Last Thursday, the “Identities Unseen” art exhibition opened in Keefe Campus Center, expanding the conversation surrounding the invisibility of students of color on campus. The collection, curated by Ann Guo ’20, features student art that explores and celebrates Asian-American identities, narratives and experiences at Amherst. Featuring work from students Young-Ji Cho ’18, Sangmin Song ’19, Mashiyat Zaman ’18, Emily Ye ’20, Jane Kim ’20, Swati Narayan ’20, Shivani Patel ’21, Shreeansh Agrawal ’20E and Ludia Ock ’19, the exhibit showcases a diverse range of experiences and highlights the nuances within Asian and Asian-American identities. It will be open on both floors of Keefe until April 1.
This past summer, Guo worked at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, where she was involved in curating an exhibition, sponsored by The Getty, centering on art of the Chinese-Caribbean diaspora from the 20th century to the present day. Inspired by her time at the museum, as well as the joyous representation of Asian-American identity and experience in LA, Guo wanted to create a similar place for Asian and Asian-American students at Amherst to share their experiences through art.
“I hope that this actually serves as a platform for the expression and validation of Asian-American experience and identity at Amherst,” said Guo. The act of publicly sharing one’s experiences of invisibility and marginalization requires a great deal of mental and emotional labor, something that’s often unfairly expected of students of color. In curating this show, Guo doesn’t directly aim to educate a largely-privileged student body, but rather to reach out to those who have been previously unheard. “It’s not so much for the audience as it is for the community itself,” she said, “And of course the audience will learn — they had better”.
One of the artists who contributed work, Agrawal, aimed to address a reluctance to admit their own ignorance among people at Amherst, for whom “fear of saying something wrong overcomes the will to understand.”
He reflected on how “personal testimony is considered really important in the culture [at Amherst]. While this brings a tenderness to debates about culture, it also establishes the fear of saying something wrong. Many of my friends tiptoe around me when they ask me questions about home. I appreciate where they are coming from, but I sometimes wish they would be more honest about their ignorance. I don’t mind people not knowing things. I only mind people not learning.”
His piece that depicts a person looking up at a mandala, upon which two ogre-like individuals stand, was inspired by visiting his young cousins who immigrated to New Jersey and sympathizing with their parents. “They want their kids to assimilate in the American environment so that they’re not othered, but constantly feel guilt for not being able to give them a more ‘authentic,’ true-to-one’s-roots kind of life. It is a constant feeling of shame, like you deserted your own culture. I think that’s why I’m portraying those two figures in the painting as ogre-like and unattractive. It’s how they see themselves,” he said.
The conversation surrounding Asian and Asian-American identity is still developing at Amherst. At the exhibit’s opening night, Guo excitedly told attendees that an Asian-American Studies major is in its developmental stages and the school is hoping to invite a woman to teach courses in the major. “As you can see in the representation of the art and also [in] the people who came to help when the exhibition needed to get done, it was women who showed up, and that’s true amongst all communities of color,” Guo said in her closing statements. “Thank you especially to all the women of color in the Asian-American community who show up to make this happen.”