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Using Art in Research and Learning for Women’s History
How fine arts can support intersectional studies in the history of U.S. social movements
By Courtney Suciu
What can art tell us about women and social movements?
This is something Rebecca Jo Plant and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu are committed to helping researchers examine in greater depth.
In 2019, Plant and Wu took over as editors of Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 (WASM) – a massive, interdisciplinary database and online journal started in the 1990s by their teachers and mentors at the State University of New York, Tom Dublin and Kitty Sklar, pioneers in the field of women’s history.
Plant and Wu said while it was imperative that the project continue the vision of Dublin and Sklar, the new editors also wanted to bring in more diverse content and a bigger variety of perspectives that would appeal to today’s students and researchers and inspire new avenues of exploration in women’s history.
So, for the inaugural issue under their editorship, organized around the theme “Internationalizing and Transnationalizing U.S. Women’s History,” Plant and Wu included “Fragility,” a painting by Ann Phong. The editors plan to continue featuring works of fine art along with the primary source materials, essays, book reviews and other content on which women’s history scholars previously relied.
Using art in women’s history research and learning
“I think we have to believe in ourselves,” Vietnamese American painter and multimedia artist Phong said in a video interview also included the Fall 2019 issue of Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600-2000.
For Phong, believing in herself means sharing reflections on her experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant who settled in Southern California in the early 1980s. In her artist’s statement, she explained:
My art reflects the feelings and thoughts of the people who have experienced vicissitudes in life; those who are pushed to the edge of death during wartime; those who suffer through difficult living conditions while escaping communism to seek freedom, and those who struggle to assimilate in a new country. We Vietnamese in general, develop complex and restrained emotions. To survive despite the desperate situation, we reinforce ourselves with optimistic attitudes.
Phong described how the swirling brushstrokes and compositional arrangement juxtapose with softer, more soothing lines in “Fragility” to “enhance an overall dynamic outlook” that “align with [her] feelings.”
In these ways, the painting inspires a more intimate and visceral understanding of the immigrant experience and an opening to consider how gender might further complicate both an individual’s and a community’s struggle to survive by escaping what was familiar and adapting to a new culture.
Such a perspective is unfortunately often lacking in historical collections, which have tended to be curated by the dominant culture, even when focused on issues of race, gender and immigration. But there is increasing demand among educators, students and researchers for decolonization of curricula and for access to content that includes the viewpoints of people who have been historically marginalized.
The fine arts are a uniquely valuable resource for such intersectional research and learning. Works such as Phong’s “Fragility” give voice to the experiences and observations of people who have previously been left out of historical collections – and conversations.
When studied alongside other resources in the WASM in the U.S. database, such as Sharon Harley’s essay, “The Solidarity of Humanity: Anna Julia Cooper’s Personal Encounters and Thinking About the Intersectionality of Race, Gender, and Oppression,” which focuses on a prominent early 20th-century feminist intellectual, Phong’s art can be considered in the context of women’s activism around immigration.
Or, when analyzed within the framework of women’s history and U.S. imperialism – such as with Tessa Ong Winklemann’s essay “Oppositional Feminisms in the Transpacific and U.S. Empire in the Philippines” – Phong’s painting offers students and researchers more multifaceted, personal and political insights and understanding of the consequences of U.S. intervention.
Looking ahead, the spring 2020 issue focusing on “Sexualities and Bodies” will showcase a work by Mignonette Chiu entitled Liberty’s Pride. This piece dramatically highlights the plight of immigrants and LGBTQ individuals who are often persecuted and criminalized for their very existence.
We’re eager to see what other works of art Plant and Wu will be incorporating into the database and what new research and learning discoveries students and scholars will be making under the tenure of these new editors.
Learn more about Rebecca Jo Plant, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu and the Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000, database and electronic journal.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu