Rice Story
Eye of the Rice
14.5' x 17', IDEA Gallery view
Flo Oy Wong, 1993

Gallery · Statement · Biographies · Bibliography · Essay

Essay
Flo Oy Wong

Flo Oy Wong: Eye of the Rice
Terri Cohn

"I hear my heart beat through rice sacks
that were carried to my family long ago."

Food. The sustenance of life. A source of comfort and pleasure, vitality and well-being. The theme of personal and universal stories, dreams and psychological symbolism; the embodiment of cultural memory and spiritual ritualism.

The representation of food in its myriad aspects - ripe for harvest, resting voluptuously in porcelain bowls, in preparation, or being consumed - has always been a primary subject for art. Of particular significance to artists throughout the centuries has been the modest fare of the working class, and the poignant bond created by the simple act of sharing sustenance. This activity has been rendered throughout history by artists around the world, ranging from Pompeiian wall painters, to seventeenth and eighteenth century Dutch and Japanese genre artists who revered the simplicity of peasant meals, to Van Gogh, whose earthy Potato Eaters expresses the quintessential and monumentally conjunctive role food serves in our lives.

Food has remained a primary subject and metaphor in a contemporary art context. This has been particularly evident in the work of artists who have used comestibles to address personal and political issues, continually reminding us of the profound impact and significance food has in our lives. Pop artists used processed and "fast" foods as signifiers of the triteness, growing commercialization and dissolution of values in American art and culture; in Carmen Lomas Garza's extensive visual chronicle of her family, food represents the connective tissue of domestic nurturance as well as of Chicano cosmology and world view. Following in this extensive tradition, Flo Oy Wong has been involved with a profound exploration of rice as a vehicle to express her spiritual and creative essence, as well as the meanings and metaphors inherent in this primary staple of her life as an American woman and artist of Chinese descent.

Wong's Asian Rice Sack Series is an ongoing body of handsewn work in which she has used rice and rice sacks as fundamental media with which to discover and express her personal, collective and cultural narratives and concerns. Like the African griot, or storyteller, Wong serves in a significant role as keeper of family and group history, tradition, and ceremonial activities. While her oeuvre also includes analogous bodies of painting and installation work, she has perpetually returned to rice as her fundamental emblematic and narrative medium. As artist Hung Liu wrote of the world view she shares with Wong,

As Chinese, we learn from an early age how important the rice bowl is in our lives. It symbolizes the fundamental necessities in life: responsibility among family members, the struggle for survival and the measurement of prosperity.
(From Hung Liu, "Introduction1: Rice Sack and Other Stories," Kaleidoscope: An Exhibition of Ink Paintings and Drawings by Flo Oy Wong, ed. by Moira Roth and Diane Tani, p. 4.)

At the nucleus of this body of work has been Eye of the Rice: Yu Mai Gee Fon, a remarkable ongoing mixed media installation that was initially stimulated by meeting sculptor Ruth Asawa, who was crocheting with wire, traditionally defined as "women's work" and craft media, in fine art contexts. Conceptually, Wong intended the piece as a tribute to Chinese immigrants and the struggles they had encountered in this "land of the free." However, synchronous with Wong's larger artistic process, she worked on the rice sacks for four years, embroidering shapes with colored threads, sequins, and lee see, before she began to fully realize that the monumental stitched collage was the embodiment of her personal legacy: the shooting of her father by a disgruntled relative when she was nearly a year old. Built upon an ever-metamorphosing and expanding foundation of asserted label rice sacks, Eye of the Rice honors her mother's and father's courage and healing from this family disaster, and the support relatives offered during that time by donating sacks of rice so their family could eat. Among its many unfolding contemplated and unpremeditated intentions, the piece has been an inroad to understanding the impact of this childhood incident on the fabric of her being.

Over the decade Wong has worked on Eye of the Rice, the needlework has grown materially to include such objects as a watch similar to the actual one that stopped the fourth bullet intended to decimate her father, and conceptually to encompass tributes to her siblings, her husband, and her children, as well as more political, gender and race related concerns. Some of the homages are associational manipulations of the text printed on the rice sacks, like the "Texas Patna Enriched Rice," sack on which she circled "Pa" and "Ed" (her husband) in gold ribbon from the latter's sixtieth birthday celebration, while on others she has highlighted their "AA" trademark, appropriating it to refer to "Asian American." Wong has also written text with her non-dominant hand, including "My Tongue Speaks" in sequins, which makes reference to multi-racial issues addressed in Marlon Riggs' film of the same name, but also has inherent dualistic connotations. The piece has a trapuntoed eye with seven tendrils of tears, meant to represent the artist and her siblings, and three spirals that refer to Wong and her parents but also allude to Van Gogh's turbulently beautiful, helix-filled Starry Night sky.

