On February 8, Chinese New Year Day, I had the great pleasure to chat with Dr. Ping Foong. We talked about art, work, and life.
Foong enjoys cooking and food, and has been exploring Seattle, her new home, by visiting restaurants and ethnic grocery stores, to find the ingredients to accurately create dishes from her native Malaysia and other cultures. She enjoys reading science fiction and fantasy. She exercises her creative muscles, quite literally, by dancing Argentinean Tango.
Foong grew up in Malaysia as a Chinese minority, attended a British boarding school in Singapore, where she learned English. She came to the United States for higher education. Since then, she’s made a career as an art historian, researcher, and university professor for many years before embarking on this new journey as a museum curator.
She describes how, as a college student at Brown University, she accidentally found the subject of art history.
Ping Foong: I was studying, as good Chinese kids study, mathematics, engineering, and computer science … And I was signed up for an engineering class. … I happened to go to the wrong building. I went instead to the art building. And I was wondering what was happening because the lights went down, after I sat down. And it turned out to be a very interesting lecture. My professor … made some comparisons which really blew my mind. I never knew that one could do that and make those kinds of observations, and then what one might think about after making those observations. So that is a process that I’ve kept with me all these years, it’s been … 25 years. And this is something that I never forget … it was such a startling new way of thinking. So since then I never looked back. I changed my major and I decided that this was what I was going to do.
Fred Wong: What was your family’s reaction?
PF: They were not so happy at first. And they were very confused … up until the moment that I received my PhD, and then they said, “Oh now I get it … now I understand what this long time in school was for.” They’re very proud of me of course. But they like the curatorial job, they understand what that means a little bit better than what a professor means.
FW: How would you describe your job?
PF: I would say that being a curator is primarily about being a good communicator. To be able to explain art objects to the members of the community who may not necessarily have any background whatsoever, and yet to do it in such an engaging way that it’s also a learning process about something of a new culture. … To understand something about the past is no less unfamiliar than going to a new country. So in a way, it requires somebody to lead you. Ideally, you can hear somebody, a curator talk … But of course, you can do it yourself. You can go to the galleries, to try and understand based on the interpretive materials like the labels, or the context like the room itself. … So for me, the curatorial part is to make both visible and invisible decisions so that this process becomes easier and easier for someone. If I place two objects next to each other, it’s probably of some significance. That’s the curatorial process.
The other thing … very interesting about this job is I also get to learn things that are new to me. So, I’m a scholar of ancient China … and my area of specialty is … ink landscape paintings. A wonderful genre to work in, and I’ve done it for the last 20 years. My book just came out. So now is a good moment for me to learn something new … As a curator, I get to explore things I’ve never explored before, namely, modern and contemporary art, the global aspects of artists coming out of China right now.
FW: How would you illuminate Asian history for an Asian American audience?
PF: I don’t think of Asian Americans necessarily as a separate group. In a way, I teach the way that I teach, so that the kind of explanation that I make, should be more broadly applicable. So really it is about not making assumptions … about American or about Asian culture, so why should we make assumptions about Asian American culture? … It’s not like you’re born with culture in your veins, necessarily, and certainly not ancient culture. One has to learn about this. … I [also] find it relatively easy, I think, to put myself in somebody’s own shoes, especially somebody who is Asian American because I am also. I never grew up with it. I actually discovered Chinese art in America. [In Asia], the acceptable professions relate to being a doctor or lawyer or a business person, there’s no such thing as an art historian. … I had to come [to the United States] to discover it for myself. So that process of discovery was relatively easy for me to impart to somebody else.
Foong says that for many Asian Americans studying Asian art, it is a way to connect with their culture and heritage, and learn language. Studying art history also hones one’s observational and writing skills. Many of her former students have carried these skills into careers like science research and medicine.
Foong describes her first Seattle exhibition about the ancient Silk Road city of Dunhuang as “a little bit of my past, and it marks a little bit of the future too.” During WWII, James and Lucy Lo made an incredibly arduous journey to remote Dunhuang, took over 2,500 photographs with dual aims of artistry and historical documentation, and collected ancient texts and drawings. Foong speaks fondly of Lucy Lo who “treated me so kindly in grad school … and who is a grand 94 years old today.”
Dunhuang was at a crossroads of the civilizations of East Asia, Central Asia, and the Western world, a center of trade and pilgrimage, and a gateway for new forms of art, culture, and religions. It reminds me of our own city of Seattle, also a gateway and a place of mixing cultures.
Foong brings out for me, many fascinating insights into the past, which has periods that are open-minded, diverse, and perhaps like our own. She hopes to build good relationships with our Asian American community, and that we together will enjoy investing time and attention in learning about our past through its art.
Meet Dr. Foong on March 16, at ‘Conversations With Curators: An Evening With SAM’s Newest Curator’ as she discusses the Asian Art Museum’s newest exhibition ‘Journey To Dunhuang: Buddhist Art Of The Silk Road Caves,’ opening in March.