December 2016 Feature: MELANIE ELVENA
by Pamela Ybañez
In 2013 I was sitting in the Asian American Women Artists Association's office space to discuss an upcoming show. At the end of the meeting I met Melanie Elvena; she didn’t say a lot during the meeting but I soon learned that she was a powerhouse. Since that time, we’ve worked on a few projects together and it’s been a great learning experience while working with her. She is extremely passionate about the projects she is involved with, both as an arts organizer and as a creative individual.
Currently, Melanie is the Artistic Director at Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, as well as an activist and independent curator living and working in the SF Bay Area. Melanie serves as Programs Manager at Asian American Women Artists Association and was the APAture Festival Coordinator for Kearny Street Workshop in the multidisciplinary arts festival’s return in 2013. She has extensive experience in the nonprofit sector, specifically working in community arts and actively supports art that is engaging, socially conscious, and brings awareness to the community.
Pamela Ybañez: How did you get started working with the Asian American arts community?
Melanie Elvena: I went to the University of California, Irvine for my Bachelors in Art History with an emphasis in Contemporary Art. The very last class I took there during my last quarter was an Asian American art history course. I had previously taken some Asian American Studies classes and Art and Globalization courses, but I decided to give this one a go because I had never previously thought about Asian Americans in the context of art history. It’s almost absurd to even think that now.
The course was intriguing, I learned so much about different Asian American art movements and organizations, and I related so much to its content. I even got to co-curate and present a visual arts exhibition concept. From then on I was hooked, and I knew that I wanted to explore this more. Luckily, Krystal Hauseur, who taught the course, did her Masters at SF State University and worked with organizations like Asian American Women Artists Association and Kearny Street Workshop. So once I moved back to the Bay Area and got settled, she gave me contact info for these organizations where I started volunteering and interning.
Pam: How long have you worked with the Asian American arts community in the Bay Area?
Mel: I’ve been working in the Bay Area Asian American arts community since 2013, so fairly recently.
Pam: What creative personal projects are you involved in?
Mel: Currently, I’m having a moment in theater and performance projects. I’m in a production for the Bay Area Playwrights Foundation’s FlashPlays! - a festival of 70+ microplays written by local playwrights about the complexities of San Francisco. Along with my four other castmates, I’m being directed by May Liang in a segment of 10 one-minute plays about social justice. Our plays deal with themes like immigration, homelessness, environmentalism, racism, etc. that come at a perfect time when many of us are looking for an outlet to express our anger, grief, and anxiety.
I’m also in the process of forming a diverse women’s barbershop quartet whose repertoire consists of a mixture of original and cover songs. Our music will focus on songs with messages of empowerment.
Lastly, I’m working on bringing more quality visual art shows to Bindlestiff Studio, the nation’s only theater dedicated to Filipino and Filipino American performing arts. I love when different mediums intersect, and it’s a great opportunity to highlight some local Filipino visual artists whose themes and values also reflect such a vital, beloved community space.
Pam: How do you feel like working with the Asian American arts community influences you as an artist?
Mel: Working within an Asian American arts community influences me constantly. It’s the lens with which I first and foremost view and examine the world. Whenever I’m creating or conceptualizing something, Asian Americans tend to be my default audience. And these are deliberate choices. In doing this, I subvert mainstream narratives that center around Western views and whiteness.
Pam: Have you been able to find a balance between working as an arts organizer and your creative efforts, or is it a struggle to find that balance?
Mel: I’m constantly caught in a balancing act between arts organizing and creative projects! On one hand, there is often a lack of opportunities and resources for artists of color to produce and show their work. By organizing and curating exhibitions, programs, and performances, I’m able to fill that gap while supporting and collaborating with some amazing artists. This is how we will create impactful spaces for our communities and ensure future generations of creatives and critical thinkers. But on the other hand, I’m still an artist at my core...I have this constant need to create, to perform, to express. So then how do I spread out my creative energy stores so I can perform three times a week while organizing an annual arts festival, an arts exhibition, and a short play theater production? It’s difficult, to say the least. Sometimes one job takes priority over the other, and I just try my best to use my time effectively. But if someone figures out the perfect formula between work, art, and getting a full night’s sleep, please tell me.
Pam: Some artists don’t want to be pigeonholed and feel that being involved in organizations that are specific to their ethnicity or gender may be too limiting. What do you think are some benefits for artists of color who may have these thoughts?
Mel: To be an artist rooted in a community of color or gender-specific community can be quite empowering. You get to be exposed to, in dialogue with, and mentored by artists who share some of your own experiences. These communities will be the first spaces to validate your work as an artist, and they provide you with resources with which to navigate the art world. Most importantly, these organizations can help you make connections that create meaningful pathways for your practice.
Pam: Do you feel that institutions are changing to become more inclusive to artists of color or do you feel that the status quo remains the same?
Mel: I feel like institutions are aware of their exclusivity and know that if they do not engage and include artists of color, they will be wasting an untapped audience. But all in all, the status quo remains the same. Institutions should stop busying themselves with diversity, and really start focusing on cultural equity - what it means to have equitable arts opportunities and representation for artists of color. For me, this means also having people of color from the arts community working at higher-level leadership positions within these institutions. Only when equity is addressed as a key issue will artists of color feel welcome within institutions.
Pam: What would you like to share in terms of knowledge you’ve learned to young up-and-coming Asian American artists?
Mel: Never stop learning - always find ways to hone your craft and explore themes and subjects important to you. Always question everything - processes, institutions, authority figures, histories, narratives, etc. Doing these things will add depth to your practice and keep you observant.