Thursday, May 28, 2015

Hinterland Arts

Asian American Arts Centre & The Cultural Equity Group presents "Hinterland Arts" at the New Museum's Ideas City

 On Saturday, May 30th 12pm in First Street garden/pavilion near 2nd Ave
Extended - 1pm to 230 pm at CSV - Teatro Latea 107 Suffolk St 2ed Floor 

The Asian American Arts Centre and the Cultural Equity Group (CEG) will bring artists and members of CEG together to see art images and speak about a greater role for the art and culture of this city’s diverse neighborhoods and communities. This conversation brings to light what has been largely invisible in the underbelly of forgotten neighborhoods. CEG is a network of art organizations of color whose cultures represent many if not most of New York residents.

 A bill for developing an equitable Comprehensive Cultural Plan for New York City passed into law recently. Thus equity is finally on the agenda of NYC. Now is the time for open public dialogue and to begin a process to understand what “equity” will mean for our neighborhoods, our city and our nation.

Artists: Zhang Hongtu, Charles Yuen, Nancy Hom, Nadema Agard, Melissa Staiger, Pena Bonita, Athena LaTocha, Maria Hupfield, Cecil Lee, Ed Sherman, Minerva Diaz, Ademola Olugebefola.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Nuo, The Forgotten Folk Art

What is Nuo?
Nuo is a form of Chinese masked drama enacted by a priest or specially trained shamans as a means of exorcism; it is also a theatrical performance with a presentational aspect, and festival, with the idea of gathering to establish ties and norms between heaven and earth, life and death, man and gods, the ruler and his subjects, a very prominent Chinese cosmological concept.

The Nuo rituals have been deeply incorporated into Chinese living. It has also spread widely among people of various ethnicities throughout the ages. One can see many of the similarities to shamanistic practice that knowing the spirit world requires masks, dancing, motion, and theatrical or ceremonial set-up. Considered "spiritual tutors", professional Nuo performers are believed to be capable of wielding magic power to disperse evil demons, spirits, and pestilence. Besides training in ritual procedures and exorcism, the performers also have to be adept in the Nuo opera. The whole ritual procedure includes inviting, welcoming, and thanking spirits. Following the solemn ritual, the Nuo opera will be performed to entertain the spirits. And according to the Chinese folklore, a street parade of legendary generals and deities could best expel evil from the community. Nuo performers at the performing hall or in procession are often equipped with whips and dance in mysterious tunes. They also wear masks painted with black, white and red in various countenances -- some amiable and others ferocious and frightening. Stylistic features and characteristic of the masks vary widely and reveal much about the regions, cultures, and civilizations from which they come. Guizhou and Jiangxi area is famous for the greatest varieties of Nuo opera. Wherever there is a Nuo opera performance in an outlying village, farmers in surrounding villages will trek dozens of kilometers of hillside path to watch. Though some elderly folks still have awe and reverence for the Nuo dancing "gods", fewer now are familiar with the content and expertise of the ritual.

But with the passage of time and increasing popularization of scientific knowledge, the primitive superstitious ritual has now been transformed into a theatrical performance for entertainment and a genre of folk art. Formerly, the ritual gives expression to the uncertainty of early peoples towards the unknown world and universe, but nowadays the most fascinating part is the vivid Nuo opera that follows. The opera itself contains long-standing knowledge about religion, society and ethnic groups in the early stages of human society and provides an important reference for the in-depth study of music, dance and painting as well as other arts. Nuo ritual, considered to be one of the oldest forms of Chinese dancing, is not only a theatrical performance for entertainment in modern society, it is also a matrix of the Chinese arts. From these magical-looking facial coverings, the spectators can theorize on the mythology, art and ancestral view of their creators. The Nuo masks, as the major vehicles in the ritual to transmit gods’ power and benevolence to man, bear a potent, vivid testament of its link with Chinese ancient culture and its folk arts.

The origins and historical background of the Nuo mask ritual
In ancient China, there is a form of dance called Nuo. The Nuo ritual has been practiced in China for thousands of years from the primitive times when early men performed sacrifices and conducted ceremonial services to pay tribute to ancestors, gods, and goddesses while exorcising demons. Dancers used masks to perform at ritual ceremonies to frighten off the ghosts and evil spirits and to relieve people of epidemics. The origins of Nuo culture in Zhejiang province are one of the most ancient and can be traced back over four thousand years to the Liangzhu culture of the neolithic period. In Liangzhu’s ancient sites in Yuhang county large numbers of engraved Taotiedesigns on jade have been discovered and are considered the most ancient and the only source of the designs on Nuo masks. Major Nuo rituals in the courts were documented in the classic "The Book of Rites" which mentioned "the golden four eyes", a reference to the metallic masks performing in the Nuo ritual. Today the Nuo exorcising ritual is best known to be carried on yearly in an outlying villages of ethnic Tujia people at the base of Fanjing Mountain and in southwest China's Guizhou and Jiangxi provinces.

