USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena reopens with new lens


As the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the world came to a halt last year, a worrying trend caught the attention of Bethany Montagano, director of the USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, and her staff. “We had a ‘Mulan’ movie poster on a bus stop outside the museum,” she said, “and on it was written in graffiti, ‘Kung flu canceled’.”

The sentence made a connection between COVID-19 and China, expressing what some people wanted for both. The pandemic prompted Disney to scuttle the film’s theatrical release, and the hostility expressed at such proximity to the museum alarmed staff. As part of USC, they knew of Asian students who were afraid to go out in public or even go to the grocery store.

“It was an impetus for us to launch a new initiative,” said Montagano, referring to the Pacific Asia Museum’s announcement last fall that intended to “deconstruct Orientalism through collection management, exhibitions and programming.

“We felt the urgency to do this because the oppressive colonial systems were really doing their wrong in the aftermath of COVID,” she said, “especially when it comes to Asian Americans and the colonial mark of poison projected on Asian Americans. “Tragically, the The March murders of six Asian women in Atlanta and increased acts of violence against Asian Americans across the country have only heightened the urgency.

The USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, will reopen on Saturday after a pandemic shutdown of more than a year.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

In two Zoom conversations, Montagano described efforts to rethink and reprogram the museum, which reopens on Saturday after it closed in the event of a pandemic. To begin with, the museum reviews the 15,000 objects in its collection. Curator Rebecca Hall, working with academics and community counselors, examines how they are classified and whether there are any inherent biases in how they are described or categorized. For example, the museum’s collection of prints by Paul Jacoulet – a Frenchman raised in the early 20th century in Japan whose work tended to exoticize Asian cultures – could in the future be classified as part of an educational collection. for use by USC professors.

Another task is to study the provenance, the history of the origin of the objects and how they were acquired. and transferred. This issue plagues Asian antiquities kept in foreign museums, as many artifacts were removed from their home countries before antiquities laws were enacted or enforced, or simply stolen from historic or sacred sites.

In 2008, the Pacific Asia Museum was one of four museums in Southern California raided in a federal investigation into illegally exported Asian antiquities; the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and the Mingei International Museum in San Diego then returned more than 600 objects to Thailand. A spokesperson for Asia Pacific said the disputed items from the Pasadena Museum’s collection had been “seized there” and to this day they are still waiting for the FBI to provide details for repatriation.

Montagano acknowledged that the Pacific Asia Museum has “objects that were obtained through colonial appropriation. We have heads upon heads in our collection. These statue heads and temple remains belong to things that are in Southeast Asia, don’t they?

She said the museum is working with researchers and making the collection available online “to help us with this project, hopefully find a link, so we can potentially make a correspondence.” When asked if the museum would automatically return the items if matches were found, Montagano said the institution would have a public discussion and appeal to the community to decide what to do. “This is how we decolonize our practices,” she said. “By sharing power, letting other people in.”

As museum staff consider how to present their permanent collection, they also want to refocus their temporary exhibits, regularly incorporating contemporary subjects. The museum was built on Asian art typically collected by Westerners in the 20th century (think Chinese ceramics from the Neolithic to the Qing dynasties and Japanese prints from the Edo period), but it was also one of the earliest museums. Americans to mount a contemporary Chinese. art exhibition, “Beyond the Open Door: Contemporary Paintings from the People’s Republic of China,” in 1987.

Today, he is committed to moving exhibitions away from stereotypes and adopting a broader and more complex view of Asian culture and identity. The current exhibition, “We Are Here: Contemporary Art and Asian Voices in Los Angeles,” which opened days before the pandemic ended, features seven female artists of Asian descent.

“The Asian experience and the Asian American experience are so flattened by the way we usually talk about it,” said Hall, who hosted the show. “As a curator, I know that artists can complement this in rich ways.”

A still of "Bojagi," a video illustration by Ahree Lee

An image of “Bojagi,” a video illustration by Ahree Lee, who took vintage home movies of Asian Americans and turned the images into video graphics with a kaleidoscopic effect.

(Ahree Lee)

She researched Asian artists living or working in Los Angeles and found that the work that particularly appealed to her was that of women artists. For her, it was important that “all works of art are rooted in the experience of the artist”.

