Photo caption:  “Collect Calls” by Kathy Liao is now on display at the ArtXChange in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

“The Elles: Pompidou” show at Seattle Art Museum has come and gone, but it has reinvigorated an ongoing dialogue about women artists that continues in Seattle. Six talented, outspoken artists lend their feminist perspectives, each through her own cultural lens, in a provocative show at the ArtXchange in Pioneer Square, a gallery whose focus has been contemporary art from world cultures since 1995.

In immigrant cultures, native dress is revered as a connection to homeland heritage, and the Japanese kimono is no exception. The designs that adorn the fabric distinguish its value. Judy Shintani’s “Decontructed Kimonos” are hung as though in a shop or museum, displayed for their beauty, but instead, they resemble skeletal remains — their decorative features having been carefully cut out by Shintani and placed in a bowl below them like an offering. For Shintani the kimonos embody a growing disconnection between her and her ancestors. “The kimonos were given to me by friends who no longer wanted them,” she says. “As I was cutting out the designs, I wondered about who may have worn them, as kimonos are worn tight to the body and these came to represent real lives.”

“Engagement” by Beni O’Donnell. Now on view at ArtXChange.
“Engagement” by Beni O’Donnell. Now on view at ArtXChange.

Artist Kathy Liao wrestles with dual heritage — Japanese and Chinese. She grew up in Taiwan where her Chinese father still resides, and a major routine in her life is talking with him on the phone when he calls her. Old enough to appreciate these calls, even if reacting at times with ambivalence, she pays homage to her father with “Collect Calls,” a series of 50-inch tall woodcuts layered with monotype print and chine-collé — variations on the theme of her sitting in a in a dutiful posture talking with her dad at different times of the day and night. Liao says she likes to revisit her work to integrate new reflections on the tug-of-war between the cultural traditions she grew up with in Taiwan and those of the U.S. — the heart of the immigrant experience. “Anticipation” a mixed-media painting of her studio window bright with yellows, in front of which stands a translucent veil and dress hanging on a ladder. This serves as a symbol of optimistic anticipation of an unknown future that may or may not include a traditional marriage.

According to Beni O’Donnell, her oil painting, “Engagement,” is her way of reaching back to her homeland China, which she left when she was 17 to study art in Japan and then in the U.S. Interestingly, her given Chinese name means “home.” The painting is a self-portrait of her sitting between her aunts in an earlier era in China’s history. The scene evokes the tradition behind an arranged marriage. The garments worn by the women are celebratory, delineated in swirling brushstrokes of exquisite color, but the face of the bride-to-be betrays a look of subjugation. The magnolia trees in the background represent O’Donnell’s present life, in which she has decided to engage in painting full time.

“Deconstructed Kimonos IV” by Judy Shintani.
“Deconstructed Kimonos IV” by Judy Shintani.

Pakistani artist, Humaira Abid combines her miniaturist training and love of wood sculpting, for which she is well-known, to produce works that focus on feminist issues. Her “Istri” series, “Love Games,” cuts right to the chase. Irons with an array of handles lovingly and expertly carved in mahogany stand upright, displaying on their flat side miniature paintings that expose the pretext of romance.  In one such painting, men’s ties drape electrical wires that hover over a cabinet, where inside, a nude woman lies imprisoned on her back. “The word ‘Istri,’ means a smoothing iron, as well as woman/wife,” says Abid. Under the impression that all American women were living liberated lives, Abid says she was surprised when many confided to her how they felt tied down by their ironing chores.

Maura Donegan came of age during the feminist movement of the 1960s, when her peers criticized her for pursuing a traditionally female path of needlework, instead of breaking away from domestic life. But she found power in choosing her own path and following her desire to continue the stitching tradition begun by her great grandmother generations ago. Donegan embroiders silk organza squares with grids of rayon thread that create smaller square patterns — some containing random letters and others, words that spur personal memories of the viewer — almost like code. “People think of silk organza as being delicate like the fabric of memory, but it is really very strong,” Donegan says.

“Existence.” Now on view at the ArtXChange.
“Existence.” Now on view at the ArtXChange.

Two videos by Gazelle Samizay, who was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and raised in Pullman, Wash., captures the cultural expectations that leads to a young woman’s “sacrifice” as preparations for her wedding ensue. In “Upon My Daughter,” a young woman wearing her wedding dress lies on a rug while her female relatives quietly work on the dress’ elaborate embroidery. We see in her face a transformation from innocent expectancy to a discomfiting wonderment, as we begin to notice the sound of the thread passing through the satin fabric at a more furious pace, and the stitches begin to weave a web around the young bride-to-be until she ends tied up in a tangled cocoon. In “This Will Be the Last—,” a woman is wearing a pearl necklace hand washes a white sheet in a metal tub. Over time, it becomes more difficult and overwhelming as she tries to wring out the water, which begins spreading on the floor — a great metaphor for trying to make things right when it is too late.

It is evident that “the personal is political” and vice versa for these amazing artists. Their artistic explorations reveal the unique complexities their respective cultures bring to their artwork, and broaden the conversation to include different perspectives of feminist concerns. These haunting works are worth the trip to ArtXchange. Catch Women’s Work before March 16.

“Still Image from Upon My Daughter” now on view at the ArtXChange.
“Still Image from Upon My Daughter” now on view at the ArtXChange.

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