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