Connie Zheng, "The Lonely Age," film still (image via YouTube)

SAN FRANCISCO —In 2019, Abby Chen, the curator of contemporary art at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, decided she wanted to give a platform to artists making short films that express the urgency of issues like climate change, racism, and inequality — with resilience and joy.

“I think the world is changing,” she said over the phone. “And if the museum would like to play a role to reflect that change, we need to embrace these artists who have never been exhibited and have their particular commentary.”

Chen, who has been with the museum about a year and a half, was thinking about a short film program when she heard from Padma Maitland, an architecture professor at California Polytechnical Institute. Maitland, who was a curator of Asian art at Stanford’s Cantor Center for the Arts, as well as at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, wanted to do a project on hope.

Chen liked this idea. “We’re all looking for hope and clinging to hope,” she said. “I think that art and artists have some kind of avenue to express that.”

Chen and Maitland worked with Viv Liu, research assistant for contemporary art at the Asian Art Museum, all of them contacting curators and artists they knew around the world, looking for the most interesting videos. They particularly looked at regions that don’t get a lot of attention in museums in the United States, such as Azerbejian, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. They took the films they got — all under 20 minutes — and put together After Hope: Videos of Resistance, a loop of about six-and-a-half hours that will screen 24 hours a day in the museum’s Lee Gallery.

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The videos include Connie Zheng’s “The Lonely Age” (Part I), about people in a dystopian future searching for magic seeds with curative properties. Tina Takemoto’s “Looking for Jiro,” inspired by Jiro Onuma — a gay man who worked in the Topaz prison camp dining hall while incarcerated during World War II — imagines how he survived the loneliness of the camps. And Orkhan Huseynov’s “Dear Beloved” dramatizes the narratives of scam emails with dying widows, gold rings, funds in a secret European vault, and requests for ATM visa card numbers.

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Part of the idea of After Hope is to build global solidarity among people in the arts. Artists and curators involved have met online, taking part in programs like “Chinatown Futures,” about community organizing and the role of artists, and “Building Sanctuary, Being Refuge,” a conversation with two Buddhist authors about hope, fear, race and identity. Upcoming on February 27 is “Leaving the Ground: A Lausan Roundtable,” a conversation between artists, translators, and organizers focused on leftist solidarity with Hong Kong and its political future.

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“How does art engage with the community and the world?” said Maitland, who has curated all the events. “Looking at an issue and seeing how art can be part of that highlights the gray zones and challenges.”

“It’s this lens of different artists’ experiences,” he said of the short videos. “And it gives us an immediate window into someone’s experience.”

Along with the videos, the exhibit has ephemeral material. Chen says they asked artists and curators to send things like posters and underground magazine and poetry. She says they wanted the videos to run continuously with no schedule to make this a different kind of museum experience.

“When people walk into a museum, there’s so much to see,” she said. “These are short videos, and if you stay in the gallery for 15 or 20 minutes, you’re guaranteed to view more than one work. Then you could walk around and come back and something different will be playing.”

Dealing with a crisis like the global pandemic at a time when so many people are dealing with despair and grief requires something more out of museums, Chen says.

“I cannot just say ‘Let’s just bring contemporary art in the museum for presentation,’” she said. “In addition, we have to think how to transfer that sense of care from objects to human beings and to the issues human beings are dealing with.”

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...