WHY VOICES: PATTERN RECOGNITION
The Asian Art Museum’s Akiko Yamazaki & Jerry Yang Pavilion is designed to open outwards to its surroundings with three levels of street-facing art—walk along Hyde Street in Civic Center and you’ll see installations on the roof terrace, exhibitions on view through the bay windows of the Wilbur Gallery, and a street-level art wall dedicated to newly commissioned works by Bay Area Asian American artists. Facing towards the diverse neighborhood of the Tenderloin, the art wall is all about connecting the new pavilion and the museum to its urban context—the wall is a prominent site to recognize local talent, raise issues relevant to the museum’s neighbors, and address the Asian American experience more broadly.
Suitably enough, the first commissioned mural for the art wall—Pattern Recognition—is a direct expression of that impulse for inclusivity. Created by the Filipina American artist and educator, Jenifer K Wofford, the mural combines traditional Asian decorative motifs from several intersecting cultures in the Bay Area, creating a vivid patchwork of pattern and color which highlights the names of under-recognized Asian American artists including Ruth Asawa, Bernice Bing, and Carlos Villa. These names—gleefully given voice in cartoon-style speech bubbles—are a way of playfully redressing historical omissions, and together the patterns form a code of cultural references which can only be cracked by members of different communities working together.
The outward-facing design of the pavilion makes art accessible for all, and Pattern Recognition shows that multiple visual languages deserve to be recognized as part of the region’s creative identity. To learn more about the inspiration for the mural, we asked Jenifer to share her perspective on Bay Area hybridity and how it fuels her practice as an artist and educator:
What defines life in the Bay Area for you?
When I lived in Europe, people would ask me what I missed about the Bay Area and I’d say, “Indian pizza.” That’s California for you—we have Indian pizza, and Korean tacos, and birria ramen, and Japanese hot dogs, and Filipino sisig pasta carbonara, and it’s all amazing. What can’t we hybridize? I say that as a Filipina American raised in Hong Kong, the UAE, Malaysia, and California. And as an educator I see these globalized, hybridized things happening all the time with the young people I work with. I have students who grew up in Latin America and they’re obsessed with K-pop and Japanese culture—there aren’t weird boundaries about what they can or can’t be interested in or enjoy. They’re open to everything.
Where would you recommend visiting alongside a trip to the Asian Art Museum?
The site of the original International Hotel on Kearny Street is a really important part of Bay Area history, and the point of intersection for multiple activist movements. The I-Hotel is notorious because of the evictions of elderly Asian-American tenants in the late 1970s, and the site continues to be an important symbol for housing advocacy and the ongoing fight against racial discrimination. After the original building was torn down, it was later replaced with low-income housing for seniors on exactly the same spot—and even though the Manilatown neighborhood was decimated, the area is still home to a thriving Asian community around North Beach and Chinatown. If you’re in the area, it’s worth cruising by to appreciate the significance of the site.
And what about other art organizations championing Asian American artists?
Knowing about Kearny Street Workshop is crucial if you want to understand the Asian and Asian American art community in the Bay Area. And not just visual artists, but writers, musicians, and filmmakers too—KSW nurtures so many different disciplines. It’s a comparatively humble storefront but they do lots of off-site programming and the organization is part of a really important legacy—the artists I included in Pattern Recognition mostly precede KSW, but they were the inspirations for several of the artists who were later part of that movement. I’ve been closely involved in KSW over the years; teaching with them, advising on programming as part of a council, and taking part in exhibitions.
Any new works of street art you can point us towards?
Artists Mario Ayala and Alphonso Gonzalez were commissioned by the Luggage Store Gallery to make a mural homage to the artist Carlos Villa—you’ll find it on Turk St near Leavenworth in the Tenderloin, near where Carlos grew up. In the 8 years since Carlos passed, I’ve seen lots of tributes to him pop up around the city. Sometimes it’s as simple as his name scratched into the side of a bar table, sometimes it’s a quick graffiti, ‘Carlos Villa lives’ etc. You see the echoes of his work in these fairly impromptu ways, and the mural is an amazing tribute to an artist who was also a deeply committed educator.
An element of urban design?
I love Ruth Asawa’s origami fountains in the Nihomachi Pedestrian Mall in Japantown. I used to spend a decent amount of time in Japantown because a friend of mine runs the print shop Tokaido Arts, and it’s down the street from where I used to work. But for the longest time I never knew that the former fountains (which are now more like sculptures) were made by Ruth Asawa—they’d become part of the everyday architecture of the city, and I hadn’t recognized the way they were affecting me. Also, during one of my pandemic wanders I came across the Seward Street Slides—it turns out that the slides were designed by a teenager as part of a special art program run by Ruth Asawa. I was so surprised and touched when I realized that she’d been involved—there are plenty of places where you see her physical artworks, like the sculptures hanging in the de Young Museum and the fountain on Union Square. But this was a more intimate moment of how I felt her presence.
Right now my favorite restaurant is actually a food truck, The Sarap Shop, which serves Filipino fusion cuisine and is generally parked around Parklab Gardens in the Mission Bay neighborhood. Like so many of the best things here, it’s about creating something good (sarap!) from multiple different sources, and it’s also diasporic and in flux. That’s true of so much of Asian American culture. Even the Asian Art Museum itself is diasporic—when I was in college, the museum was located in Golden Gate Park as part of the de Young Museum. Of course, a fixed location and a sense of place is valuable; but ultimately, community is located in people. As people move on or pass on, the locus of that connection changes—it’s not always tied to a particular location, it’s feeling you carry with you.
The art wall itself is a symbol of flux—a public artwork designed to flow with the movement of the street, and to change over time with new commissions. All the same, the attention-grabbing graphics and surprising speech bubbles give pause for thought. After passing by, you may find that you start to see the patterns re-emerging across the city and recognize the work of the artists in galleries or on the street. That’s the Pattern Recognition effect, and part of our motivation for museum design; the more that we collectively know about our surroundings, the more we start to see, feel, and appreciate.
You can learn more about Jenifer and her work here.