May I Have your Attention, Please?
Metro Gallery, 23 Sept 2017
Despite their reliance on visuality, art in general and painting in particular are subject to a number of invisible processes. The layers that are integral to realizing the final product—not only the materials that are covered in the process, but also the research, the experiments, the education of the artist—are rarely seen upon exhibition.
In Mek Yambao’s first solo, she uses this aspect of painting and its invisible processes, allowing the practice to express her interests in feminism. While the female form has usually been at the center of Yambao’s work, in May I have your attention please, the female form is used to illustrate a story of female labor and systemic inequality. What is it to be uncelebrated? To be excluded or erased from grand narratives? Yambao asks these questions in the context of making magic happen, filling the canvas instead with assistants and background characters in a showcase of what we fail to see.
In Yambao’s words, these are paintings of “underrepresented women and their roles that are often taken for granted.” The foregrounding in this sense of the beautiful female figure only highlights Yambao’s observation that an audience will notice beauty before it understands the work or the labor that beauty is expected to perform. In the case of the magician’s assistant, whose beauty is treated as merely decorative, Yambao attempts to “shift the spotlight and reverse the trope.” The resulting images depart from the spectacle often witnessed at magic shows. In place of magic is a visible melancholy and a sense of loss: A disappearing act, but with none of the fanfare.
As commentary, this relates to decades of feminist art that seeks to name what has been rendered nameless or present what remains unseen. Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party comes to mind, but so does Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art. Ukeles’s work was accompanied by a manifesto that affirmed how “The culture” referring not only to American culture, but the culture of Museums, galleries, and art in general, “confers lousy status on maintenance jobs = minimum wages, housewives = no pay.”
Ukeles continues the manifesto by claiming the care of domestic space as the production of modern life, prying further into issues of labor and oppression by asking, “What is the relationship between maintenance and freedom?” While work as a site of oppression is underscored by the characters Yambao paints in May I have your attention please, also resonating with the work are contemporary issues surrounding visibility and the demands for acknowledgement. It should just as well be noted that Yambao is part of a generation that refuses to back down against the threat of an autocratic, fascist regime, a generation that claims both the streets and social media to make its voice heard. Attention, in this case, refers not only to one’s eyes on the painting, or even on the beautiful women pushed to the wings or used as props in a magician’s performance. Rather than asking, Yambao’s title is a statement in the imperative, demanding recognition of equality and acceptance of differences.
While painting may seem too conventional a medium for political statements—made impotent by its commercial and decorative uses—Yambao uses it as a tool for reclaiming tradition, subverting it for her own needs so she may say what she needs to say – so she may have your attention. Please.
 Mierle Laderman Ukeles. “Manifesto for Maintenance Art” (1969). Retrieved from http://www.feldmangallery.com/media/pdfs/Ukeles_MANIFESTO.pdf.