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Seeing Gender - Asian Art Museum Exhibition Looks Beyond the Binary

Historic, Contemporary, and Never-Before-Displayed Works Pose Timeless Questions

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Nov. 24, 2021, San Francisco — Fluid, rigid, subversive, transformative. Gender expression spans culture, time, and place. Exclusively at the Asian Art Museum, Seeing Gender invites visitors to journey across the spectrum of gender in Asian art, from the ancient to the contemporary, from the divine to the sensual. Four emerging curators have placed artworks from diverse cultures and periods side by side in the museum’s first cross-cultural exhibition to survey our vast collection through the lens of gender. The exhibition includes 17 artworks of varying scales and media, ranging from a 1,000-year-old Indian sandstone sculpture to a 21st-century version of traditional Korean shoes crafted from stiff mulberry paper.

Opening Jan. 21 in the Atsuhiko Tateuchi and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Gallery, this original exhibition reveals long-standing creative possibilities beyond the male-female binary. Through unconventional groupings, visitors will explore how artistic renderings of gender continue to provoke and inspire. For instance, various statues of Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist deity of compassion) — some never before displayed by the museum — convey gender transformation and gender neutrality dating back centuries. In contemporary artist Wilson Shieh’s striking work on paper, nubile figures strum each other like banjos and can be read as male or female, suggesting the body is an instrument in an elaborate performance of gender. Nearby, large Edo-period prints depicting young Japanese women engaged in “gentlemanly pursuits” — including painting, calligraphy, playing music, and enjoying strategy games — while smoking and donning contemporary fashion seem to defy the strictly regulated sexual confines of the time.

“Gender and sexuality are so central to conversations our society is having today, especially in the Bay Area. With its diverse holdings, the museum can make an important contribution to that dialogue,” explain the curators, Maya Hara, former Japan Foundation Curatorial Assistant for Japanese Art; Shinhwa Koo, former curatorial assistant for Korean art; Joanna Lee, curatorial assistant for Chinese art; and Megan Merritt, project manager for contemporary art. “There is a perception that gender is only a contemporary topic, or one that is related to a Western philosophical tradition. Seeing Gender asks our audiences to think about gender in a cultural context that has not often been considered.”  

The exhibition draws on new community partnerships that introduce contemporary voices and interdisciplinary connections to the interpretation of the Asian Art Museum collection. An advisory committee of local scholars, artist, and writers — Franny Choi (author, poet, artist-in-residence at Williams College), Anna Eng (Women and Gender Studies Department lecturer, San Francisco State University), and TT Takemoto (Dean of Humanities and Sciences, California College of the Arts; performance artist) — helped guide the exhibition’s development. The advisors responded to the exhibition’s themes with important feedback, initiating an open exchange of ideas and experiences that in turn invites visitors to participate in the larger conversation. The museum’s Art Speak teen interns also engaged in the dialogue by producing a video for the gallery, in which they reflect on their own experiences negotiating gender as young people growing up in the Bay Area.

Seeing Gender gives us the opportunity to both learn from the next generation of curators and to use our collection to engage our audiences with topics that are relevant to their lives,” says Chief Curator and Curator of Japanese Art Dr. Laura W. Allen.


Exhibition Organization

Seeing Gender is organized by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Presentation is made possible with the generous support of Neiman Marcus. 

Sustained support generously provided by the Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang Endowment Fund for Exhibitions. 


About the Asian Art Museum

Information: 415.581.3500 or

Location: 200 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA 94102

Hours: Thursdays: 1p.m.–8 p.m.; Fridays–Mondays: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays, as well as New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.

Museum Admission: FREE for members, essential workers, SFUSD students, children 12 and under, and active-duty military. $15 for adults and $10 for ages 65 & over, ages 13 to 17), and college students (with ID). Thursday nights (after 5 p.m.) $10 for adults and $8 for ages 65 & over, ages 13 to 17), and college students (with ID). There will be a $5 special exhibition surcharge for teamLab: Continuity on weekdays and a $10 surcharge on weekends.

Access: The Asian Art Museum is wheelchair accessible. For more information regarding access: 415.581.3598; TDD: 415.861.2035.

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Image: Musical Bodies: Banjo, 1999. By Wilson Shieh (Chinese, 1970).Ink and color on gold paper. Gift of the Yiqingzhai Collection, 2005.77. © Asian Art Museum.