Art as Diplomacy: An inspired curator at Smith College bridges American and Asian ideologies through images

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    Yao Wu, curator of Asian art at the Smith College Museum of Art, talks about the exhibit she put together, “Modern Images of the Body from East Asia.” At left is a work by Chinese artist Xu Wenhua titled "Volleyball (To Win for the Motherland and People Brings the Biggest Happiness).” GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

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    "Donkey Riding," 1906 photo by Yamamoto Sanshichiro of Japan. The photo is part of the Smith College Museum of Art exhibit "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia." GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Chinese Musicians,” photo by an unknown artist working in China in the late 19th century. The image is part of the Smith College Museum of Art exhibit “Modern Images of the Body from East Asia.” GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A woodblock print, circa 1895, by Japanese artist Kobayishi Kiyochika depicting fighting in the First Sino-Japanese War, of 1894-95. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Yao Wu, curator of Asian art at the Smith College Museum of Art, walks over a projected map of countries and regions of East Asia at the entrance to the her exhibit, "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia." GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Detail from the introductory panel to the Smith College Museum of Art exhibit "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia." The title includes the character at the top that is common to East Asian languages and refers to the material existence of a person. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    "May," an oil on glass painting by an unknown Chinese artist, circa 1789-1801, that’s part of "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia,” and exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Sons of Joseon: Squirt Water Not Bullets!” a 2013 acrylic on canvas work by Korean-American artist Mina Cheon (aka Kim Il Soon). GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “YouandI,” a 2015 glazed porcelain work by Korean-American artist Jiha Moon. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Nam June Paik. American, born Korea. 1932-2006. "Internet Dweller: btjm.twelve.jhgd", 1997. In background are two works by Takano Miho, born Japan, 1971. "Robot Girl (Pink)" and "Robot Girl (Blue)", both 2006. Stoneware, clay slip, enamels and metal. Included in the Smith College Museum of Art exhibit "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia". Photograph taken on Thursday, March 22, 2018. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

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    "Robe," a nettle fiber woven garment with indigo stripes and indigo dyed cotton cloth applique, made by the Ainu people of Sakhalin Island. late 19th century.  GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Yao Wu, who’s been curator of Asian art at the Smith College Museum of Art since 2015, has lived in the United States for the better part of the last 14 years and sees herself as something of a bridge between China and the U.S. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Yao Wu, who’s been curator of Asian art at the Smith College Museum of Art since 2015, has lived in the United States for the better part of the last 14 years and sees herself as something of a bridge between China and the U.S. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Yao Wu, first-ever curator of Asian art at the Smith College Museum of Art, is has put together the museum’s current main exhibition, "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia." GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Serve the People,” 1993 acrylic over four color photomechincal print on paper by Zhang  Hongtu. Image courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • “Untitled, from The Schoolgirls Project (22),” 2000-2001 photo by Nikki S. Lee. Image courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • “We’re All  in the Same Boat,” 2002 digital C-print by Wu Tien=chang. Image courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

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    Visitors to the Smith College Museum of Art look at photographs by South Korean photographer Park Chan-kyong that are part of the exhibit "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia." GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Visitors to the Smith College Museum of Art look at artwork from the exhibit "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia." In the foreground is "Serve the People," a 1993 work by Chinese artist Zhang Hongtu. GAZETTE STAFF/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Visitors to the Smith College Museum of Art examine artwork from the exhibit "Modern Images of the Body from East Asia." GAZETTE STAFF KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 4/12/2018 4:39:02 PM

‘It’s thematically oriented,” said Yao Wu, wearing a plaid blazer and sneakers, as she gestured to the gallery walls. “And we’ve used art from several different mediums to try and tell the story.”

Wu was in her element as she made her way recently through the exhibit she’d put together at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA). The curator of Asian art at the museum was explaining that the first part of the show, “Modern Images of the Body From East Asia,” is dedicated to material from the late 19th century, including photographs, ceramics and paintings.

Yet a fair amount of that art, particularly photographs, Wu noted, was actually made by Westerners who were recording their impressions of Asians for audiences back home. Since significant parts of Asia were then ruled or dominated by Western countries, a lot of Asian art was initially filtered through the lens of colonialism — thus the title for this section of the show, “Bodies of the Other.”

