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BMoA explores identity in spring exhibitions

Identity is a recurring theme in art, with creators often depicting how they see their world or how they are portrayed within it. For its spring exhibitions, the Bakersfield Museum of Art explores this idea with three thought-provoking collections.

The artists highlighted in "Personal to Political: Celebrating the African American Artists of Paulson Fontaine Press" tell their stories through a variety of mediums including quilts, sculptures, etchings, paintings and prints in the 50-plus-piece collection.

BMoA is the penultimate stop for this touring exhibition, organized by the Bedford Gallery at the Lesher Center for the Arts, in Walnut Creek. It echoes the mission of the Paulson Fontaine Press, a Berkeley-based fine art studio that is committed to amplifying important voices in the visual arts.

The collection addresses “the conversation of race and representation in contemporary art," Carrie Lederer, curator of "Personal to Political" at Bedford Gallery, said in a news release.

BMoA curator Rachel Wainwright said when first proposing the exhibit she was drawn to the portraits by Kerry James Marshall and the work of the Gee's Bend Quilters.

"I saw the Kerry James Marshall show that was at MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art). He has an interest in elevating Blackness, the Black archetype and how it was erased from the canon."

This exhibition features both prints of the patterns as well as actual quilts from the women of Gee's Bend, a small Black community along the Alabama River that began its crafting tradition in the 1920s.

"I just love the idea of these, passed down from generation to generation," Wainwright said. "Upon first glance, they seem like an abstract painting. You see geometries like those we associate with abstractionism. But they tell a much deeper story, documenting family histories, family faith."

"They're very smartly curated to add a tactile dimension to this show."

All of the works delve into the ideas of history, identity and personal experience as well as spirituality. These explorations make for a varied presentation.

Wainwright said, "I think it's important to know there is no common experience. It's the diversity of human experience."

‘Under the Kern County Sky’

Local artist Prapat Sirinavarat explores his unique experience as a Thai native who has made his new home in Kern County in "Under the Kern County Sky: Prapat Sirinavarat."

Sirinavarat studied fine arts and graphic arts in Thailand before moving to the U.S. in 1999. He moved from Lancaster to Bakersfield in 2003, working as an assistant chef at his sister's restaurant Singha Thai and creating art.

His pieces have been featured at the BMoA at numerous Visual Arts Festivals as well as other local galleries over the years.

When it comes to his work, Sirinavarat said he brings everything he has to it: "my artistic style, my technique, my experience, my mind, my love."

"I create my art with love," he wrote in an email. "The same concept, never the same image. Only one piece in the universe."

Wainwright said his work evokes surrealism with its fantastical elements juxtaposed with real-life depictions of oil fields and agricultural land.

She said, "He uses these themes and symbolism for living in California — a bear, oil fields — for dealing with his hybrid identity now as a Thai person living in Bakersfield and how that has changed his outlook."

His painting "The Culture Bridge" is a perfect example of these ideas. He created it in 2011 for the Visual Arts Festival with the theme of "connection."

"The idea is Thailand and Kern County," the artist wrote. "An elephant is the symbol of Thailand and a bear is Kern County."

"I like surrealism, fantasy art, dreaming, when I have the idea to create art from imagination."

He is fond of the aphorism "ars longa, vita brevis," which translates from the Latin to "skillfulness takes time and life is short."

Wainwright said that really embodies his work. It is a message that he also shared with The Californian in how vital his art is to him.

"I was born to create art until I die. Art is long, life is short."

‘Exploring the Figure’

For the final piece in the spring exhibitions, Wainwright looked close to home for "Exploring the Figure: Selections from BMoA’s Permanent Collection."

The exhibit taps the museum's collection of more than 400 pieces for this study of the figure as a form of communication.

"We have this incredible collection that’s continued to grow," Wainwright said. "It’s bound by an interest in California-based artists and from the 19th century to present day."

"Every time we have an opportunity to bring that out, it’s important to tackle it from a new angle."

She describes it as a dynamic show in which viewers see artists "question their existence, their identity."

"Working with the permanent collection, it's exciting for me to see them in a different light."

Works include those from Javier Carrillo, whose portraits, portrayed as loteria cards, depict the people from his life growing up in Los Angeles; and James Broughton's 1948 experimental film starring Marion Osborn Cunningham, the museum's original namesake. (In 1946, the museum opened as the Cunningham Memorial Gallery.)

An example of exploring film as an artistic medium in its early stages, it delves into the social politics of the family.

"To put the figure in motion (through film) is what allowed for the story," she said.

The film was featured at a BMoA Surrealist Masquerade event in 2016 but this is the first time it will be on extended display. It will screen in the museum's Ablin Gallery.

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter: @realstefanidias.