Asian-American Women Find A ‘Place’ In Art

The Asian-American Women Artists Association is presenting the exhibit A Place of Her Own in San Francisco to showcase the work of Asian-American artists. The project focuses on social justice and using art to heal wounds from difficult personal histories. Curator Cynthia Tom and featured artist Isabelle Thuy Pelaud discuss how the exhibit came about and what they hope will accomplish.

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TONY COX, host:

What do you use to find your place in the world and grow out of a history that might not have been so kind? Well, some women are using paintbrushes and other art forms. The Asian-American Women Artists Association, also known as AWAA, recently debuted an exhibit called "A Place of Her Own." The project documents the histories, values and work of Asian-American artists.

The women have created sculptures, paintings, poems and other art forms to answer the question: If you had a place of your own, what would it be? Their visions are displayed for free at the Driftwood Salon in San Francisco, now through October 3rd.

Here with me to talk more about the exhibit are curator Cynthia Tom and�featured artist Isabelle Thuy Pelaud. They joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Welcome, ladies.

Ms. CYNTHIA TOM (Curator, "A Place of Her Own" Exhibit): Thanks, Tony, thanks for having us on.

Ms. ISABELLE THUY PELAUD (Artist): Yeah, thanks, Tony.

COX: Cynthia, I'm going to begin with you. What inspired this project?

Ms. TOM: Well, I, myself, am an artist and work largely around women's advocacy issues. I became a pretty staunch feminist when I found out how my grandmother was treated coming over. She was purchased in China and brought over by my grandfather. But my art tends to be more hopeful about women's wishes for the future.

So I am the board president and the curator for Asian-American Women Artists Association. And I volunteer, so I thought I would create a curatorial vision that excites me, which is around women's advocacy.

COX: Now, is there a common thread with regard to that advocacy, that is evident in the artwork that's part of the exhibit?

Ms. TOM: Yes. It's full of aspirations for what these women want to create for their future. Kind of - it takes them on a journey of what their life has been and the choices they've made. But then the visual aspect, or the writing aspect, turns into what they're hoping to achieve going forward with their lives. So it's identifying what's truly, truly important just to them alone.

COX: Tell me, what kind of women do we see in this exhibit and where do they come from?

Mr. TOM: Well, the women are identified as Asian-American, but some of them are first generation, some are fourth generation in this country. We actually - Chinese, Japanese, but we also this time have Vietnamese. We have someone from Indonesia, and another woman who's moved here from Mongolia. So it's really interesting to see the different art they bring to the space.

COX: Isabelle, you have an interesting background. You are Vietnamese, French and American. And from what I have read about your background, it seems as if you have had a very tough road to hoe. Someone tried to kill you, it says, that you were raped, that you considered suicide and might even have attempted suicide at one point, which suggests to me that your artwork would be dark. I know that there is one piece in particular that you did involving a rock. Is your artwork dark? And what is that rock about?

Ms. PELAUD: Initially, my first attempt was, I don't know if it's called dark, but initial attempt to pick some boulders, some rocks that each of the rocks stood for different kind of emotions that have had me down, like, sadness, anger, self-hate, guilt and fear. And what I was going to do with those rocks is, since I could not make them go away or destroy them, I was going to make them beautiful. I was going to put some oil on them. I was going to pay attention to them, giving some love and then place them on a big piece of wood.

And on a piece of wood I was going to make a bed feather so that to provide a support for them, so that if they could not - if I could not change the past, I could change the future. I could protect them from getting hurt again.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox and we're speaking with Cynthia Tom, curator of the new exhibit called "A Place of Her Own." Also with us, and we're talking to her right at the moment, one of the featured artists Isabelle Thuy Pelaud.

You were talking about, Isabelle, this rock on the ground as one of the items that you put together that are part of the exhibit, which by the way, our listeners will be able to go to by checking out our website. I'll give them the information about that in a second. There's another photo in the exhibit that is part of your work, Isabelle, I want to ask you about. It's the floating hammock from the ceiling. What's the story behind that?

Ms. PELAUD: Yes, well, again, that was a part of - it was contribution because when I went to them and I talked to them about my rocks, you know, on the ground, on this piece of wood, very heavy piece of wood, they kept pushing me and asking me, what about if you didn't have these heavy things? You know, where would you want to be? Imagine how life would be without those heavy emotions.

So that's what happened. I just let go of the rocks. And when I let go of the rocks, then this big piece of wood started to lift. And I remembered my mother and my father, there was quite a bit of domestic violence at home. And they were fighting a lot. My mother is from Vietnam, she's 13 years younger than my father. My father is French and he was I think victim of World War I, World War II. So what I did is get piece of shafting, wood shafting, and I painted each one of them, one dark - a dark one and a light one and then weaved them together.

And by weaving them together, I wanted to stop the fighting. I wanted to stop the fighting inside of me. Like, one side has to be destroyed for the other one to exist.

COX: Cynthia, for the person who comes to San Francisco, those who are able to do so to see this, or those who go online, what do you want or what do you expect the public's reaction to this kind of work to be?

Ms. TOM: The importance of "A Place of Her Own" as a visitor, it poses questions to you, because we do put up statements by the artists talking about where their work is coming from. And that's something that doesn't always happen. But it's very personal where it's coming from.

And what we're hoping is that it instills some critical thinking, creating a consciousness in your own life about how you work in the world and what you want to do in the world. So we're working with API Legal Outreach, which is a women's social justice agency, they deal with human trafficking and domestic violence; and Cameron House, which also provides women's services.

And they're seeing this as a project that can be taken far beyond just an art exhibit, but to work with clients. We have a girl scout troop that's done this project in their little hometown. But it is learning to think critically about what you want for your life.

COX: It sounds fascinating and some of the work that I saw online was very interesting and it was a lot more colorful than I thought perhaps it would be, given some of the background of some of the artists like Isabelle.

By the way, you can browse through photos of the artwork featured in the exhibit by logging onto our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on Programs and then click on TELL ME MORE.

Cynthia Tom is the curator of the new exhibit called "A Place of Her Own." And Isabelle Thuy Pelaud is one of the featured artists and a very interesting one she is, as well. They both joined us from NPR member station KQED in San Francisco. Cynthia, Isabelle, thank you for coming on.

Ms. TOM: Thank you, Tony.

Ms. PELAUD: Thank you, Tony.

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