Curating the Familiar

A Mizzou senior uses art to celebrate “ordinary people.”

Cua poses for a portrait in Sager Braudis Gallery in downtown Columbia. Photo by Shane Epping.

Story by Sarah Sabatke

On the first day of her internship at Sager Braudis Gallery in downtown Columbia, Kat Cua was put right to work. Art pieces in the “Hallery” — a smaller hallway off of the main gallery space — needed to be switched out. Cua was to take down the artworks, patch and repaint the walls, and choose which artworks she would like to hang on the walls next.

“They just were like, ‘OK, you can do this,’ ” the Mizzou senior in magazine editing and art history says, “and then trusted me with it and let me do my own thing.”

Cua, a Chicago native, based the theme of that first exhibit on something she was familiar with: city life and the bustle of an urban environment.

“I started thinking of modern themes,” she says. “I wanted to mimic this idea of being in the city.”

The rabbit hole

Art was not always in the plans. Says Cua, “Growing up, I wanted to be Katie Couric, and I wanted to anchor the Today show.” It wasn’t until her senior year of high school that she discovered the world of art history.

“That was the rabbit hole,” Cua says of her high school AP art history course. “I just fell in love with it.”

Upon arriving at MU, Cua studied in the School of Journalism and took art history classes as electives. Eventually, she had amassed enough credits that she decided to add an art history major as well.

“Art history was never the plan, but it was something I just kept doing, and it became a plan,” Cua says.

Cua joined Alpha Chi Omega as a freshman in 2014 and was encouraged by some of her sisters to explore art history courses — they said it had benefitted their journalism and might benefit Cua, too.

“I think we’re very lucky as journalism students at Mizzou to have this sort of hands-on opportunity through the Missouri method,” Cua says. “I wanted to also do that with art history.”

“As I am”

As a part of her internship with Sager Braudis Gallery, Cua was tasked with a final project: curating her own exhibit from start to finish. Corresponding with artists, choosing the artwork, organizing shipping, installing the work — everything was in her hands.

This was the poster advertising Cua’s show at Sager Braudis Gallery in downtown Columbia. Provided by Kat Cua.

“What I wanted to do with my own show was to celebrate ordinary people and to give them this elevation,” said Cua.

The show, titled “As I Am,” was inspired by an Instagram post by artist Toyin Ojih Odutola. The post is a photo of the words “Take. A. Knee.” The caption reads, in part: “Imagine never being afforded the luxury to be unremarkable nor the privilege to get bored.”

For Cua, this caption was a powerful reminder of how she felt growing up.

“That really stuck with me, being an Asian American and being charged with this idea of being a model minority.”

Cua curated her show in a way that not only celebrated ordinary people but particularly the women who she says were “basically written out of art history.” She emphasized including people of color and queer identities.

“My whole basis behind this was that this exceptionalism we have in American culture, where marginalized people, particularly people of color, are only celebrated when they … are the absolute best [at] whatever they do,” said Cua.

Even the location of her show was significant. Cua chose to showcase her exhibit in the “Hallery,” which was alongside the main gallery. At the time of Cua’s show, the main gallery was filled with work from 20th-century masters who, Cua observed, were all men.

Lessons learned

It’s only been a few months since her internship with the gallery ended, but Cua already misses the experience and the people she interacted with.

“Every time I think about them I want to cry,” she says. “It gave me great insight into what it’s like working in the gallery and how to lean on each other.”

Finding a home on campus

All this might never have happened had it not been for a leap of faith as a freshman and a team of fellow students who turned into friends.

“I had a really rough first semester at Mizzou,” Cua says. “I didn’t feel like I belonged here, because I wasn’t really finding a connection here.”

She wanted to transfer back home after her first semester but was persuaded by her mother to give it more time. Cua took a chance and decided to apply for the Mizzou Tour Team.

“I was like, ‘If I don’t get it, I’m leaving,’ ” she says.

After the final round of interviews, Cua says she received an email saying the organizers needed to do one more round of interviews because there were “so many great applicants.” The interview was on short notice. Cua told her friends she wasn’t going to attend.

“They were like, ‘You’re going!’ “

Cua arrived for the interview and, along with the other applicants, was taken to Francis Quadrangle.

“We turn, and the rest of tour team is there, and everyone’s jumping and screaming, and they’re like, ‘Congratulations! You made it!,’ ” Cua says. “And I’m here, warily running, like, “What are you talking about? When’s the interview?’ ”

Cua had landed the job, something she says “meant the world” at the time.

”Being around that sort of enthusiasm made me so excited to be here.”

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