“I think it’s a general misconception that a Chinese young person would not be interested in Japanese art,” said Xiaojin Wu, a China-born Asian art curator with her doctorate from Princeton University in Japanese painting.
Just last year, Wu became the associate curator for Japanese and Korean art at Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM), which one of the world’s top Japanese art collections.
After graduating high school from her hometown of Hangzhou in the coastal province of Zhejiang, Wu began to take an interest in Japan when elements of Japanese pop culture such as the Walkman music player and J-pop were still at theirpeak in China. Only later, as she majored in Japanese studies at the prestigious Peking University, did she start taking a serious focus in Japanese art history. Thus began a transcontinental pursuit of her passion. After Beijing, Wu studied in Singapore and completed her master’s thesis on 14th century Japanese art among Singapore’s thriving culture of Chinese and Japanese influences. From there, Wu traveled back and forth from Japan and China before moving on to study at Princeton for her doctorate in Japanese painting. When asked about what got her interested in Japanese art, she immediately brightened.
“I wanted to know more about my neighbor’s [Japan’s] story,” she says.
Initially learning about Japanese culture had opened up new perceptions of her own Chinese cultural influence as well as differences within Japan. Wu began to become fascinated with the parallels and similarities between Chinese and Japanese art.
Wu has only just opened her first exhibit at SAAM. Having traveled to so many places in pursuit of her passion, Wu says the most impressive aspect of SAAM was the collection of textiles and the kimonos that “blew [her] away.” Being able to care for this world-renowned art collection has been really exciting for her thus far.
In the evolution of Japanese art, what direction does Wu think it’s going?
The tradition of visual story-telling has been practiced throughout the history of Japanese art and Wu sees Japanese narrative video art and photography emerging with potential and something she’d love to display in the future, she says. As for plans on upcoming exhibits, she looks to follow Japan’s art history in chronological order, examining its common motifs evolving and growing increasingly abstract.
Wu has mapped out an exhibit on the most traditional nature motifs such as birds, flowers and insects. As the curator, Wu is uses this theme to create an interesting narrative, molding the audience’s perspective to her vision.
After this exhibit, Wu worked on the well-received “Japanese Art Deco,” an exhibit at SAAM that celebrated the museum’s 80th anniversary and delving into Japanese contemporary art in the future.
Now she’s made her mark on three lauded SAAM exhibits: “A Fuller View of China, Japan and Korea,” “Hometown Boy: Liu Xiaodong” and “Inked.”
With Wu, history and drawing parallels within it is always important, as reflected in her current curatorial work. Down the road, she’s also eager to examine Japan’s “kawaii” or “cute” phenomenon and its appearance in art. She believes the key to understanding it is juxtaposing it with older Japanese pieces.
Though her path of study has lead her up to this point, Wu says there is still no equivalent Chinese language to English in describing the role, “curator.” As Wu says, the closest word in Chinese to “curator” would have to be the definition of “keeper,” the caretaker and protector of art pieces.
What does she enjoy most about her work?
“Well, of course, it’s being able to study and work with the art,”she says. According to Wu, Japanese art can be so reflective in her own Chinese history, that it’s also cross-cultural, allowing her to better understand her own roots and even more, her “neighbors” in Japan.
“A Fuller View of China, Japan and Korea” will be on display at SAAM through April 13, 2013. “Hometown Boy: Liu Xiaodong” and “Inked” will be up through June 29, 2014.