Jan Stu­art: cu­ra­tor tells sto­ries of cre­ativ­ity of Chi­nese art

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS AMERICAS - By CHINA DAILY

Jan Stu­art has a twin­kle in her eye ev­ery time she talks about Chi­nese art.

“China is fan­tas­tic,” Stu­art said at a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion panel on Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary art in Au­gust, “be­cause it has the largest breadth of cre­ativ­ity and artists work­ing with dif­fer­ent re­sponses.”

Born in New York City and raised in Con­necti­cut, Stu­art — Melvin R. Sei­den cu­ra­tor of Chi­nese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sack­ler Gallery in Wash­ing­ton — has a life story tied closely with China, start­ing from a young age.

She re­called hav­ing a Chi­nese boy in her third-grade class who was made fun of by other boys for be­ing dif­fer­ent. Her teacher then asked the class, point­ing at a book: “Where was pa­per in­vented?”

“We all said, ‘USA!’ And she goes, ‘China,’” Stu­art said with a smile. “Then she asked, ‘Where was print­ing in­vented?’ All the stu­dents said, ‘USA!’ And she said, ‘China.’ At the end she goes, ‘Now chil­dren, is there any­one in this room who wants to make fun of a boy be­cause he’s from China?’”

“So right then and there I re­al­ized, China is a very spe­cial place,” Stu­art said.

Stu­art earned her Bach­e­lor of Arts and master’s in East Asian stud­ies from Yale Univer­sity and a se­cond master’s de­gree from Prince­ton Univer­sity in Chi­nese art and arche­ol­ogy. She has worked at the Freer and Sack­ler Gal­leries for more than 20 years.

“I re­ally love Chi­nese art,” Stu­art said as she dis­cussed the most re­ward­ing part of be­ing a Chi­nese art cu­ra­tor. “And I want to share it.”

Stu­art brings more at­ten­tion to the dif­fer­ent fields of the art, in­clud­ing Bud­dhist sculp­ture, ce­ram­ics and dec­o­ra­tive arts.

Her flu­ent Man­darin knowl­edge made her a bet­ter sto­ry­teller. She took Chi­nese classes in col­lege and stayed nine months in Taipei to study the Chi­nese lan­guage.

“I never would have so many won­der­ful con­ver­sa­tions with schol­ars about Chi­nese art and arche­ol­ogy if I couldn’t speak the lan­guage,” Stu­art said. “Know­ing the lan­guage opens you up to a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing.”

She sees museum work as “diplo­macy”, say­ing one of the ad­van­tages as an Amer­i­can cu­ra­tor of Chi­nese art is be­ing “more sen­si­tive to know­ing what an av­er­age Amer­i­can doesn’t know”.

“A Cau­casian Amer­i­can will find a Chi­nese an­ces­tor por­trait hang­ing in the din­ing room with­out know­ing why or how these paint­ings were cre­ated,” said Stu­art. “That’s where you come up with some ways to in­ter­pret for the ob­jects, and tell a story that gets other peo­ple ex­cited about a new cul­ture.”

Stu­art has been seek­ing ways to bring a new au­di­ence into the gal­leries that they don’t usu­ally visit.

She found sim­i­lar­i­ties in two ob­jects cre­ated more than five cen­turies apart, a Chi­nese im­pe­rial porce­lain dish and a paint­ing by Mark Rothko, and de­cided to put them to­gether on ex­hi­bi­tion.

“Some­times you need to give the au­di­ence a chance to think,” Stu­art said. “Well, if they love Rothko’s col­ors, ac­tu­ally, they might love the im­pe­rial Chi­nese dish.

“Peo­ple tend to go to what’s fa­mil­iar with them,” she said. “For peo­ple who know noth­ing about China, (the West­ern vo­cab­u­lar­ies in Chi­nese art) are what they can see and un­der­stand.

“We should make sure that we al­ways have Chi­nese art on view and put more in­dif­fer­ent kinds of Chi­nese art in mu­se­ums and gallery shows,” said Stu­art. “That’s what we do, and that’s all I can do, to put art on view.”

Stu­art gets ful­fill­ment as a cu­ra­tor when she sees nose prints and fingerprints on the glass cases in an ex­hi­bi­tion.

“You want a lot of peo­ple to go,” she said. “You look for ev­i­dence that they are look­ing closely.”

Stu­art men­tioned an idea to col­lab­o­rate with the Bei­jing Palace Museum and the Mas­sachusetts Pe­abody Es­sex Museum on an ex­hi­bi­tion about Chi­nese em­presses of the last dy­nasty, and open it to pub­lic in 2019, which is the 40th an­niver­sary of the nor­mal­iza­tion of US-China re­la­tions.

“They are ex­hi­bi­tions that have noth­ing to do with pol­i­tics as the sub­ject,” said Stu­art. “It’s just a per­fect oc­ca­sion to cel­e­brate and to show that as two cul­tures, we are still happy to­gether to learn about each other.”

Hav­ing been in China in the early 1980s, Stu­art has seen vast changes in the past 30 years.

“So many things are hap­pen­ing so fast,” said Stu­art, amazed while also con­cerned about China’s rapid de­vel­op­ment.

Stu­art val­ues the en­ergy and cre­ativ­ity in China.

“It’s such a rich, strong na­tion that for­eign­ers can be very eas­ily at­tracted to the depth of Chi­nese cul­ture,” Stu­art said. She be­lieves Chi­nese art will show its strength by invit­ing and em­brac­ing the world.

“China has given us a lot of the best artists the world has to­day,” said Stu­art. “It’s just go­ing to keep go­ing up, be­cause of the great cre­ativ­ity.”

I re­ally love Chi­nese art. And I want to share it.”


Jan Stu­art, the Melvin R. Sei­den cu­ra­tor of Chi­nese art at the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sack­ler Gallery, in her of­fice in March with a pic­ture of a cop­per-red glazed dish from the Xuande pe­riod, which is in the ex­hi­bi­tion Red:MingDy­nasty/MarkRothko.

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