While these are merely a handful of the abundant associational manipulations Wong has made over the past decade on the Eye of the Rice, they are indicators of the feminist and multiracial tracts that have infused the breadth of her oeuvre and reveal the depth of the artist's social conscience. The need to "speak out," conveyed in Eye of the Rice; to Bitter Melon Rice Blues: Elegy for America, dedicated to the memory of Asian Americans who have been victims of anti-Asian hate crimes; and I Don't Remember Where the Chinese Cook Lived, a rice sack bedroom created for Falkirk Cultural Center demonstrate how rice has served as a vehicle for Wong to convey her sorrow at the biases that have impacted on everyone. Her feelings of outrage are underscored by the belief that we are all Americans, as well as the sense of identification she feels with people of all races. A recent piece, part of the Asian Rice Sack Series and started during Wong's trip to China for the 1995 International Women's Conference, includes signatures of conferees and others from around the world. Considered in the context of her consistent metaphoric intent or effect with this aquatic cereal grass, the way in which it sticks together serves as an allegory for the global women's community. This feminist aspect is a crucial feature of the multi-component Asian Rice Sack Series for Wong, because in this context rice symbolically represents the holistic nurturing that Chinese culture has traditionally denied women, based solely on gender.

The largest ongoing cycle of pieces in the Asian Rice Sack Series is the Baby Jack Rice Story, an ever-metamorphosing installation of rice sacks, photo-silkscreened with images of two households: one, the Chinese American family of her husband, Edward K. Wong; and the other, the African American household of Cut and Bikini Caddie, childhood friends of her husband. Articulated with handsewn text that accompanies the images screened on each sack, the series is narrated from the perspective of Ed's memories of growing up in the segregated American South during the 1930s and 40s. The juxtaposition of photo-silkscreened images of Ed Wong and the Cades has great meaning in the context of the racially complex milieu of their personal childhood experiences, as well as the concept that the photographs impose personal history on the images of cultural representation. While the rice sacks are a fine foil for the visual and written narrative communicated by the Baby Jack Rice Story the racially integrative component of the tale is personally augmented by the name of the series, which was an African American translation of a term of endearment, "be be jai" (baby son), that Ed's mother used for him; and politically by the fact that the Chinese Americans and African Americans in Augusta lived and worked in the same neighborhoods. African Americans in the South also were traditionally rice growers and rice eaters as well. In pursuing their inquiry into Ed's childhood history, Flo and Ed Wong have located members of other protagonists in the narrative, including the Dawsons, who lived on Wrightsboro Road; and Howard Woo whose uncle purchased Ed s father store after they left for California. By reclaiming this living history, the artist has infused the Baby Jack Rice Story with vitality as both a personal epic and as a work of art.

With the Baby Jack Rice Story Wong again pays tribute to the cross-cultural influences on her artistic vision, in this case technically as well as conceptually. With the series, Wong has expanded her ongoing exploration of color and its symbolism, appropriating red to refer to Chinese culture and good luck, and brown to symbolize African Americans. She has also moved into a new realm of media exploration by photosilkscreening directly on the rice sacks. Recognizing the remarkable power of the Baby Jack images in juxtaposition with the textual aspect of the rice sacks, she pays respect to Robert Rauschenberg and his early avant garde experiments with serigraphy on cardboard boxes, a non-traditional material. Equally profound in the context of this series is Wong's consistent use of handsewn narrative, inspired by Faith Ringgold's various Quilt Series in which Ringgold masterfully integrates images and text in a handquilted framework. This meaningful facet of Baby Jack continues Wong's recognition of the authoritative end to which "women's work" has been employed in contemporary art.

A griot, keeper of the Chinese "talk story" tradition, and humanitarian witness and chronicler of the integrative milieu that she has chosen to document and visualize hopefully for the future, Wong's artistic vision also nurtures like jook, the Chinese rice soup prepared for occasions of comfort. Reminiscent of William Blake's famous poetic line "to see a world in a grain of sand," Flo Oy Wong's holistic uses of rice can be appreciated as countless extraordinary fragments of her life, melded together to partially fill a bowl that awaits its next layer of warm sustenance.


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Index S-W

All text Terri Cohn.
All artwork Flo Oy Wong.