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Prof. Wong’s recent work links art, history, culture

By Sanin Dosa

Section: Arts

February 3, 2017

Art history Prof. Aida Yuen Wong researches historical sources and the development of artistic trends to make cross-cultural connections among countries in the Asian continent and beyond.

Wong is not only an art history professor, but also the chair of the Department of Fine Arts at Brandeis. This semester, she is teaching an Experiential Learning course, Tuvalu to the World: An Echo Art Project along with Art of the Ming Dynasty. Some of her recent awards and honors include being the area editor for the Grove Encyclopedia of Asian Art and Architecture on the subject of China from 1400, the curator of the Tuvalu National Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale and the recipient of the American Council of Learned Societies American Research in the Humanities in China Fellowship.

Wong’s areas of interest include painting, calligraphy, institutional history and historiography. Her scholarly research has been published in North America, Europe and Asia.

Her most recent project is a volume that she is co-editing, titled “Fashion, Identity, and Power in Modern Asia.” In this volume, she makes correlations between fashion trends and cultural and political reorientation in various Asian countries, including China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and India. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, official and ceremonial uniforms in particular were a direct manifestation of the countries’ modernization and complex political orientations.

“In 1913, Yuan Shikai had been made President of the new Republic of China after a series of political reforms. Yet he emulated the Qing state ritual of visiting the Temple of Heaven near the Forbidden City. This was a highly symbolic act that anticipated his plan to revive the monarchy with himself on the throne. For this ceremony, a special set of archaized garbs were designed for himself, the ranked officials, and the ritual assistants,” Wong said.

In a talk at New York’s Korea Cultural Service in 2014, Wong explained how in the late 19th century, a Korean diplomatic attaché named Yu Gil-jun came to the United States and donated his wardrobe to the Peabody Museum in Salem, MA. He was among the first Koreans to cut off his topknot and don Western-style dress. Upon returning to Korea, he played a key role in cultural and political reforms.

“Fashion, Identity, and Power in Modern Asia,” is under contract with Palgrave Macmillan and will be available next year, she said.

Some of Prof. Wong’s other publications include “Parting the Mists: Discovering Japan and the Rise of National-Style Painting in Modern China,” “Visualizing Beauty: Gender and Ideology in Modern East Asia,” and “The Other Kang Youwei: Calligrapher, Art Activist and Aesthetic Reformer in Modern China.”

In “Parting the Mists,” Wong sheds light on Japan’s role in the creation of national-style painting in early-20th-century China. National-style painting, also known as “Guohua,” is a form of brush paintings on silk and paper. It is often misunderstood as a purely native invention in modern China, she said. The book discusses notable artists of national-style painting, their transition to modernism and their relationship with Japan, where they found ideas to create this art form that became a mainstream in China.

“Visualizing Beauty,” an anthology edited by Professor Wong, looks at the intersection of feminine ideals and subjectivity, as well as the advancement of commerce, modernity and colonialism in China, Japan and Korea during the early 20th century. Sources examined included fashion design magazines, newspaper illustrations and paintings of women, all of which conveyed concepts of beauty and female identities.

Wong has begun research on traditionalist ink painting in Taiwan and Hong Kong and its use during the Cold War and colonial eras, she said.

She prefers to study various countries and connect threads of cross-cultural thinking because it allows one to see influences and ideas circulating around different zones. According to Wong, this cannot be seen when looking at history from a single-nation perspective and during a single time period.

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