The Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, November 6, 1998, Page 40, Weekend section/ Art

Ethnic Identity
By Edward J. Sozanski
Inquirer Art Critic

"A Sense of Self: Contemporary Ethnic Women Artists” is an exhibition that pushes several sensitive buttons. Through the work of 18 women from the Philadelphia region, it examines the compelling attraction of ethnic identity. And then it stirs the kettle more vigorously by addressing the problems of being female in mostly nonwhite cultures.

“Ethnic” in this show doesn’t mean what it once did. With the exception of Gina Michaels, who is Jewish (is Jewish still “ethnic”?) the artists in this show at the Balch institute are of African, Asian, American Indian and Spanish ancestry. This is a show about being nonwhite (or perceived as such) and female, both in the parent culture and in American society. It’s not always a comfortable position. The visitor learns this less from the art, which ranges from painting to installation, as from the artists’ statements, which cocurator Katheryn Wilson elicited in interviews.

One must absorb these commentaries to grasp the message. The tone of the exhibition is assertive, demonstrative, and occasionally even combative. None of the 18 artists is using the show to work out identity problems. Quite the contrary, they speak confidently about who they are and what they value.

Someone for whom ethnic identity isn’t a compelling issue might conclude that some artists romanticize the virtues of “root cultures”—whatever they might be. But then, ehtnic consciousness does tend to create nostalgia for the good old days, where hearts were pure and people were more in tune with nature.

Katie Schuele, a Navajo who was adopted by a white couple, is one artist who speaks with such a voice. Her dreamy Western landscapes in charcoal and pastel express her reverence for the Navajo experience. Not all evocations of ethnicity are positive, however. Mei-ling Hom’s installation, 26 ceramic heads juxtaposed against several bundles of thistles, is meant to symbolize the lower status accorded to female children in Chinese culture.

The harshest voice in the show belongs to Yasmin Ines Hernandez. One of her paintings attacks “the colonial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico.” Hernandez extends this colonialism first to the sexual exploitation of female “political prisoners” and then to a more general oppression of Puerto Rican women by men.

Contrast this attitude with that of Rosetta Williams, who, through paintings such as The Lovers, expresses a strong, positive self-image. Williams, “a 37 year-old black lesbian, feminist, peoplist, writer, poet, artist and painter,” can make a skeptic believe in the restorative power of ethnic tonic.

Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. 18 S. 7th St. Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Admission: $3 general, $2 for senior citizens, students and children under 12 (free admission from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays). Through Dec. 31. Phone 215-925-8090, ext. 226.

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