Exploring Identity and Solidarity Through Art: Where Is Your Body Exhibition at SOMArts

By Stephanie Gancayco. Posted May 13, 2024

In 2024, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation in pop culture is reaching new heights – from actors like Ali Wong and Steven Yeun garnering Best Actress and Best Actor wins at the Golden Globes to K-Pop groups like ATEEZ playing prime time spots at Coachella. Amidst this cultural renaissance, the United States of Asian America Festival (USAAF) stands as a cornerstone event, celebrating the vibrant tapestry and nuanced stories of San Francisco’s AAPI communities. Hosted annually by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC), USAAF enters its 27th iteration with the theme “Be(long)ing Here,” inviting AAPI artists to explore the meaning of belonging in contemporary society for themselves and their communities. Since its inception in 1998, USAAF has been instrumental in showcasing both emerging stars and established talent, honoring the diverse histories, present impacts, and future visions of AAPI artists with roots connected to immigrant, refugee, and mixed-race experiences.

At the forefront of this year’s festival is its opening exhibition “Where Is Your Body,” curated by Delaney Chieyen Holton, which challenges viewers to reassess their relationship with their bodies and how it shapes their experiences in the world. Holton emphasizes the importance of engaging with the body beyond surface-level politics, delving into questions of labor, memory, and desire. Through the works of women/trans/queer artists of the AAPI diaspora, the exhibition highlights the body as a site of both vulnerability and resistance, offering a nuanced exploration of identity, solidarity, and the human form.

From left: APICC Artistic Director Melanie Elvena and curator Delaney Chieyen Holton. Photo: Joyce Xi.

“The exhibition I’m organizing at SOMArts, ‘Where is Your Body,’ invites community members to think about their bodies — what we use them for, and how they mediate relationships or the ways we move through the world,” Delaney Chieyen Holton says, “We are living in historic times, politically, and I want folks in our community to be equipped to engage meaningfully. I curated the show with the hopes that it could give our communities a chance to think about identity beyond representational politics, to see the ways our bodies are all vulnerable to, and thus dependent on, one another.”

The participating artists in “Where Is Your Body” employ a variety of mediums and approaches to confront these themes, from painting to photography and textile arts. One such artist is Indian born, San Francisco-based Nibha Akireddy, whose series of paintings entitled Musical Exotic recontextualizes iconic album covers to explore diasporic identity and cultural exchange. In the series, Akireddy transposes herself and other Asian diasporic artists into iconic album covers like “Get Your Freak On” by Missy Elliot, mirroring the sampling of South Asian music and imagery in the work of Black American neo-soul, hip-hop, and RnB artists in the 2000s led largely by producers like Timbaland and J Dilla. The work recontextualizes the albums’ hybrid aesthetics, inviting viewers to reflect on the fluidity of cultural forms and the interconnectedness of diverse communities.

Nibka Akireddy: Self Portrait, after “But You Cain’t Use My Phone” by Erykah Badu, 2023. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

Private Practices: AAPI Artist and Sex Worker Collection at the Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, is a living, growing collection developed alongside curator Coco Ono which addresses the intersection of anti-Asian violence, systemic misogyny and sex work. The collection amplifies the voices of AAPI sex workers, shedding light on the unique forms of racism and misogyny faced by this community and asking how artists, archives, and Chinatown community members can effectively collect together.

Viewers are transported into intimate moments that challenge stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding sex work, like Inbox: 8 Years of Performance for Camera by Kayla Tange and Luka Fisher, a series of instax photos created around a broader dialogue around performance documentation, gender construction, and the early loss of their mothers. Mariko Passion: From Whore Revolutionary to Tantra Goddess: Sacred Whore Revolution: 2008-2019 is essentially a WordPress blog set up on a laptop computer for our perusal, giving us a voyeuristic peek into the artist Mariko Passion’s ruminations on their personal transformation over the course of a decade.

EthicalDrvgs, 1 Hour Photo Print Set. Photo: Delaney Chieyen Holton.

Through pieces like Kim Ye’s “Complaint” and “Do You Know Who Your Neighbors Are? Flyer and Apartment Listing” viewers are confronted with the harsh realities of discrimination, displacement, and lack of safe spaces for Asian sex workers, prompting conversations about systemic inequalities and the need for solidarity. Comprised of a weighty 70-page tome of actual court documents from when the artist was sued in 2017, along with their landlord, for running a dungeon out of their back house, accompanied by photographs of a flyer by a disgruntled neighbor entitled Do You Know Who Your Neighbors Are? Adult Business Operating Out of Upstairs Apt/Studio Residence alongside a Craigslist listing for the artist’s apartment.

Cultural worker and lens-based artist Erina Alejo’s installation Hola Erina/Tia Rosa, are you home? / Si, estamos en casa (Yes, we are), offers a deeply personal exploration of family, memory, and sincerity. By transforming household objects and print on-demand memorabilia into artworks, Alejo invites audiences to consider the complexities of domestic life and the ways in which we navigate intimacy and connection within familial spaces. Enclosed within the doors spanning the length of the Alejo and Morales families’ apartment entryways are the artist’s productive failures to create sincere objects that celebrate their kinship with the Morales family, forming a tangible link between the artist’s personal history and broader questions of identity and belonging.

Erina Alejo:  Hola Erina/Tia Rosa, are you home? / Si, estamos en casa (Yes, we are), 2024. Doors and other houseware from the Alejo and Morales families’ apartments, print on-demand memorabilia (text correspondences on vinyl, blanket, puzzle pieces, pillows. Photo: Delaney Chieyen Holton.

“Where Is Your Body” encourages viewers to confront their own perceptions of identity and belonging, offering a space for reflection and dialogue. By centering the experiences of AAPI women/trans/queer artists, the exhibition challenges dominant narratives and celebrates the diversity of AAPI experiences. As USAAF continues to champion AAPI artists and their stories, it reinforces the importance of solidarity and community-building across diverse backgrounds by creating spaces for dialogue and expression. In a city known for its vibrant arts scene, USAAF stands as a testament to the power of creativity and cultural exchange, inviting audiences to celebrate the richness of AAPI culture and the resilience of its communities.

The exhibition “Where Is Your Body” runs through May 24th at SOMArts at 934 Brannan St in San Francisco, with a closing reception that same evening from 6-9PM. For more information about USAAF and other festival events, visit www.apiculturalcenter.org/usaaf2024.

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 Author’s Bio:

Stephanie Gancayco is a creative director, cultural producer and DJ whose work is rooted in bridge-building, healing, and community. They’re the founder & editor-in-chief of Hella Pinay, a print magazine and media platform centering Filipinx women, femmes, queer and TGNC folks that aims to build bridges across creative subcultures within the Filipina/o/x community and beyond.