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Museum of Ventura County Seriously Mishandles Asian Pacific Exhibition

Museum of Ventura County

Tiger Huang, a long-time artist of considerable standing in the Ventura arts community presented a very special and significant installation piece at the Museum of Ventura County in conjunction with its “I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story” this last weekend [18-19 June].   It was a beautiful installation, including a well-done, mesmerizing sound-scape.

Trouble is, and this is just the beginning of the trouble, Tiger’s name and the piece itself are not  mentioned anywhere in the Museum’s website or write-up of the exhibition. This is not to mention that though it was a major piece, and certainly time-consuming to produce and install, it was only up for 48 hours.  The piece is one of the most significant installation pieces any artist has ever done in Ventura, yet,  by the time Thursday rolls around, as far as the Museum goes, it might as well not have existed at all.

Unfortunately this neglect is symptomatic of a wider and perhaps deeper attitude revealed throughout this exhibition.  While it is accepted that it is a historic exhibition, and thus, presumably, about things that happened “at another time” or “elsewhere”, it does contain references to contemporary Asian Americans and does claim to be about culture and the “Asian Pacific American story”, and it is in a museum that shows visual art and does include some very fine pieces of visual art by Ventura-based artists.  All that being said, the exhibition is extremely disturbing in what it does not show and in certain aspects of what it does show.

Besides the neglect or seeming marginalization of the installation by Tiger Huang above, it does things like mention the Hmong Writers group, even pictures some of them, but does not name any of them. I guess they are still not considered important enough to be named, But that is but one example of many.

It also mentions two of the most ambitious anthologies of Asian American writers, but, again, fails to mention one of the writers by name. As far as visual artists, it fails to mention any of a long list of Asian American visual artists, some of whom have been major contributors to American culture, such as Maya Lin, George Tsutakawa, let alone the Paul Horiuchis  and others who have contributed to our culture and especially West Coast culture. It mentions actors, but not George Takai. It mentions that Asian Americans have been a part of our history and politics but does not even mention or name Daniel Inouye or give any examples, or maybe I missed their names amongst all the platitudinous verbiage.

This is important. As has been discussed extensively in post-War criticism and critical studies, to not name, to remain nameless, is one of the more insidious forms of marginalization. To not even  be named in many ways is far worse than, say, a direct attack.  Namelessness, as the philosophers say, confines one to the status of the Other, the nameless other. The one without status or access to rights. The nameless one who cannot have a story. It sets one outside history.  Not a good thing in an exhibition supposedly about history and the telling of people’s stories.

The local museum, the Museum of Ventura County, besides showing Tiger’s work, also shows some fine examples of other Ventura county-based visual artists.  This is a test: a special commendation to any reader who can find their names on the Museum’s website or in the Museum’s exhibition promotional materials. 

Speaking of names and naming, as for the Museum’s website presentation for the exhibition, the only names to be seen are those of the benefactors.  We can’t know the names of the artists, or the Asian Americans who contributed so much to our culture, but we are told the names of those museum members who donated money for the exhibition. They know the importance of being named, it seems.

Then there is the presentation of history. The mention of the Japanese-American internments during World War II and their significance is so brief and bare as to be almost insulting. This is an entire minority group that was not only imprisoned without due process, but their businesses, land, savings, possessions, and wealth were confiscated as well. Each was only allowed to keep what they could carry with them.  Some of their sons fought in the war--with the Japanese-American regiments fighting on the Western Front in Europe experiencing some of the highest casualty rates--and one of the highest rates of citations for bravery and heroism [citations that were not always honored, and in some cases upgraded and expanded only recently after many years of review], yet their families remained in concentration camps until the Armistice.

The Chinese and other Asian minority contributions to building the railroads and other infrastructure of the Western United States is mentioned, but the near-slave wages and in some cases actual use of slavery and other labor abuses is quickly glossed over.  And so are social issues such as the widespread housing discrimination in the West.  And on it goes.

The exhibition’s website cites curator, Lawrence-Ming Búi Davis, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Initiative coordinator, as saying “I Want the Wide American Earth: is a moving, dramatic and evocative narrative of Asian Pacific American history and culture.”

What it is, is one of the most white-washed presentations of Asian Pacific American History imaginable, and an astoundingly lame presentation of Asian Pacific cultural contributions.  It shows very little effort to dig into the history or stories of the people who gave significant contributions to the Asian Pacific cultural and political experience. It reveals a heavy preference for gloss over grit.

I don’t care who the curator is, the exhibition, as presented at the Museum of Ventura County is not just a little off, it is outrageously off.  Disturbingly off. Of the some dozen panels explaining historical key points, at least three were patronizing at best.  The show is, on the whole, simplistic, intellectually and historically dishonest, and disturbingly narrow-minded. 

Shame on the Museum, shame on the Smithsonian. The treatment of our local artists, while it is great that they are showing at the museum--and all of them deserve to be--is woefully inadequate and insufficient.  The whole thing reads like a guilt-ridden left-handed corrective.  

To be clear, the actions of the local curator, Anna Bermudez, are not at fault here. That the local curator effort brought in Tiger and local artists into this endeavor is a good thing.  This is a problem of execution and ultimate responsibility thus lies with the execution, which in most cases means the Director of the Museum.  In the case of the Museum of Ventura County that means the CEO. 


 I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story

Created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). Supported by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Curated by Lawrence-Ming Búi Davis, Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Initiative coordinator.

On exhibit at the Museum of Ventura County June 18 – August 28, 2016

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