Timely and provocative, SOFT POWER is an exhibition about the ways in which artists deploy art to explore their roles as citizens and social actors. Appropriated from the Reagan-era term used to describe how a country’s “soft” assets such as culture, political values and foreign policies can be more influential than violence or coercion, the title SOFT POWER suggests a contemplation on the potential of art and offers a provocation to the public to exert their own influence on the world. The exhibition opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) on October 26, 2019 and remains on view through February 17, 2020.
Organized by Eungie Joo, curator of contemporary art, and presented exclusively at SFMOMA on two floors of the museum, the exhibition features new and recent work by 20 international artists working in 12 countries. More than three quarters of the works in SOFT POWER are commissions and new works never before presented in the United States. Taken together, the works demonstrate what cultural theorist, filmmaker and catalogue contributor Manthia Diawara has called a solidarity between intuitions — a concept that acknowledges the complexity, darkness and opacity from which our reality emerges — the poetry and imagination of our differences. According to Joo, “Professor Diawara’s solidarity between intuitions expresses how specific works can enhance our understanding of others by association and relation, while maintaining their distinct contexts and content. I trust the public can relate to many of the concerns of the artists in SOFT POWER, and hope that this exhibition will unleash an untapped energy among us.”
“SOFT POWER reflects SFMOMA’s commitment to living artists and the world we share, as outlined in our new Strategic Plan,” said Neal Benezra, Helen and Charles Schwab Director of SFMOMA. “The diverse practices and perspectives represented in this exhibition embody the goals of this museum: to embrace new ideas, push boundaries and share new ways of looking at our world through the lens of contemporary art.”
About the Exhibition
The majority of works in SOFT POWER have never been presented in the U.S., including the four-channel video installation The Specter of Ancestors Becoming (2019) by Tuan Nguyen, co-founder of The Propeller Group. Co-produced by SFMOMA and commissioned by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the work explores the creation of memory and the agency that affords. Nguyen’s remarkable collaboration with descendants of French colonial soldiers once stationed in Vietnam — tirailleurs Sénégalais — features stories written by three members of the Vietnamese community in Senegal. Enacting fictionalized vignettes that reveal their own imaginings and experiences, his collaborators call forward the unresolved ghosts of history, receiving them with compassion and grace.
The 15 artists’ commissions for SOFT POWER also include five new sculptures by Haig Aivazian that explore the relationship between mythology and nation-building; the installation Who’s Afraid of Ideology, Part 2 by Marwa Arsanios; a site-responsive installation by Dineo Seshee Bopape; a new mural by Minerva Cuevas inspired by the history of Smokey the Bear and the environmental impact of fire; a sound sculpture enveloping the fourth floor by Cevdet Erek; a series of sculpture by Hassan Khan that echoes his concurrent solo exhibition at the Palacio de Cristal in Madrid; a performance and video by Tanya Lukin Linklater on encounter as a form of repatriation in collaboration with the Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley; an installation and photographic diptych by Cinthia Marcelle based on the traces of economic instability; a performance by Jason Moran in early 2020, along with a published conversation between Moran, IONE and Jessie Baird about the revolutionary power of the dream state; the first chapter of Carlos Motta’s new project on LGBTQI Dreamers; four large-scale abstract paintings by San Francisco Art Institute alumnus Eamon Ore-Giron; ongoing research into the market potential of gas hydrate by Pratchaya Phinthong; Xaviera Simmons’ enormous painting installation inspired by and responding to Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series (1940–41); and a series of “flat” sculptures based on teepee covers by Duane Linklater. Highlighting the technology of mobile architecture, Linklater’s new canvases patch together distant elements that comprise indigenous reality. Incorporating the ancient geometric patterns of the Omaskêko Cree, a large format inkjet printer and natural pigments that he harvests locally, Linklater produces objects masking their own purpose through their form: nonfunctioning teepee covers, now devoid of architectural purpose, but imbued with new cultural purpose.
SOFT POWER is also enlivened by several existing works, including a changing installation of five massive landscape drawings and tent from the durational performance Drawing a Line through Landscape by Nikhil Chopra at documenta 14; the premier of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s, Flint is Family, Part 2, in which Shea Cobb and her daughter Zion escape the ongoing Flint water crisis and “return” to their inheritance in Mississippi; Hassan Khan’s remarkable video installation Jewel (2010); a series of 15 banners and small abstract sculptures by Dave McKenzie; Pratchaya Phinthong’s “documentation” of migrant bilberry pickers in Finnish Lapland, Give More Than You Take (2010); and a wall installation and sculptures by Tavares Strachan from his Invisibles series. The exhibition features two works by Nairy Baghramian, including Retainer (2013), produced for her first major exhibition in the U.S. and extending her examination of systems of power, context, architecture and the materiality of sculpture. In this work, chromed steel supports large translucent slabs of cast resin and silicon reminiscent of a dental or gynecological intervention in process, but at a scale that confronts the full body. Within the context of the exhibition, Baghramian’s work suggests the temporal precision of physical states of matter, conjuring vast possibilities of adaptation, suffering and survival.
Full List of Artists Included in SOFT POWER:
Haig Aivazian (b. 1980, Beirut, Lebanon; lives and works in Beirut)
Marwa Arsanios (b. 1978, Washington, D.C.; lives and works in Beirut)
Nairy Baghramian (b. 1971, Isfahan, Iran; lives and works in Berlin)
Dineo Seshee Bopape (b. 1981, Polokwane, South Africa; lives and works in Johannesburg)
Nikhil Chopra (b. 1974, Kolkata, India; lives and works in Goa)
Minerva Cuevas (b. 1975, Mexico City, Mexico; lives and works in Mexico City)
Cevdet Erek (b. 1974, Istanbul, Turkey; lives and works in Istanbul)
LaToya Ruby Frazier (b. 1982, Braddock, Pennsylvania; lives and works in Chicago)
Hassan Khan (b. 1975, London, U.K.; lives and works in Cairo)
Duane Linklater (b. 1976, Ontario, Canada; lives and works in North Bay, Ontario)
Tanya Lukin Linklater (b. 1976, Kodiak, Alaska; lives and works in North Bay, Ontario)
Cinthia Marcelle (b. 1974, Belo Horizonte, Brazil; lives and works in São Paulo)
Dave McKenzie (b. 1977, Kingston, Jamaica; lives and works in Brooklyn)
Jason Moran (b. 1975, Houston, Texas; lives and works in New York)
Carlos Motta (b. 1978, Bogotá, Colombia; lives and works in New York)
Tuan Andrew Nguyen (b. 1976, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City)
Eamon Ore-Giron (b. 1973, Tucson, Arizona; lives and works in Los Angeles)
Pratchaya Phinthong (b. 1974, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand; lives and works in Bangkok)
Xaviera Simmons (b. 1974, New York, New York; lives and works in New York)
Tavares Strachan (b. 1979, Nassau, Bahamas; lives and works in New York)
October 24 – Artists’ talk with exhibition curator Eungie Joo
- Open rehearsals by Tanya Lukin Linklater in the galleries
- Performance by Jason Moran
- LaToya Ruby Frazier and The Sister Tour
- Conference on sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity and race at the border conceived by Carlos Motta in conjunction with the University of California, Santa Cruz
Organization + Support
Lead support for SOFT POWER is provided by The Fund for Contemporary Art. Generous support is provided by Diana Nelson and John Atwater.
