Indian artist Navjot and Taiwanese artist Wu Mali discuss art, feminism and social change at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM).

On 14 November 2012, multimedia artist Navjot and conceptual artist Wu Mali discussed the role of art as a catalyst for social change at SAAM, part of the institution’s Artist Introductions lecture series. Art Radar was at the event to learn more about the artists’ projects and what inspires them.

Navjot and Wu Mali at the Seattle Asian Art Museum Artist Introduction talk. Image courtesy of Art Radar.

Artists Navjot and Wu Mali, Artist Introduction series, Seattle Asian Art Museum, November 2012. Image by Art Radar.

For the lecture at SAAM, which concluded with a question and answer session moderated by Seattle’s Henry Art Museum Director, Sylvia Wolf, both artists introduced their extensive history of using art as a tool for social change.

Pioneers in eco-feminism, social change

During the lecture, both Navjot, born in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, in 1949, and Wu, born in 1957 in Taipei, discussed their experience in bringing art to disenfranchised populations and working for social change.

For Navjot, who graduated from the Sir J.J. School of Art in 1972 and Garhi Studios in 1981, this interest began as a student and still drives her work today. “I was very uncomfortable in art school when art was seen as an isolated activity,” she explained. “I always try to connect it with the larger audiences. I am interested in the complexity of interdependency. For the last five to ten years, I’ve been looking at the world, looking at sustainability. That’s what leads to my work.”

Navjot has worked with Adivasi artists and the Bastar craftswomen from central India and has participated in numerous exhibitions and community projects worldwide including Touch IV and Lacuna in Testimony.

Navjot, 'Mithi River Project', 2007. Image courtest of Navjot.

Navjot, 'Mithi River Project', 2007. Image courtesy the artist.

For both artists, working with gender is a central theme in many of their projects and installations. Controversial issues such as prostitution and an individual’s relationship and integration with the environment are woven into multi-media projects.

Wu, a graduate of Tamkang University and Dusseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, noted that her installations can inspire mixed reactions from audiences. “[In Taiwan], I think most of the women love it, but the male public, not necessarily. Sometimes I think the male audience hate the issues I try to raise, as [the issues] are quite confrontational.”

Knowing when to stop

As their projects are typically public and often complex to execute, both artists juggle the drive to illuminate an issue with recognising when a work is complete. To achieve the right balance, collaboration and listening closely to the people involved is crucial.

Wu, whose installations have been exhibited throughout the world and nationally at the Kuandu Museum of Fine ArtsTaipei Biennale and Taipei Fine Arts Museum, commented on her experience working on the Trekking the Plum Tree Stream Project (2010 to 2012), “I know the people, I know the issue. I just try to raise the issue. My work is about engaging the public and also the issue, not necessarily the problem itself. I usually set a time, let’s say two years, and concentrate on the project and see how far I can go.”

As Navjot elaborates, one has to be aware of one’s subjects regarding the conclusion of a project, “You reach a point where the people [you are working with] will not go beyond. At some point you stop there. So, one trusts [when to stop].”

Navjot, 'Mumbai Meri Jaan', 2004, video installation. Image courtesy of Navjot.

Navjot, 'Mumbai Meri Jaan', 2004, video installation. Image courtesy the artist.

With the conclusion of a project comes evaluation and retrospection. Was the installation a success and did the project change people’s attitudes towards an issue? According to Navjot, one must be cautious,

There is something very important to consider. When we look at these works outside of the immediate context, in the absence of the other parties, we don’t have their voices. It is a representation of that. Sometimes I find that this work should not be seen from this perspective. Instead of talking about outcome alone, what we need is to look at structural understanding of the processes and the change. Art doesn’t always bring change in a physical manner, but creates questions later.

Wu Mali, 'Formosa Club', 1998, installation view. Image courtesy of Wu Mali.

Wu Mali, 'Formosa Club', 1998, installation view. Image courtesy the artist.

Wu Mali, 'Edible Museum', 2008. Image courtesy of Wu Mali.

Wu Mali, 'Edible Museum', 2008. Image courtesy the artist.

Public projects: Key questions

Ultimately, the issues and the people involved intimately shape the project or installation.

“I always ask ‘What is this for?’, ‘What can art do?’ or ‘How can art function in society?’ I try to concentrate on those questions,” Wu explains, who in addition to her art practice teaches at the Graduate Institute of Interdisciplinary Arts, National Kaohsiung Normal University. “The problems and issues faced collaboratively are the toughest and quite diverse, so I try to learn from that and … bring dialogue to the community. I think that is what art is for.”

Following the SAAM lecture, Navjot and Wu participated in the conference, New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia and the World, held 15 to 17 November 2012 at the University of Washington.


Related Topics: art and the community, feminist art, Indian artists, Taiwanese artists

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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