In some districts, the Nuo ritualistic dance later developed into a theatrical and formal performance. A story relates that during the North Qi Period (550-557), Lanling King was too handsome to terrorize the enemy even though he was excelled in martial arts. He began to wear a ferocious-looking mask on the battlefields in order to overwhelm the enemy. This story was later brought onto the stage in South-North (420-589) and Sui-Tang dynasties (618-907), which is known as "The Lanling King" The masks used by the performers in ritual ceremonies and in the performing art had a strong bearing on the origination of the facial make-up in the Chinese operatic performances. In Tang dynasty, masks still were used in low comedy, but started to dye the masks in portrayal of super-human beings. In Ming dynasty (1318-1644), roles among actors divided into more classifications, and operas and facial make-up were gradually standardized. During the Qing time, with the rise of Peking opera, the art of facial make-up became increasingly perfected. Toward the end of Qing dynasty, the facial make-up became finalized. It is also believed that the Nuo mask has its direct historical and stylistic connection with other foreign mask rituals in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Nepal, India, Tibet, and Mongolia as well as Sri Lanka.

Nuo ritual, dances, and plays have always flourished in the Chinese cultural areas, right up to the present day, and in olden times performances took place virtually every month. It later spread widely among people of various ethnicities in the Yangze River valley, the Yellow River valley, and also the secluded southwestern region. It is important to note that while Sichuan, the believed birth place of Chinese Nuo dance, is in the northern cultural zone, it is in the southern religious and spiritual centers that Nuo culture continues to exist and be preserved until today.

This article is researched and authored by Robert Lee, Executive Director & Curator Ling-Yi Chien, Art & Education Consultant Asian American Arts Centre

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Profile: Yoshiki Araki

By Bob Lee

In 2006, the Asian American Arts Centre mounted a one person exhibition for Yoshiki Araki (1950-2000), an artist in NYC who produced a significant body of art works. His works reflected upon the experience of war as key to his generation, including his family's connection to Hiroshima, and his own mother’s experience of searching for her father in the Hiroshima ruins. It was not till many years later that Araki found his voice in NYC and started to fill his large basement in Brooklyn with preparations for a series of photo collages surrounded by paraffin wax, an ambitious project, only some of which were actually completed.  At the time of the exhibition I wrote a press release and an essay for the invitation card which can be seen online at: here and here.

Araki’s family, along with his widow and friends, came all the way from Japan to attend the opening. It was then that I heard of his connection to the photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, how he had come to collect books and magazines, cutting out portions of the photo images he found there, creating finely cut miniature collages from Nobuyoshi’s images and setting them in boxes surrounded by paraffin as one might set a jewel in its setting. Sexual expose became a way for Araki to reveal what Hiroshima has yet to divulge. Brendan Kennelly in his Little Book of Judas wrote, "if you want to serve your age, betray it – expose its lies, humiliate its conceits, debunk its arrogance. Condemn them to face harsher truths."

In Japan men and women may have a different relationship to their sexuality.  Certainly Nobuyoshi, or Araki as he is known in Japan, displays in his art a vision that for Westerners crosses over into pornography.  Images of bondage may not readily reveal their subtext, blockages like reliquaries locked in human tissues where traumas are stored.  Much of this kind of art work is banned and not accessible in the US. Yoshiki Araki’s work was apparently built on Nobuyoshi’s work, making it perhaps difficult for Americans to understand. With the freedom Yoshiki had in collage juxtapositions, he could be more direct, treating taboos as precious.  There he could admit more as to the scale and range of human acceptable behavior, and search for a greater human compassion to arise. 

Its been nearly eight years since his exhibition. I’ve come to wonder if rationalism is to die at the hands of mass brutality, and if what is grotesque about the human body will come to find a different meaning.

His mother when much older did learn about what happened to her grandfather, participating in a Japanese news story when a media station brought her and a witness together who saw her grandfather the day after Hiroshima, bloody, suffering and dying.

More of Yoshiki Araki’s work can be seen here and on the flickr account here. All images are from the AAAC archive.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Passages from R. Lee statement For NY City Council Hearings on a Comprehensive Cultural Plan on September 29, 2014

Dear Majority Leader Van Bramer, Council Member Laurie Cumbo, and members of the City Council.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak on developing a comprehensive cultural plan for New York City. I am Robert Lee, executive director of Asian American Arts Centre (AAAC) founded in 1974. 