“It was common for [Western photographers] to create studio portraits of Asians for things like souvenir albums,” said Wu, as she stood before a black-and-white portrait of Chinese musicians, seated rather stiffly, with their instruments. “There was a certain amount of stereotyping.”

For Wu, a native of China who is the Smith museum’s first-ever curator of Asian art, talking to visitors — students and faculty, especially — about these aspects of history is one of the most appealing parts of the job. She sees herself as something of a bridge between the United States and China, one whose role is not just to bring greater awareness to Asian art but also to help museum visitors see both the differences and the common ground between the two countries.

“I feel cultural understanding is so important,” she says. “I feel it’s a big part of my job to enhance the mutual understanding of different cultures.”

Indeed, Wu gives a diplomatic answer when asked about the differences she sees between China and the U.S., at a time when the two countries have been doing a fair amount of economic saber rattling following President Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on certain Chinese goods.

In fact, having lived in the U.S. pretty continuously since coming to Williams College in 2005 to get a master’s degree in art history, Wu, who speaks English and Mandarin, is comfortable saying that beyond the headlines of U.S.-China tension over trade deficits, tariffs, and other issues, American and Chinese people share many of the same values.

“I don’t feel there’s necessarily a big distinction in life between here and there,” she says. “Regardless of where you are, human experience is just human experience.”

Still, she’s aware of the greater impact that China is having in the world today, and she’s excited about bringing new Asian art to SCMA as well as showcasing some of the museum’s own considerable holdings.

Her work is also part of a sustained commitment SCMA has made in the past 15 years to expanding exhibitions of Asian art and making it available to students and professors for their classes. The collection is expanding, in turn, as Smith opens its doors to its highest levels ever of international students, most notably Asian students, with over 150 from China alone.

As Karen Kristof, senior associate director of admissions at Smith, puts it, China’s ever-growingprominence in world affairs “makes it part of the new frontier for us. It’s important that the college have a strong connection there.” 

Expanding the focus

Wu, who grew up in Wuhan, the largest city in central China, arrived at Smith in the fall of 2015 to fill the new position of curator of Asian art, created by a donation by Smith alum Jane Chace Carroll. Her appointment was just the latest step SCMA had taken since the early 2000s to revamp its approach to Asian art.

As SCMA Director Jessica Nicoll explained, the museum had completed a significant expansion and renovation in 2003. As part of its reopening, museum staff, working with some alumnae, developed a long-range plan to increase the collection of, and emphasis on, non-Western art.

“There was a belief that we needed to change, to become more global in scope, both because of changes in the art world and the increase in international students at the college,” she said.

Since then, SCMA has increased its collection of Asian art in part through some generous donations from alums, Nicoll says; in 2013, the museum also marked the 100th anniversary of acquiring its first art objects from Asia with a special exhibit, “Collecting Art of Asia.”

Nicoll says SCMA relied on a number of consultants, including Samuel Morse, Amherst College professor of the history of art and Asian languages and civilizations, for help in making some of these changes. The message those consultants delivered, Nicoll adds, was clear: The museum needed dedicated gallery space and a curator for Asian art to do the subject real justice, rather than relying on periodic Asian art exhibits.

Fortunately, Nicoll says, SCMA received donations that enabled it both to hire Wu as a curator and to open the Carol T. Christ Gallery, named after the past Smith president, as a permanent space for Asian art.

“All of these steps happened more rapidly than I expected,” said Nicoll, who notes SCMA now has over 2,000 pieces of Asian art in its collection.

For Wu, though she grew up doing drawing, watercolor painting, and ink-brush painting, working in the arts was not something she necessarily aspired to when she was younger. Her parents, who were engineers, gave her the option of attending a foreign language junior high school, where she studied English with teachers from Australia, Canada and the U.S. She later attended Fudan University in Shanghai and majored in English literature.

However, she also took studio art and art history classes along the way, including during a junior year abroad at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Eventually, she thought art history might be worth further study: “It combined my interest in different things. I liked the idea of looking at art from historical perspectives, from humanistic perspectives.”

But it was after getting her master’s degree in 2007 from Williams College that Wu really found her calling. Through various fellowships and curatorial positions she held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, at Stanford University (where she’s a Ph.D. candidate in art history), and at Mass MOCA, she came to enjoy the mix of the study of art, interaction with museum visitors and travel to other museums, art conferences and workshops.

