A walking paradox: Asian Art curator Yao Wu embraces the in-between

Photo by Tsemone Ogbemi ‘21 || Yao Wu is Asian Art Curator at the Smith College Museum of Art.  

Photo by Tsemone Ogbemi ‘21 || Yao Wu is Asian Art Curator at the Smith College Museum of Art.  

Tyra Wu '19
Associate Editor

When she was eleven, Yao Wu was pulled aside by her mother and faced with the critical decision that every Chinese student has to make. 

She had taken the entrance exams for two very different junior high schools and was accepted to both; one was a foreign language school with teachers from Australia, Canada and the U.S., and the other was a traditional junior high school. Her mother knelt beside her and touched her on the shoulder.

“Yao, you got into both so which one do you want to go to?” she asked. “You have two choices.” 

That day set a precedent in Wu’s life. She was given the power to choose, a freedom many of people spend years fighting for. Ultimately, she decided on the foreign language school, drawn to the allure of a place that held annual Christmas drama performances. After studying at Fudan University in Shanghai, Wu decided to pursue her master’s at Williams College. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University. 

Wu has been the curator of Asian Art at the Smith College Museum of Art since 2015. As the Jane Chace curator of Asian Art, Wu is responsible for taking care of the existing Asian art, planning for future additions to the collection and leading lectures for museum guests and Smith College classes. On top of all this, she’s currently planning for a special exhibition featuring modern images of the body from East Asia that will be displayed next spring. 
However, Wu wasn’t always set on the path to becoming a curator. It was only after she interned and worked at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, the Guggenheim Museum, Mass MoCA and the Williams College Art Museum that she was convinced to pursue curation as a career. 

As a child growing up in Wuhan, often called the “Chicago of China” because of its role as a transportation hub for China, Wu spent her days drawing, coloring and studying the art of ink-brush painting. 

Her parents were engineers, and with a smile, she recalled growing up around their drafting tools. After a moment, Wu said, “Maybe that’s where the artistic part came in. They both had distinct drafting styles and I could tell who drew it just by looking at it. When I was little that was kind of my playing station.” 

During her junior year in college, she traded swerving taxicabs and endless stacks of buildings in Shanghai for trudging tractors and green grassy fields in Wisconsin, where she studied abroad at Beloit College. 

In retrospect, she matter-of-a-factly describes herself as the typical Chinese college student. But over the course of that year abroad, she learned how to coexist in different cultures. 
“I believe my Asian roots give me a sense of belonging in my American life, and my American life in turn gives me perspective on my cultural identity,” Wu said. 

Since she began her work as Asian Art curator, Wu has worked on a number of projects, including an exhibition in the Christ Asian Art Gallery called “Words and Images in Chinese Culture.” This exhibition was part of a collaborative project with the East Languages and Literature Department in which students in the EAL Chinese Poetry and Other Arts course paired the works on display with poems. She also worked on an exhibition featuring the Hilary Tolman, class of 1987, Collection of Twentieth-Century Japanese Prints, which includes 129 works created during the “creative print” movement in Japanese printmaking. One of Wu’s more recent projects currently on view is an exhibition on Japanese Lacquer from the collection of Dr. Elizabeth E. Force. 

Perhaps Wu described herself best when she called herself a “walking paradox.” To this day, Wu is still very much the girl who shunned the mindless memorization often used in Chinese education in favor of thinking for herself. 

In the spirit of a true artist, Wu has taken aspects of her Chinese culture and parts of the West and merged them into her role as a curator. However despite years of practicing art, Wu would not describe herself as an artist. 

“Every art critic is a failed artist,” she said with a laugh. “You couldn’t produce good art yourself, so you end up criticizing others.” 

Her favorite part about being a curator is talking to people, and she caters the way she speaks about the art for each different group. 

“She’s the agent between the viewer and the artwork,” said Professor Sujane Wu, a colleague in the East Asian Language and Literature Department. “Even though her main object is artwork, she also wants other people to appreciate the artwork. She’s really trying to use simple easy language to make you understand what the artwork is trying to speak to you.”