Diasporic Alchemy: Transforming Ancestral Traditions into Ritual Futurisms at SOMArts

Shotgun Review

Diasporic Alchemy: Transforming Ancestral Traditions into Ritual Futurisms at SOMArts

By Kristiana Chan April 24, 2018

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Kristiana Chan reviews Diasporic Alchemy: Transforming Ancestral Traditions into Ritual Futurisms at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco.

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In Diasporic Alchemy: Transforming Ancestral Traditions into Ritual Futurisms at SOMArts Cultural Center, co-curators missTANGQ and Louis Chinn assemble artists whose work addresses their identities as immigrants, cultural activists, LGBTQ, and people of color. Largely interactive, the exhibition invites viewers to touch, listen, hold, and breathe into several installations. 

Bangalore–based artist Shilo Shiv Suleman’s tree, an excerpt from the multi-tree installation Grove (2016), lives at the heart of the gallery space. A dreamy, tech-infused sculpture, its movement and lights are activated by viewers’ breath. At the tree’s base, participants kneel on petal-shaped pillows and lean into the work face first, exhaling into a sensor inside a robotic blossom. This intimate exchange activates the sculpture, as LED lights radiate from the breath-blossom, down to the branch, and up through the rest of the tree. The effect is an instantaneous sense of connection to the tree as a living being, reinterpreted through modern technology.

missTANGQ and Louis Chinn. The Oracle, 2017. Courtesy of the Artists and SOMArts. Photo: Kristiana Chan.

The Oracle (2017), a multimedia sculpture by missTANGQ and Chinn, utilizes video, animation, and sound to engage the ancient Chinese divination practice of Yi Jing. Participants remove their shoes before entering the temple-like wooden structure, and then kneel in front of a pool of water, beneath which is a screen. To activate the reading, one tosses a coin onto a copper plate. Depending on “fate,” they receive their reading, which includes an animation and text from one of the Yi Jing’s books.

Kevin Balcora. Ancestral Tablets, 2017 (detail). Courtesy of the Artist and SOMArts. Photo: Kristiana Chan.
Also of note were Kevin Balcora’s Ancestral Tablets (2017), oversized multimedia works on paper that hang both on the wall and in space. The work is quietly commanding, and has a looming, suspended presence that stands out in the exhibition for its simplicity—and lack of technology. Each tablet features a water-warped and heavily treated piece of paper, layered with brush strokes of Chinese characters, recalling the traditional etchings of stone and marble ancestral tablets.

Judy Shintani’s “wearable” works comprise a series of healing body shields. Each shield—torso body-forms adorned with dried plants and leaves gathered from the California coastline—takes on the healing, supernatural, or traditional powers and meaning of the plant, such as gingko, which offers peace and longevity. Additionally, Lauren Crew’s photography and projection-based installation addresses the experiences of being biracial by documenting narratives of young biracial women. Through these works, Diasporic Alchemy manages to create an unlikely union between long-forgotten ancient traditions and diasporic futurisms that no longer seem like a far-fetched dream.

Diasporic Alchemy: Transforming Ancestral Traditions into Ritual Futurisms was on view at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco through April 5, 2018.

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