About Eungie Joo, Curator of Contemporary Art
Eungie Joo joined the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) in 2017 as curator of contemporary art, a newly established role that supports the museum’s mission to engage with the art and artists of our time. Previously Joo was curator of Sharjah Biennial 12: The past, the present, the possible (2015) in the United Arab Emirates. The exhibition included the work of over 50 artists and cultural practitioners from 25 countries and featured new works, performances and site-specific commissions by 36 of those artists, including SOFT POWER participating artists Nikhil Chopra, Hassan Khan and Cinthia Marcelle; as well as Julie Mehretu, Damián Ortega, Taro Shinoda, Adrián Villar Rojas, Haegue Yang and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
Joo was Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs at the New Museum in New York from 2007–12, where she spearheaded the Museum as Hub initiative and curated the 2012 New Museum Generational Triennial, The Ungovernables. She was artistic director of the 5th Anyang Public Art Project/APAP 5 (2016); director of art and cultural programs at Instituto Inhotim in Brazil (2012–14); commissioner for the Korean Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009); and founding director and curator of the Gallery at REDCAT in Los Angeles (2003–7). In addition to many other distinctions, Joo received the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement in 2006. A frequent contributor to exhibition catalogues and magazines, she is editor of Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education (Routledge, 2011) and co-editor of Art Spaces Directory (ArtAsiaPacific and New Museum, 2012). She received her doctorate in Ethnic Studies from the University of California at Berkeley.
Publication: Soft Power: A Conversation for the Future
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, Soft Power: A Conversation for the Future, with essays by artist Marwa Arsanios on Ecofeminism; filmmaker and cultural theorist Manthia Diawara on the poetic concepts of Edouard Glissant; Whitney Museum of American Art curator Adrienne Edwards on the state of time- based art; writer Yasmine El-Rashidi on the colonization of narrative: SOFT POWER curator Eungie Joo on the exhibition; and composer Jason Moran in conversation with playwright and poet IONE and linguist Jessie “Little Doe” Baird on dreams and their manifestations. In addition, each participating artist is profiled in a 6-8 page section featuring installation images of the exhibition and commissioned contributions by a striking lineup of curators, thinkers and writers including: Haytham el-Wardany on Haig Aivazian; Athena Athanasiou on Marwa Arsanios; Eungie Joo on Nairy Baghramian and Cinthia Marcelle; Portia Mahlodi “Uhuru” Phalafala in conversation with Dineo Seshee Bopape; Naeem Mohaiemen in conversation with Nikhil Chopra; Max Haiven on Minerva Cuevas; Cevdet Erek on his practice; LaToya Ruby Frazier on her project Flint as Family; Hassan Khan on the concepts at play in his work; a photo essay by Duane Linklater; Magdalyn Asimakis on Tanya Lukin-Linklater; Meg Onli in conversation with Dave McKenzie; Karma Chávez on Carlos Motta; Jovanna Venegas on Jason Moran; Koyo Kouoh in conversation with Tuan Andrew Nguyen; Marcela Guerrero on Eamon Ore-Giron; Thanavi Chotpradit on Pratchaya Phinthong; Brian Keith Jackson on Xaviera Simmons; and Stamatina Gregory on Tavares Strachan. The publication Soft Power: A Conversation for the Future is distributed by Rizzoli and will be available in January 2020.
Tandin Bidha: The Grace of Bhutan
Tandin Bidha, leading actress from Bhutan sheds more light about the film industry in Bhutan and her life and experiences in the Himalayan Kingdom. Tandin Bidha is one of the most popular actresses in Bhutan and has worked in various national award winning films.
In this interview with Modern Diplomacy, Tandin sheds more light on the film industry in Bhutan and its growth over the years.
31 movie titles in your name spreading across different genres. Also, a two time National Award winner for Boom Batha Chenmi Renzi and for Chi Sem Chi Lu. People and critics alike seem to love your versatility. How did it all start? Did you imagine being the most recognised face in the industry and achieving an illustrated career in a short span?
It all started when I was helping my mother out in her restaurant. A well known director of Bhutan walked in, he saw me and something clicked. He immediately told me that he wanted to cast me in a film because I looked like an actress. I did not know anything about acting then because Bhutan does not have an acting school. I waited to get a call from him for 3 months. There was no call. One day he called me and gave me a role as a supporting actress. Even if I wasn’t the lead in the first film, it meant a lot to me and I decided to take it up. I then got many leading roles. I am truly grateful to my stars for aligning at the right time. I have given acting my best shot and I work really hard to be where I am.
