face of violence and death.

Themes of harassment and violence can be difficult topics to broach. The artists and Studio Grand’s Vanessa Camarena held conversations about how to create this space with intention, knowing the exhibit had the potential to trigger deep emotional responses from viewers. Carpio asked, “Were we ready to open this Pandora’s box?” The group sought to center the experience of viewers, inviting them to participate in the conversation by creating means for viewers to share their own stories. Carpio set up an altar at the exhibit opening to honor ancestors and loved ones, inviting visitors to add to the low table with candles, special objects, offerings and photos. A photo of on of Carpio’s subjects, Jennifer Laude, the young Filipina transwoman killed by an American Marine in 2014, is especially adorned with flowers and beads. Another interactive piece, collaboratively created by Camarena, Carpio and Yoshi, invites visitors to loop rainbow-hued yarn around nails marked by text describing experiences of harassment, abuse and violence they had encountered. By the time I came to visit the exhibit a week or so after the opening reception, the yarn had been pulled taut multiple times across every nail. Yoshi told me that it is a significant responsibility to bring these conversations forward through art. She didn’t want to “shy away from these conversations which are taboo,” in the hope that women might not feel so alone when offered the space to speak freely.

Yoshi’s work reflects a dedication to how experiences of gender based discrimination or violence manifest emotionally. Some of her pieces show ecstatic faces, others are more peaceful or serious. Through her depiction of carefully placed hands, creases, wrinkles and lines on a woman’s face, and the gleam in a subject’s eye, she conveys an impactful range of emotions including fear, anger and pain. Using both acrylic and aerosol spray, Yoshi contrasts bright color with heavy topics allowing her to explore themes of resilience and strength after trauma. Yoshi points out that contrasting and contradictory feelings co-exist and in fact inform one another.

In reflecting on Studio Grand’s mission and the importance of hosting shows like this one, Camarena told me that she often finds herself talking about the potential “art space has for critical dialogue.” Art provokes and reflects society’s successes and shortcomings, allows us to reflect on our daily realities. In many cases it takes these realities and pushes the audience to dream and think further. It makes room for inspiration and action.

Mounted along the back wall, Sembi’s contribution underscores this action, praising women’s growth and strength. She uses wood, glass and found objects as her canvas for brilliant, clean bold-colored lettering. Her meticulous designs and use of color bolster and interact with the power of the subjects and words she displays. On an antique saw, Sembi subverts the stereotype of submissive and deferential Asian women with the neatly lettered words “Kill ‘Em With Kindness.” She pays respect to the all-women vigilante group called the Gulabi Gang in her painting of a Gulabi Gang member clad in all pink sari in a defiant, powerful stance. The group from the central Indian region of Bundelkhand fight on behalf of battered and abused women in their community.

When She Rises raises deep, important questions about the failing of our world to respect and empower women. The show draws on the experiences of women who are forced to navigate racism informed by gender-based oppression. It celebrates the legacy of women who have fought and continue to fight for the right to live and thrive. The artists themselves prove that Asian and Asian American women are powerful and the importance of sharing stories in visual form.

When She Rises is on view until May 21, 2016 at Studio Grand at 3234 Grand Ave. in Oakland, CA.

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Mika Hernandez is a queer mixed Asian American-Xicana born and living on occupied Chochenyo and Karkin Ohlone land (Oakland, CA). She is a writer, artist, and community organizer passionate about the intersections of reproductive, racial, and food justice work. You can follow her work at hernandezmika.wordpress.com.

All photos by Maddy Clifford & Lisa Weissman.