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My Turn

by Dmae Lo Roberts

Conceptual artist Roberta Wong is seen in front of her "Chinks" installation. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Pictured is current Creative Laureate of Portland, Subashini Ganesan. (Photo/Intisar Abioto)

From The Asian Reporter, V31, #5 (May 3, 2021), pages 6 & 7.

Two notable women

For the last 23 years, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing thousands of artists locally and nationally for Stage & Studio. Recently I had lively conversations with two notable women for the podcast: Roberta Wong and Subashini Ganesan. One has had a lifelong impact on local arts and Chinatown history; the other is currently working as the Creative Laureate of Portland.

I spoke with conceptual artist Roberta Wong on March 15, 2021, the day six Asian women and two others were killed in Atlanta, Georgia. We talked about her earlier work that challenged the stereotypes of and racism aimed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Sadly, her work is still relevant considering the rise of anti-AAPI hate and violence across the U.S.

Wong really shook up audiences with her art installations during the ’80s and into the ’90s. In "All Orientals Look Alike," she put photos of Asian Americans together on an altar and dared people to tell them apart. Her "All American" piece featured a chopping block with an Asian man’s queue severed by a cleaver. That piece still strikes a nerve in me every time I hear about another incident of anti-Asian racism. With "Chinks," she created her largest installation: A nearly five-foot high stack of library books with holes to indicate the lack of education on AAPI — and really all multicultural — history. Her work directly defies peoples’ concepts of what it means to be Asian American. Wong even contested an assumption in a grant proposal to the Metropolitan Arts Commission (the precursor of the Regional Arts & Culture Council) that slated all Asian artists under the "folk arts" category.

As the daughter of a family that for decades owned and operated the Tuck Lung restaurant in Chinatown (until its closure in 1991, according to Wong), Wong grew up working in the kitchen as support staff until she went to college in 1975. It’s no small wonder that as an artist she also gravitated toward supporting other artists by volunteering at nonprofits such as the rental sales gallery at the Portland Art Museum. A few years later she was approached about starting a new Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) arts gallery at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center (IFCC).

For 15 years, Wong operated and curated the art gallery at IFCC, back when it was a vibrant multicultural arts center that also produced a full season of theatre and offered neighborhood youth arts programs and summer camps. Even after IFCC closed its programming, Wong remained an advocate and supporter of other artists as well as for the preservation of Chinatown history. Most recently, she worked with artist Horatio Law, who curated Wong, Ellen George, and Lynn Yarne in an exhibition titled "Descendent Threads" at the Portland Chinatown Museum, where she is now an arts adviser.

Another artist I felt fortunate to visit with recently is Subashini Ganesan. She’s an artist, arts administrator, and the current Creative Laureate of Portland. In 2018, Ganesan was selected as the first woman of color to represent the city’s creative community. As the cultural ambassador of Portland, she conducted surveys to help artists define the need for affordable creative spaces, organized arts and culture community events (including the "Walk with Refugees and Immigrants"), and co-founded and organized a COVID-19 emergency relief fund for artists and the struggling art community between March and July 2020.

Ganesan choreographs and performs original dance drawn from her foundation in Bharatanatyam. Over the years, her original works have been presented by local arts organizations such as the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), Performance Works NW, Ten Tiny Dances, Portland Center Stage, and Third Angle New Music.

In 2010, Ganesan founded New Expressive Works (N.E.W.), a performing arts venue in Portland that celebrates multicultural independent performing artists who teach, are in residency, or create new works. She also started a residency program at N.E.W. that offers eight choreographers six months of free rehearsal space, a stipend, and an opportunity to showcase their new works.

An unpaid position with a stipend for expenses, her role as Creative Laureate of Portland has allowed her to advocate for arts practitioners and work to bring together funders, business people, and artists to improve the health of the arts community. She’ll step down on June 30, 2021 as the city searches for its next Creative Laureate. We were lucky to have her, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, which has devastated most of the arts.

During this Heritage Month 2021, I want to celebrate these two notable women in the arts, but also all AAPI women whose history is often untold despite their undeniable contributions to our community. To listen to both interviews, please visit <>.

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