Do you plan to carry forward that persona and art international anytime?
I am open to everything. I have never once thought that I can or cannot do this. I don’t plan my life like that. I generally see where life is going, let opportunities come my way, and when something clicks, I do it. Being open to things is the key to being successful, don’t shut any doors in life till you are sure that it isn’t for you, till then navigate and explore life through.
How important do you believe it is, to have a good work dynamic and a mutual understanding between an actor and a director? Do you personally think a good director helps an actor grow?
I believe that a movie is never about one person, it is about the entire crew. We all mutually depend on each other to get things done. I don’t believe that a single person can create or take credit for a movie alone, it takes an army of people to do it. I am grateful to my crew and everyone working on the same team as me for working really hard behind everything that goes in. I believe that good actors and good directors help each other in numerous ways. All relationships should be mutual and everything is centric on growth.
You seem to have a very positive and optimistic approach towards life and towards work. Despite all the fame and fortune, you lead a very ‘normal’ simplistic lifestyle. What fuels that inside you?
Most of the people of Bhutan are very simple. We all believe in living a life filled with the sentiment of community. I am an actress on screen and a human above anything. I believe in leading a simple life because that is all that counts. I enjoy spending time with my son. I also like reading in my free time. In Bhutan, for showing my films in theatres, I have also been to counters to sell my own film tickets. I deeply love Bhutan because I can be myself here.
You have been an avid reader of some really interesting books ranging from soul searching, inspirational women, The Buddha, the Mitch Albomesque emotional sort. Tell us more about some other books that you would recommend everyone should read in their lifetime. What is the book you are currently reading?
I really love reading books. I went through a divorce a few years ago and I was in a really dark phase of my life that time. I felt disconnected with the world. However, one day I picked up a book and I started reading it. After that, I have read so many books because I feel like books hold the key to life. I have also started a book cafe in Bhutan because I want the youth to read more books and get all the knowledge out there. I really love books and I recommend the youth to read books everywhere.
You have also travelled a lot. Your favourite destination so far and why is it special?
The more I travel, the more I realise how great Bhutan is. I love Bhutan the most. I have been to several countries worldwide, but I really love Bhutan the most. People here may not have dominos or burger outlets, but we are really in touch with ourselves and we love this country a lot. The more I travel, the deeper my appreciation grows for Bhutan.
Aamir Khan from India has always been a champion of rights in the national and international arena. You met him in one such similar event. What did you discuss? What other actors, male and female, do you look upto in India? If given a chance and if an amazing script comes your way, would you be interested to be a part of an Indian project?
I would love to work with actors in India. I met Aamir Khan at an event in Bhutan. I went to him and I told him that I’m his biggest fan. He was very humble and he told me more about his work. It was a great conversation. I respect him a lot.
OTT platforms are taking over the world. Do you think cinema in Bhutan can reach more people through this medium?
I believe that Bhutan has some wonderful stories which need to be shared with more people across the world. We do not have a film school so most of the people here are very raw in the film domain. However, we are all willing to learn and explore new avenues. I think Netflix is a great platform to share stories of Bhutan with other people. However, there are certain restrictions on the platform regarding quality of filmmaking, which Bhutan will have to match if we want our films there. Overall, I really would love for our country to have some representation on Netflix. I would love to take a lead in that domain. I really want our stories to be shared with the world.
What message would you like to give your fans who look up to you and your work?
I want to tell everyone that do not let go of your dreams even if it looks like it may never happen. It will happen when your stars align. I want to tell the youth to hold on to their dreams strongly and to keep working hard for it. If you work hard, one day, your efforts will be recognised. Never let go of your dreams.
Architecture Reflecting Culture: The Alhambra
Throughout history civilizations have been overtaken by successors. These in turn decline and fall as time marches on. Often all that remain are monuments, an occasional palace or temple often a tomb, usually in ruins unless of relatively current vintage.
