Suchitra Mattai: “Reorient” at Wing Luke explores link between art and healing

Kai Curry, Northwest Asian Weekly, June 9, 2022


In troubled times, art can be a means of healing in both the individual and society at large. Wing Luke Museum’s upcoming exhibition, “Reorient: Journeys Through Art & Healing,” unites four established artists who have in-depth experience with the power art holds to help navigate life’s challenges. Guest curator Lele Barnett brings together these artists and their work with her passion for stories of immigration and diaspora, particularly in the Asian community.


“I believe strongly that the act of creating art is healing and all of these artists have been doing that with a lot going on in their lives,” said Barnett. The artists Barnett chose approach their art with a spirit of experimentation and exploration, often employing unusual materials and methods, which has made their work unique and allowed them to work through the personal and collective pain attached to their stories of relocation from their home countries and “reorientation” into a new country and culture.


Suchitra Mattai, for instance, speaks in her work “about healing the pain of her ancestors” by weaving saris together, Barnett explained.


“Art heals both in the making and in the viewing. It creates a space for empathy and understanding,” said Mattai, who struggles with bi-polarism. “The process of making art has offered me an effective, emotive, and unparalleled path towards healing. I think many people who experience mental illness also experience shame. Sharing our experiences makes us realize how common these diseases are and hopefully reduces the stigma associated with them.”


Mattai recognized potential multiple meanings in the show’s title: “Reorient” is it to find a new direction? Is it about the mostly-abolished terms “orient” or “oriental?” Both.

“The title, to me, references historic Western ‘orientalism,’ the lens once used to view the ‘East,’ and asks us as a society to reflect on and reimagine the way that we view Asians and Asian Americans.”


Jean Nagai, Global Power (Courtesy of Jean Nagai and Wing Luke Museum)


As Barnett prepared the exhibition, each artist fell into place when she realized connections between them. Jean Nagai has spent a great deal of time on issues of social injustice, as well as mental health. Barnett recalled seeing Nagai speak on a panel when he was living in Los Angeles.


“At the time, he was bottling up smog from his exhaust pipe…and painting with it.”

Smog, pumice, Nagai employs nontraditional materials to make a point about serious issues such as “the trauma of being a part-time migrant worker, or the crushing force of corporations and their manipulation of our government to destroy our sense of self, time, and energy.”


Nagai finds the show’s title very triggering. The works he contributed address the process of “reorientation” that immigrants go through.


“We try to learn the language, we learn the job, the games, or clothing, etc.…We adapt to connect or to camouflage ourselves.” Nagai has held several migrant jobs, such as with the fishing industry in Alaska or trimming weeds in California. He considers his paintings in the exhibit “an homage to the true ‘global power’ of this planet, who are the workers who strive to have a better life for themselves and their family.”


Victor Kai Wang, Crystal Rainbow (Courtesy of the artist and Wing Luke Museum)


Barnett first came up with the idea for “Reorient” some years ago. COVID-19 and other considerations got in the way. She feared that one of the artists she wanted to spotlight, Victor Kai Wang, now 88, might be unable to see the fruits of their labor. Wang, who has not often shown his works to the public, was very humble in his approach to the exhibition.


“He didn’t want fame. He just wanted his work to be seen and experienced,” Barnett shared. Wang experienced the Cultural Revolution firsthand. In the 1980s, he brought his family to Seattle, where he ended up raising his two sons alone, due to his wife’s mental trauma resulting from her experiences in the manual labor camp in China.


“Victor had to ‘reorient’ himself to the West with his roots from the east and blend the cultures, as well as art forms, in a way that makes sense to him,” Wang’s son, Will Wang Graylin, explained. “Through experimentation and living day to day over the decades here in America, he was able to express himself through his art in new innovative ways that affected those around him.” Like Nagai and Mattai, Wang has been open to experimentation with his art, and the crucial connection of art to healing.


“Art is his life from a very young age, and his devotion to it was unending. It gave him meaning that many others could not comprehend,” Graylin said. In hard times, whether in China or the United States, Wang turned to his art in a perennial search for beauty. He has never been averse to using unusual materials, as attested to in the exhibition, such as when he made art on rice sacks during the Cultural Revolution; or, after working in photo correction, he started his “marking color” paintings on photo paper.


As Barnett recalled, Wang and the fourth artist in “Reorient,” Tuan Nguyen, were “experimenting with unique materials and finding joy there, taking that pain and turning it around in this act of creating.”


“My recent ‘pain body’ work in the show is a kind of material manifestation of societal intergenerational trauma,” explained Nguyen. “For me, the making of the work is the first step towards forgiveness, healing, and love.”


A child of the Vietnam War, Nguyen has also experienced the “societal violence, racism, trans and homophobia, misogyny, war, etc. currently happening in the United States that is affecting us all” and considers his art practice one of the tools in his toolbox to get through it all—“an important one…I gravitated towards art at an early age as it was a way for me to access the larger world and to dream and imagine a better world. It was also a way for me to carve out a space for myself and for things that didn’t fit into existing categories.”


Barnett is excited to show some of these works for the first time. “Seattle needed to see it.”


“Reorient” runs from June 10 to May 14, 2023 in Wing Luke’s George Tsutakawa Art Gallery.

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