Two current Bay Area visual art exhibits explore trauma and resilience. At Marin MOCA through September 15th, 2019, is Hungry Ghosts: Exploring the Intersections Between Chronic Heartache and Resilience curated by A Place of Her Own art project founder Cynthia Tom and Maggie Yee. And at The Growlery (235 Broderick Street, San Francisco) The Survival Project’s Journeys explores how peoples around the world have fed themselves during times of extreme famine. You can also chart the geography of your immigration story and view others’ stories. (Available for viewing just one more day – Saturday, August 30th between 10 am to 2 pm).
Hungry Ghosts features mixed media artwork by 16 women artists. They explore familial, cultural and personal stories to illuminate and embody healing and transcendence. In Buddhist mythology, hungry ghosts are perpetually dissatisfied spirits with bloated bellies and narrow throats who crave sustenance yet can never be emotionally satisfied. In this exhibit’s context, the ghosts are memories, wounds or departed family members who wander the psyche, longing for recognition, healing, or release. Tom explained after a recent artists’ talk (to paraphrase), ‘as Asian Americans and minorities, we don’t go to therapists as often (as others), because of family pressures and stigma. Making art can be our therapy.’
Indeed, Asian Americans and other minorities do underutilize mental health services. Broadly speaking, there is a cultural emphasis on emotional suppression, especially outside the family. Talking to strangers (such as therapists) about one’s problems is generally frowned upon, though this is thankfully changing. Affordable or free culturally and linguistically competent therapy, combined with positive empathic regard, can help individuals and families on their paths to wellness. But for many of us there may be a sense that we should “solve” our problems internally, or that to speak about problems would provoke conflict. “How could a stranger possibly understand us anyway,” some ask. Our parents, too, often had to swallow their difficulties to survive; they sometimes advised their children to do the same. “Ignore the bullies.” “Don’t shame us by speaking of this.” “It can’t be helped.” There can be an overvaluing of the “harmony” and rigidity of silence, rather than the “melody” and fluidity of disruption, an overvaluing of Confucian order as opposed to Taoist flexibility or Buddhist insight into the depths of our mutual suffering as human beings. Emotional suppression silences difference within Asian American families and the community at large, and supports our invisibility within the broader culture, and our stereotyping as shallow, weak, one-dimensional “model minorities,” great workers who are not very interesting, attractive or deep.
The artists of Hungry Ghosts shatter these stereotypes and transmit healing through their work. They are shamanic voyagers to the underworld of personal and cultural wounds, emerging with the medicine of artistic insight. All wounds are relational. All suffering is a crisis of disconnection, from self and other. While the classic masculine hero’s journey is often about vanquishing monsters to establish a more just rule in the outer world, the feminine journey (available for people of all genders, as described by Jungian and feminist thinkers such as Jean Shinoda Bolen, Maureen Murdock, Jean Baker Miller and others) aims to heal the relational wound itself, and is a largely inner journey.
Tom’s work, Flying Lessons. Inquire Within, is a triptych of canvases depicting monochromatic, jarlike dress forms that finally ascend into light and wholeness. It evokes the tens of millions of girls missing in China, India and elsewhere due to female infanticide, abandonment and gender selection. I was reminded of the jars in which some baby girls have been drowned in Chinese history. (See, for example, Nanfu Wang’s ONE CHILD NATION, now in theaters.) Here, there is space to imagine a world where girls and women can see their own value and be seen as valuable by all.
Irene Wibawa’s Excavation uses vintage photos and found objects to illustrate her family’s story of being ethnically Chinese in Indonesia. Tellingly, she reworks one photo to show her father carrying the character for his name, which itself signifies “carrying,” poignantly underscoring his burdens and strength, and a daughter’s love. In another, he is seen passing this character onto his daughter.
Pat Zamora’s seven-paneled, totemic Root to Spirit combines a vibrant, colorful collage of family photos with the chakras of “root, power, create, heart, voice, vision and spirit.” Here, the gifts of mother and ancestors rise to meet the future in her family’s youngest generations.
Maggie Yee’s On My Own and Facing My New Reality: She is Not Coming Home rework the deep scars of her abandonment in childhood by her mother as reminders of her own strength and the possibility of finding love from others. Memories can be processed and somewhat compartmentalized as form in the medium of art; but they can only be resolved in the interdependence of relationship and compassion.
Frances Cachapero’s Where the Light Enters You features a free-standing dress emptied of body, leaving only light and a vibrant heart. Her words during the gallery talk speak volumes about her light, heart and journey. “What happens when two wounded hearts meet? What kind of impact, what kind of intersection, what kind of conflict arises, through those two wounded hearts…brought together from lineages that are so different…maybe or maybe not…from themselves? [Conflict] didn’t just happen yesterday…there’s layers and layers of trauma…hearts are wounded. How do we understand that. We have to be compassionate and gentle with each other these days, and I think we’re starting to see that.”
Lisa Rodondi’s eQualeSSence is an expression of her belief that “knowing that the essence of my being is equal to that of others allows me to feel connected and whole in mind, body and spirit.” This belief, represented by an almost imperceptible “equal” mathematical sign within a Zen circle rising high in the canvas, is tethered and held back by lines connected to thoughts of inferiority and superiority, symbolized by “greater than” and “less than” signs. Feelings of inadequacy cycle with compensatory and temporarily reassuring grandiosity – but when safety, trust, confidence and connection abound, the spirit of jeong, or interbeing, resonates, and the artwork comes to rest in acceptance and equality. Rodondi, who is Korean American, said, “my parents are survivors of war and violence…my primary hungry ghost that causes me great suffering and pain is really this sense of not belonging, not being connected. It pains me what’s going on with our country. That’s part of what inspired me to make this piece.”
Hungry Ghosts also features works by Julie Anderson, Avotcja, Angela Bau, Frances Cachapero, Reiko Fujii, Tomo Hirai, Natalie Sacramento, Sue Tom, and Manon Bogerd Wada. You can listen to the gallery talk on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. (This would be a great accompaniment as you walk the exhibit.)
Journeys is the brainchild of The Survival Project’s Rania Ho, Thy Tran and Bryan Wu. From their website:
“The Survival Project is a multi-sensory exploration of resilience during extreme times. Delving into experiences that sustained individuals and communities through upheaval, the project draws from oral histories, local knowledge, archival material and original artwork to present techniques and skills for coping with a range of crisis situations. The Survival Project places the fundamental quest for survival within a larger historical context, to address issues of place and place-making, home and community, memory and change.”
The New Yorker’s 2017 article “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich” illustrated how some extremely wealthy people plan for the contingency of total social breakdown – as opposed to taking measures to “reinvest in civil society,” as Elli Kaplan, former Clinton aide put it. Now Costco sells $4,999 “prepper” kits: one year supplies of canned food with a guaranteed “30 year shelf-life on freeze-dried foods” and a “10 year shelf life on peanut butter.” Journeys showcases how people in war-torn and famine-struck regions have had to make do with much less – the Dutch used sawdust as filler for bread, the Irish made soup from seaweed, and the Donner Party amongst others resorted to cannibalism in the hardest of times. Ho, Tran and Wu bring stories of survival to light.
Every day we make choices about our own well-being and survival, as individuals and as a community. These shows succeed in deepening knowledge, wisdom and compassion for the roads we’ve traveled, as we gather ourselves for our common future.
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. Read more MOSF blogposts here. Ravi will be offering a free 8 week lecture series in Japantown on compassion, Asian American psychology and more.