The ancient Egyptians built massive pyramids to bury their pharaohs, projects lasting a lifetime and ensuring a reliable source of income for the workers and others involved.
The Greeks favored exquisitely proportioned temples and statuary rendered with a skill that was not matched again until the Renaissance. One would be remiss not to mention their vast output of the mind from philosophy and logic to the poetry and drama played out in the amphitheaters.
If Roman entertainment relied on blood and gore, it was part of a culture of brutal wars, subjugation and suppression of foreign peoples welded into an empire. Then there was Roman law, even if it applied only to citizens.
Of more recent vintage are the great cathedrals of Europe like Chartres, tall, massive, constructed in a span of time unimaginable in our era of haste. Preceding them were the great mosques of the Muslim era decorated in geometric shapes and colors to dazzle the eye. Damascus and Isfahan come to mind.
Then there are the Nasrid kings of Grenada in southern Spain, al Andalus to these descendants of North African Berbers and Arabs who ruled there for several centuries. A time when the three Abrahamic religions coexisted in relative harmony it saw the flowering of a civilization noted for its mixture of opposites.
The city of Cordoba with its great mosque was an early fruit of this admixture becoming the largest city in Europe during the 10th century, although civil wars had diminished it considerably by the 13th century. Yet the 13th century began the growth of a city on a hill now called Alhambra probably due to the reddish color (alhamra in Arabic) of the rock face. Housing some 40,000 citizens then, not many of the buildings survive. Notable are the defensive citadel Alcazaba, three palaces — the Mexuar, the Comares and the Court of the Lions — and an encircling wall with battlements and towers. The great mosque was replaced by a Franciscan monastery in the 15th century and is now a parador — a government-run hotel that was formerly a castle or palace or the like.
The Courtyard of the Lions is justly famous as the symbol of Alhambra. The twelve lions at the center appear to be holding up a water basin right in the center of a network of channels … on the periphery, colonnades supporting delicately carved arches form an abbey-like cloister. But the walls in the adjoining rooms hold their own surprise in intricately carved geometries of colored tiles and plasterwork. Glancing up, the ceilings are designed to take your breath away. Even more intricately constructed, they comprise thousands of meticulously carved sections of wood rising layer upon layer to feast the eye as small apertures allow in shafts of sunlight or moonlight. Watercourses run through many rooms spilling across portals into pools among enclosed gardens melding interior with exterior and joining it with nature.
The architect LeCorbusier called it ‘the intelligent, just and magnificent interplay of volumes made harmonious by daylight.’ Henri Matisse exclaimed, ‘The Alhambra is a marvel’ and Washington Irving captured imaginations throughout the western world with his 1832 book, The Alhambra. At the time going to rack and ruin, his romantic vision helped to trigger an effort to preserve the precious gem.
Now a magnet for tourists, it remains a precious reminder of what an intermingling of cultures can produce — just as the Taj Mahal does in India where Mughal emperors often married Hindu Rajput princesses and Shah Jahan (whose mother Manmati was one) built his own marvel.
Don’t avoid what is easy – diplomacy meets art
Individuals should and need to feel like they have the right to want. That is the message that artist Anastasia Lemberg-Lvova is continuously expressing through her artwork. Exemplifying socially-engaged art, Lemberg-Lvova aims to be a part of a much broader political movement which discusses important historical and modern-day social processes through creative means.
The second-wave feminist movements from the 1960s is one example of such a powerful movement. With their infamous quote, ‘The personal is political’, authored by millions of voices of women collectively rather than one feminist author, the message that every individual has the right to a voice was heavily stressed. As personal experiences took center stage and the individual became a political platform during the feminist movements, crowds of individuals also gained new meanings of courageous collectivity. Ultimately, the movement gave opportunity for previously ignored and taken-for-granted personal circumstances to be framed in a bigger picture – a picture that women as minorities were often left out of.