“I like talking to people,” she says.

And at Smith, both she and Nicoll say, Wu is one of a very small number of dedicated curators of Asian art at U.S. liberal arts college museums. “We’re very fortunate to have  Yao,” said Nicoll.


Looking at bodies

Though she has curated and assisted with some smaller exhibitions at the college, “Modern Images of the Body From East Asia,” which opened in February and runs through late August, is Wu’s first major curatorial work at SCMA. And given the disparate items in the museum’s Asian collection, she has been able to assemble an exhibit, Nicoll says, “with a really strong cohesive element to it.”

The full title of the show, Wu notes, includes a character that’s an important term commonly used, in varied forms, in East Asian languages (Chinese, Japanese and Korean) to connote the material existence of a person. In that sense, as exhibit notes explain, the show explores “modern and contemporary portrayals of physical appearances in East Asia” and how these images symbolize identities, reflect socio-political changes, or serve as a means of artistic expression.

The exhibit section “Bodies at War,” for instance, looks at the long history of conflict in East Asia over the past 100-plus years, including the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, World War II in China, and the Korean War. For instance, three haunting photographs by South Korean artist Park Chang-kyong, of cemeteries and burial grounds in South Korea, near the DMZ, the guarded border barrier between the two Koreas, attest to the continued tension and separation of families on the Korean peninsula.

Then there’s the political pop-art painting by Korean-American artist Mina Cheon (a.k.a. Kim Il Soon), “Sons of Joseon: Squirt Water Not Bullets!” which offers a more satiric take on divided Korea. At the center of the painting is an image of the artist as a military commander, pistols in both hands, flanked by a double image of her son holding a pistol.

American audiences, Wu notes, tend to be aware of the story of divided Korea “but they don’t realize World War II really began” with the Japanese invasion of China in the early-to-mid 1930s, well before war erupted in Europe or Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor in 1941. “That’s one of the points I like to make in the exhibit.”

The exhibit also considers, through varied artworks, the rise of national identity in East Asia. The last section, “Bodies in Transformation,” is composed of more abstract pieces, such as a male figure made of painted rubber; it’s an examination of how some Asian art today is not specifically “Asian,” but rather reflects the way many national boundaries and definitions have been bypassed in the digital age.

“The world is becoming smaller in some ways, more interconnected,” said Wu. At SCMA, she added, “We’re trying to build on those connections.”

Going international

Karen Kristof, the Smith admissions official, says those connections are being felt elsewhere at the college. Though Smith has always sought to bring international students to campus, she says, that effort has expanded considerably in the new century, especially in the past several years.

Today, she notes, about 15 percent of undergraduate enrollment at Smith — roughly 400 women — is composed of international students, with 70 percent of that figure representing students from Asia. And of those Asian students, the largest number — over 150 — comes from China. There’s also a significant number of students from South Korea. 

Kristof says it makes sense for Smith to cultivate increased ties to China and other Asian countries, given the region’s growing prominence in world affairs. Recruiting international students is one way to do that, just as offering a growing number of applicable courses, such as Asian studies, is another.

But in recent years, she adds, applications from China have “exploded,” evidently a function of a new generation of educated Chinese who want their children to have a broader educational experience than they themselves may have had. “This generation has more money, and they see different opportunities for their kids, like the chance to boost their English language skills,” says Kristof, who has made numerous recruiting trips to China for the college.

And, she notes, having Chinese students who can pay their way at Smith allows the college to offer financial aid to other international students from countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, where women traditionally have had less access to education and professional careers.

Nicoll, the SCMA director, says the museum’s increased attention to Asian art is particularly important, given the growing number of Asian students on campus.

“A question we always look at is ‘How does the museum reflect and serve the community?’ ” she says. “And how do we support the teaching of students on campus? If Asian students find things in the museum that reflect their experiences, their culture, that’s a big plus.”

Wu agrees — with a caveat. She’s happy to be able to connect with Chinese and other Asian students at Smith. But just as importantly, she hopes her work will continue to draw American and other Western students to Asian art — building on her own connections to the two worlds she straddles. 

“Anything I can do to build greater cultural understanding is so important to me,” she said.   

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at














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