Ahree Lee illustrates the range of media and topics of the show. Working in video, new media, and textiles, Lee creates art that feels abstract but becomes decipherable when you take a closer look or understand the code embedded in pieces.

Lee was born in Seoul and came to the United States as a child with her family. She graduated from Yale with a BA in English Literature and an MA in Graphic Design from the Yale School of Art. During a project at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Lee discovered a collection of bojagi, or Korean fabrics made by sewing together scraps. In her video “Bojagi (Memories to Light)”, she recreates vintage home movies of Asian-American families into quilt patterns using computer graphics. Set in motion, they resemble kaleidoscopes.

“Part of it was inspired by my identity as someone who worked in Silicon Valley and continues to work with technology,” Lee said. “I am also drawn to the arts and liberal arts, as well as science and mathematics – two different approaches to things, which do not have the same weight in society and which are often attributed to different sexes.”

The exhibition also includes small textile panels made by Lee on a loom, part of his “Pattern: Code” series. In the most complex piece, “Timesheet”, she tried to convey her daily life through pattern and weaving. “I have always been fascinated by knowing more about myself and following me,” she said. mentionned. For this project, she recorded hour by hour what she did each day for a week, categorizing the activities into eight categories, such as childcare, housework, and art. She then turned the graphic into a woven grid.

A photo of Ahree Lee's textile artwork

For her textile work “Timesheet”, Ahree Lee used a loom to create a visual representation of a week, with her activities recorded in eight color-coded categories.

(Ahree Lee)

She was surprised how much time she spent buying food, preparing it, cleaning up after meals.

“The other thing I learned is that the categories are a bit slippery,” she said. “When you work at home, there are a lot more layers to work with. So I work on the computer and I also take care of my daughter while she is on Zoom in her school. “

Another artist in the exhibition, Kaoru Mansour, is a painter and collage artist who often portrays human figures and flora, while his compositions incorporate what might be considered a traditional Japanese aesthetic of negative space. .

Mansour was born in rural Japan and came to the United States as an adult. Although she does not consciously try to insert autobiography into her work, her mixed media painting “Candy and Rain” uses old photographs of her family. At the bottom right are two girls, herself and her childhood pal, and at the top left is an older man in a formal morning suit, a man who is her great-uncle.

"Candy and rain" by Kaoru Mansour, a mixed technique on canvas.

“Candy and Rain” by Kaoru Mansour, 2019, 42 inches by 40 inches, mixed media on canvas.

(Kaoru Mansour)

The work of mixed media "Pineapple and succulents" by Kaoru Mansour

“Pineapple and Succulent” by Kaoru Mansour, 2017, 40 inches by 40 inches, painting and mixed media on canvas.

(Kaoru Mansour)

“Just my gut,” she said, “I saw the shape of these two girls as abstract shapes, and I reacted to the shape, to the mood of my great-uncle. Then she admits that the male figure can seem “very strict”, and “if you go far enough in the story at that point [Japan] was still a very chauvinistic country. This is part of a series of works in which she uses old photographs to recall the past, she said, a series caused by her father’s memory loss due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Most of her paintings reflect her penchant for abstract imagery, and she doesn’t think about her gender or cultural identity when working on it. “However, the way I use spaces can be very Japanese, and my artist friends say that too,” she said. The use of negative space is evident in “Candy and Rain” in which the figures stand against flat backgrounds, the girls standing on top of a group of colored circles, and the man on a cutout shape. that looks like a puzzle piece. In the panel painting “Fuji (mame)” (“Wisteria Pods”), a continuous wisteria vine is arranged horizontally, again on a flat background.

Hall saw “We are here” as a benchmark in the history of the museum.

“It’s an exhibition that has helped shape and change our future,” she said. “I love the diversity of our Asian communities and wanted to find a way to integrate it on the walls of our museums.”

Upcoming exhibits at the museum will include an installation by Nick Dong that incorporates themes of Buddhist spirituality and healing. On the occasion of a 50th anniversary performance in the fall, “Intervention: Perspectives for a New MAP,” artists and academics will reflect on the museum’s history and collection.

“We are here: contemporary art and Asian voices in Los Angeles”

Or: USC Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday; closes June 6

Admission: Pay what you want until June 6. Then $ 7 – $ 10; students and children 17 and under are free. Reservations required; face covers without vents mandatory for all visitors 2 years and older

Info: (626) 787-2680,

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