Published in August 2018 by the Burnaby Art Gallery in Vancouver, Anna Wong: Traveller on Two Roads is co-written by Ellen van EIjnsbergen, Jennifer Crane, Zoe Chan, Keith Wallace, and features a variety of perspectives on different aspects of Anna Wong’s life offered in both English and French translations, accompanied by stunning, full-colour images of her work.
The book was released as a special edition hardcover art book accompanying an exhibition of the same name.
Our early research of Anna Wong brought up a variety of articles stressing her importance and accomplishments as an artmaker in stark contrast to how few people know about her. Anna Wong: Traveller on Two Roads as an exhibition and a publication were produced in this context, as a retrospective that functions also in some way as a corrective and a re-insertion.
This review was written in the form of conversational responses between managing editors, Jasmine Gui and Abby Ho, oscillating around four themes that jumped out at us in our readings.
Jasmine: The book discusses Anna’s absence from seminal “Asian Canadian” art shows, speculating on the possibility that she was excluded because her work didn’t deal enough with identity. This point was resonant for me, in considering how the normalcy of Whiteness perpetuates certain kinds of exclusions and offers freedoms only for those who are within the spectrum of that “normal”. It’s also a difficult question to ask our own communities, in asking how identity politics excludes people from our communities.
Anna’s exclusion from seminal shows is a reflection of a larger conversation about art that reflects us. Who decides what art makes us Asian Canadian? Where are the limits of those decisions? What did we lose in staking specific claims? It’s complex and the book doesn’t go into very much more detail, but it’s food for thought.
Abby: Anna Wong’s physical location predominantly dictated shifts within her work. The book chose to divide her work into several sections with prominent visual themes, suggesting that Anna was influenced by her longing for other spaces when she was working in Vancouver or New York — even ones that were imagined. This is especially seen in her later works, which involved photo serigraphs from her trips to China.
For me, Anna’s identity as an Asian-Canadian creator is most pronounced when the authors describe her practice of using different mediums to work through themes of longing or home. After all, this idea of working from a comparative framework to form a sense of belonging, or using art to created imagined spaces of home is still a prevalent one now. In the end, this leaves me with more questions: why was she not more well known within Canada while she was exhibiting, and why is she only now, considered a representation of Canadian art?
Jasmine: When considering Anna’s work in the context of this book, I think about her ability to create as a family inheritance, the experiences she had growing up, and subsequently, her mobility as an artist that introduced new elements and themes into her print and mark-making. It’s interesting, especially because in Anna’s case, the introduced elements are sometimes literal — in the form of photo serigraphs or text. Why was she free to explore art in what might be considered a more abstract sense? When considering the complex nuance of identity markers she navigated, and also her literal movement re: traveling back to China when it first opened up its borders, those experiences literally left marks on her artistic practice. Maybe in that sense, the “Canadianness” of her work becomes less “apparent” — and I say this sentence with many qualifications in mind.
Abby: The book tends to focus a lot on Anna’s upbringing, highlighting several familial factors numerous times as to why her practice was shaped the way it was. For instance, her father’s immigration is mentioned, and how Anna became an art teacher for all of her extended family. Reading her biography made me realize the particular degree of mobility Anna had to create as she did. Not only does this degree of mobility include class, but it also consists of a certain level of familial support. It is interesting to note.
Jasmine: Interesting I guess because of the relevance some of these observations have to our era’s current considerations when thinking about who gets to be an artist.
Abby: One aspect I really enjoyed of the book was seeing Anna Wong’s practice contextualized with other artists in different mediums and periods. You were able to see different influences and how they inspired Anna to work in several ways stylistically. Coming from an art school background, I’ve been taught one particular canon of what is considered “good (high)” art. Although it’s not necessary to fit into specific artistic moulds, I enjoyed the artist references as it mapped her work within different art movements, suggesting where her cross-disciplinary practice connected and disconnected with her contemporaries and her mentors. Since it’s a compilation of her work after her passing, flipping through the pages of her work allowed me to witness different iterations and changes of her thought processes over the years.
Jasmine: An ongoing desire for me is to properly contextualize Asian diasporic artwork — complete with contemporaries, artistic, intellectual trends and movements at the time and historical events occurring. It’s great to see Anna’s work be influenced by teachers and mentors, access to equipment in certain seasons of her life and the different cities she practices in. Grounding her production and pieces in space, time and community really offers a richer reading of her work. It also resonates well for me as a younger Asian artist, to think about those things in relation to my own art practice.
Abby: One thing that left me dissatisfied was that the text briefly mentions how Anna Wong worked with quilts and silkscreening in the later stages of her career. I’m curious as to why these works were omitted from being included in the book, as it would’ve been interesting to see her ideas come full circle.
Abby: While I enjoyed reading about an Asian-Canadian creator I had never known about before, the presentation of Anna Wong felt a little convoluted. It was as if the authors wrote to not box her into an immigrant artist experience yet, at the same time, perpetuated it. They present Anna Wong in a specific way, someone who is steadfast in creating but passive in really speaking about her art. The majority of the text focused on her upbringing or geographical relocations. Rather than describing in detail the work she created with the rigour of art description, the authors mostly stuck to suggesting that her work was tied to places she identified with. Reading this text made me wish more focus was given towards discussing her technical proficiency and process rather than just her Chinese identity. Writing this review, made me wonder if we are still building up the language needed to describe, critique and engage deeply with previous generations of Asian creatives.
Jasmine: Similarly, I hadn’t heard of Anna Wong’s work prior to this book. I’m glad that an art book such as this one is emerging in the world. We all need more traces of artists who have come before us to have better dialogue. Whether it’s to build on or to push back, work needs to be available and criticism or introductions of that work need to be available. I wish more time had been spent on close examining some of her pieces, instead of the sections being more just biographical in nature (although I appreciate that information as well). But it’s also nice to get huge pages on pages of her work, and in the brief time it’s circulated within our space, interesting conversations have already been sparked about her methods and what we can learn from or borrow and evolve in our own work practices today. That’s the kind of art conversation the Asian Canadian community is thirsting for.
Featured Image Credit: Anna Wong, China Wall I, 1981, mixed media on paper, A/P, 56 x 77 cm, From the Malaspina Printshop Archives of the City of Burnaby Permanent Art Collection, Gift of Milton and Fei Wong, BAG AN 1988.38.901, Photo: Blaine Campbell