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Asian-American artists fighting stereotypes

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Cindy Shih’s watercolor “Selfishness,” at SOMArts Cultural Center, is a response to comments Fox News host Bill O’Reilly made about Asian people. - COURTESY JANOS GEREBEN
  • Courtesy Janos Gereben
  • Cindy Shih’s watercolor “Selfishness,” at SOMArts Cultural Center, is a response to comments Fox News host Bill O’Reilly made about Asian people.

In one corner is Cindy Shih’s Bill O’Reilly-inspired, impish watercolor. In the other, Mido Lee’s upside-down, nude self-portrait with a riveting personal message.

They are on view at SOMArts Cultural Center in “underCurrents and The Quest for Space,” featuring a wide variety of works by 30 Asian-American women.

The exhibit aims to counteract common stereotypes about Asian-American women, artists say, and their “continued invisibility.”

Curated by international Asian and Asian-American art expert Inson Choy and presented by the Asian American Women Artists Association and the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, the show’s pieces were selected by a jury including Choy, Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu and Mills College art history professor Mary-Ann Milford.

China-born Potrero Hill resident Li Ma’s 10-by-10-by-15-foot fabric installation is a translucent tent without an apparent message other than intrinsic beauty.

But Taiwanese artist Lee, a San Francisco resident, makes a searing personal statement in “Thorns,” her self-portrait.

“After 12 years of sexual abuse from members of my family, male bodies have become the forbidden thorns of my life. ... To position male nudes as a female photographer, I finally regained the faith as an able person instead of a helpless victim,” she says. “Because of the support of these models I can finally pluck the thorns from the wound and live free again.”

Abstract art and near-traditional landscapes mix with quirkily individual works, such as first-generation Taiwanese-American Castro resident Shih’s watercolor portrait of an imperious woman titled “Selfishness,” with ink inscriptions.

The work is a parody of, and response to, Bill O’Reilly’s comments about Asian people — that they are not “liberal” and are “industrious and hard-working.” Shih says O’Reilly’s label “reinforces the ‘model minority’ stereotype and presumes that being liberal is synonymous with lazy.”

Local, national and international artists are represented in the show.

San Francisco participants include: Isabelle Thuy Pelaud (from Vietnam), Valerie Soe (American-born Chinese), Xiaojie Zheng (from China), Cynthia Tom (San Francico-born Chinese), Kay Kang (from Korea), Choppy Oshiro (from Hawaii, of Japanese origin) and Shizuye Seigel (third-generation Japanese-American).

Other striking objects in the exhibit are Judy Shintani’s installation of “Unbound Kimonos Deconstructed,” Salma Arastu’s dazzling acrylics and Shari Arai DeBoer’s semi-abstract etchings-watercolors.

Mitsuko Brooks’ prints-and-poems combinations, with text by Michele C. Lee and Ono No Komachi, deal with her experience of “being part of the Asian diaspora.” Although she left Japan at age 3 and grew up in the U.S., she says she has a deep longing to belong to Japan, while still identifying with her “ingrained American upbringing.”

Her landscape print series “Dissonances of the Diaspora,” depicting a hapa (mixed-race) woman immersed in constructed landscapes, she says, “expresses my feelings of environmental abandonment.”

IF YOU GO

underCurrents and The Quest for Space

Where: SOMArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan St., S.F.
When: Noon to 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes May 25
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 863-1414, www.somarts.org
Note: A free panel discussion moderated by the show’s curator is at 1 p.m. May 25 at SOMArts.