Soft Power

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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In a departure from its typical retrospective or mid-career show of a sole contemporary or renowned artist, (typically in the past, a white male), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) is presenting new and recent works by 20 international artists who are still in their 30s and 40s.

Initially, “Soft Power” was a Reagan-era term used to describe the significant sway of a country’s “soft” assets, such as culture, political values, and foreign policies, which can often out-influence manifestations of violent power. Each of the artists in SFMOMA’s “Soft Power” uses their creations to explore and explain their roles as citizens and social, political, or environmental activists. Their goal is to educate and influence their viewers, in addition to their own desire for self-expression.

In 2017, Eungie Joo joined SFMOMA as its curator of contemporary art, a new role in supporting the museum’s mission to engage with younger, more global modern art and artists. She spent two years organizing this dynamic exhibit. Joo worked with the artists to help them produce art for SFMOMA that met the logical next step in their own careers as well as pieces that would be relevant to local audiences.

The resulting “Soft Power” is a large, impressive exhibit on two floors of the museum (4th and 7th). More than three-quarters of the pieces on display are commissions and new works that have never before been seen in the United States. Some of the art was actually created in the museum’s galleries. It’s a diverse collection of various forms of artistic media from many countries that focus on global issues, including technology, the environment, sexual orientation, family, gender identity, ethnicity, history, power, race, migration, water, music, and the creation of memory.  At the press preview, we were lucky enough to see 17 of the 20 artists introduce their work.

Duane Linklater, who lives and works in North Ontario, Canada, created colorful flat sculptures made from linen canvases and natural dyes that are shaped like indigenous Omaskeko Cree teepee covers. They include elements of 17th-century Dutch flower paintings, since those flowers found their way into English fabrics that were then traded with the Cree (4th floor). 

LaToya Ruby Frazier appeared at the preview with one of the subjects of her strikingly powerful thematic series of large scale gelatin silver print photographs, “Flint is Family, Part II”  about a Flint, Michigan black family that owns ancestral land in Mississippi (4th floor).

“The Specter of Ancestors Becoming” is Tuan Andrew Nguyen’s fascinating 1/2 hour four-channel video developed in collaboration with members of an unusual Vietnamese community in Senegal. Adults in the community had parents or grandparents who fought alongside the French in 1940s Vietnam as part of the West African colonial forces. After the 1954 French withdrawal, many of the soldiers brought their Vietnamese wives or children home to Senegal. Some children were not informed of their true heritage. The evocative video contains imagined conversations with or among parents and grandparents. (7th floor)

In conjunction with the exhibition, there will be many ancillary events, ranging from artists’ talks, videos, and day-long symposiums at which many of the artists will appear.

Being such a diverse and distinctive exhibition, some, if not all, of the creations at “Soft Power” will resonate with audience members, and, it is hoped, inform them and call them to action. This welcome departure for SFMOMA is a move in the right direction, although some of the pieces may ultimately be more transitory than those in the museum’s more typical solo retrospectives. But if the purpose of art is to introduce and educate and not just to present pretty pictures, “Soft Power” is a big success.

By Emily S. Mendel


©Emily S. Mendel 2019    All Rights Reserved

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