Continuing to portray the central message that movements such as the feminist strikes and many other historical crusades have fought for, Lemberg-Lvova uses her own art to focus on the younger European generation, highlighting the vast diverseness of the voices that live in Europe and sending a bold message that evidences a heterogeneity which needs to be more thoroughly discussed amongst the European community. With her projects, she is able to recognise the ways in which the systemic infrastructures that exist around the individual leave them feeling insecure or insignificant in relation to their voice and its right to exist in public. By initiating healthy conversation and focusing on this very elemental act of daring to express one’s desires towards public space, she has created a platform that encourages individuals to learn to voice their opinions more often, ultimately leading the person to be engaged as the multiplicities of voices are amplified to lead to more diverse discussion and perhaps outcomes.
Her exhibition, ‘Don’t Avoid What is Easy’, on show from August 14th – September 9th at the Freedom Gallery in Tallinn, Estonia, is thus the result of 2 years of research conducted mainly through interviews of younger generation individuals during her own expenditures through Europe. Although seemingly humble in its outcome as portraits, there is a strong message behind Lemberg-Lvova’s work, depicting the notion that we should feel more confident to voice our opinions about our public surroundings, Lemberg-Lvova uses art and representations to give a voice to over 100 participants from 24 European countries.
By painting vibrant oil portraits of a selected 7 individuals whom she interviewed, she touches on the concept of art and its political capacity by explaining “There will be portraits of participants with a visual interpretation of their wish as the background. The experience of, as we often say, “putting a face to a name” has a profound effect and is more intuitively understood than just going through text or trying to grasp abstract ideas. Painting as a form of expression is immensely malleable and useful when getting ideas across.”The desire to initiate discussion and give it a platform within the context of a gallery means Lemberg-Lvova’s art is inherently social and public. These qualities make for an intriguing space where the audience can identify small changes that resemble the tip of a much bigger iceberg– or at least the ignition of confidence and curiosity.
This focus on the first and easiest step sometimes being the hardest is something of great importance for Lemberg-Lvova as she explains “An inhabitant of a city logically has the right to express ideas or wishes when it comes to their surroundings – it is, after all, their home. But they are often stuck in the belief of not being able to change anything. In this instance, I am not talking about taking action or creating a plan. This is about the simplest first step that does not require anything – feeling like one is entitled to express a wish. It doesn’t have to lead anywhere; just remember that you have the right to want something. What follows is a different matter, but it is clear that nothing will happen without this first step.”
An interactive wall installation where participant answers are projected for all to see will pay homage to the importance that Lemberg-Lvova holds for communities to listen to the expressions of their surrounding civilians. She explains “From an early age, our heads are flooded with subliminal messaging and that often diminishes internal self-worth. Let me explain this from the point of view of a woman – a frame of reference I am most familiar with. As a woman one feels that unless they have perfect dazzlingly white teeth, flawless hair, a tiny waist and the right kind of shoes they are not worthy of expressing an opinion. Because if you do not fulfill all of the criteria above, no one will listen to you or even consider you worthy of attention. This is a cliché, yet it exists because it is true. It describes the reality of many women, because we are surrounded by sources reaffirming it – adverts, friends, sometimes parents or spouses, fitness centers and the list goes on. At the exhibition, I am striving to fill the space with messaging that reiterates one’s right to express their wishes whoever they are.”
Her message is clear – we should not avoid formulating our wishes in matters that concern us. Her persistence to initiate discussion and to give it a platform within the context of a gallery means her art is inherently social and public. These qualities make for an intriguing meeting space for the artist as well as her audience amongst each other.
Open Studio at Kogo Gallery, Widget Factory (Aparaaditehas), Tartu, Estonia: 08.07-01.08
Exhibition “Don’t Avoid What is Easy – Diplomacy meets art”at Vabaduse Gallery: 14.08-09.09
*Valeriya Billich also contributed to this article. Photos:Mariia Nedosekova
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