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Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe

    Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe is the first public solo exhibition in Europe of the work of Ruth Asawa (1926-2013). Focusing on a dynamic formative period in her life from 1945 to 1980, the exhibition gives audiences a unique experience of the artist and her work, exploring her legacy as an abstract sculptor crucial to modernism in the United States.

    The exhibition features her signature hanging sculptures in looped- and tied-wire and celebrates her holistic integration of art, education and community engagement, through which she called for an inclusive and revolutionary vision for art’s role in society.

    Running parallel with the creation of her acclaimed sculptures, Asawa was committed to arts education. This aspect of her practice is explored in the exhibition through a selection of her drawing and printmaking, as well as archival materials displaying her work as an arts activist for professional artists working in state schools.

    Key projects include her Milk Carton Sculptures, which encourage children to playfully interrogate found materials to deepen their understanding of abstract mathematical thinking. Asawa was ardently committed to art education’s role in transforming and empowering both adults and children, and was dedicated to giving children the opportunity to work directly with professional artists.

    Her lifelong philosophy of the “integration of creative labour within daily life” was nurtured during her studies in the progressive educational environment of Black Mountain College from 1946-49. Here she joined the courses of artist Josef Albers and choreographer Merce Cunningham, and formed a lifelong friendship with visionary inventor and architect R. Buckminster Fuller. As a result of her experience Asawa wrote in 1948 that she was “a citizen of the universe…I no longer identify myself as a Japanese or an American”.

    Her understanding that humanity and identity transcend race and class divisions enabled Asawa to overcome the discrimination that had shaped her early life. As a first generation Japanese American growing up on the eve of World War II, Asawa experienced extreme racial prejudice. Following the outbreak of the war, the United States government forced 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, including Asawa and her family, to live in internment camps.

    Despite the extreme conditions, for Asawa, the internment was the first step on a journey to a world of art that profoundly changed who she was and what she thought was possible in life, spending most of her free time drawing and painting, learning from an animator from Walt Disney Studios who was among the internees.

    Citizen of the Universe celebrates Asawa’s intricate suspended wire sculptures, explores her home life through photographic material, and displays drawings and archival material of her progressive education programmes and her time at Black Mountain College. For Asawa, living a full life meant being socially engaged, having a family, creating art with them, and fully participating in the life of her local community.

    Ruth Asawa chose to identify as a citizen of the universe, developing a sense of higher purpose grounded in making daily life better through art. Foregrounding these ideas, this exhibition is an affirmation of her timely relevance as a champion for the vital role creativity plays in daily life.

    The Henry Moore Foundation awarded £8,000 towards this exhibition.

    Ruth Asawa: Citizen of the Universe opens at Modern Art Oxford on 28 May 2022, and continues until 21 August. For more information see modernartoxford.org.uk.