When I began the visual art program of Asian American Arts Centre, Asian Americans composed only two percent of the US population. However, it was not hard to foresee that this population would grow, so we maintained an active exhibition program together with an archive program, keeping records of all that we did. Since the audience for this program was not large, but we knew that interest would grow, and now that this Archive is historical, people can see what took place and how this cultural presence developed.

Similarly, ever since the immigration laws were changed, particularly by President Kennedy in1962, the Asian American population increased significantly, and community demand for social service and other programs increased accordingly. On a national scale but particularly in New York City, the impact of immigration from so many countries could be predicted, cultural change was in motion, and its scale and momentum could not be ignored.

Yet it was ignored, neglected for decades.  In Chinatown for example, tumultuous changes took place, reflecting changes in many of New York City’s neighborhoods.  Cultural organizations have struggled under these conditions, to develop, structure, and nurture activities, artistic activities that both preserve traditional forms and provide venues for new forms emerging from the creative energies of diverse artists to reinvent themselves and their culture, contributing mightily to the dynamism of New York City.

The energy of this creative productivity in communities of color took New York by storm in the eighties and became the leading American art movement for over twenty years - a movement called multiculturalism. Despite this phenomenon, funding for organization of color, particularly those born in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, organizations that led the way in presenting artists who have now become so well known, their funding has hardly increased at all. Even when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg came into office and started his tenure by donated several million dollars of his own to the Department of Cultural Affairs, a portion of these funds it was thought, would go to stabilizing these pioneering organizations, bearers of the cultural knowledge and heritage of their communities. What actually happened given the news of these extra funds was the number of nonprofit organizations suddenly increased from 600 in Manhattan to 800, and the following year more still until today there are about 1,200, all sharing about 15% of DCA funding. Thus Bloomberg’s gift was allocated in such a way that these senior community organizations never saw a significant increase in support.

This hearing for a comprehensive cultural plan is a breakthrough, wonderful news that the past can only help to augment and detail the scale of the changes it may bring. .. The past may indicate the infrastructure that should have been built to accommodate and implement. It may also indicate the blockages that need to be unblocked such that an appreciation for new voices and forms can grow. If new audiences are being introduced to Shakespeare, how much more does our city need to do to introduce innovations that speak so much of cultural forms of other lands, and simultaneously speak so vividly of the dynamism and creative assets of this city, New York City.

If we can give shape to a plan that is truly comprehensive, then we will have begun to shape an audience that welcomes and embraces the voices, movements, forms, and bodies of people and cultures new and unfamiliar. It may be said that we are planning for what cannot be planned. We need to reinvent what planning is. We need to be open and accept the unexpected. In this sense, it is like birthing of an infant. We don’t know what the future will bring, but we are in awe and filled with affection for what that may be - the future of New York City and our society.

Who said that it takes a village to raise a child? That is very much a reality, and the difference between what we have been and what New York City needs to become, to unite as a village, to take heart -- the joy, and affection for who we will become. Clearly battlegrounds of the political sort are of no use here. Our children are watching.  All the parents, grandparents, and ancestors of the cultures that we will share and become are watching too.

I am staggered by how much we will all have to let go. It’s not up to us. Its really a birthing process. Can we hope to at least develop an outline for the first stage of how this crucible will evolve?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Profile: Martin Wong

A Note on Martin Wong by Bob Lee, Founder of the Asian American Arts Center
Illustration for the New Yorker

Illustration of the New Yorker

Drawing of Bob Lee

Martin Wong and Bob Lee at the Minds I Reception

Uptown/Downtown Exhibition

Martin Wong on the roof of his  house
Martin Wong participated in nine AAAC exhibitions, “In The Mind’s I” Part 1 in 1987 with Benny Andrews, Raphael Soyer, and Chiu Ya-Tsai. He participated in three Open Studio exhibitions in 1985 and 1988; “Uptown/Downtown” held in DCA Gallery in 1989; “AAAC Story” held at NYU a/p/a in 2002 as well as the Tiananmen Square exhibitions in 1989, 1990, and 2014.

You can see him with me in AAAC gallery with his painting of his parents over Chinatown in the background that he did in 1982.  I went to his apartment in early 1987 where he took me to his roof and I got this picture of him with his latest painting. It was at that time he gave me a booklet with over thirty of his drawings; he got published in Eureka in 1986.

I got back in touch with Martin when I was invited to ship part of the Tiananmen Square exhibition to Hong Kong.  His round painting was too large to ship to HK so he agreed to make a rectangular one.  That was in 1990. It was later in May 1991 that an opportunity to illustrate a New Yorker magazine article came about. I had been talking to a writer for the New Yorker, Gwen Kinkead, who was doing an article on Chinatown and my landlord that came out in June 1991, so it may have been for that article or another that Martin’s work almost got published.  That's when he did a few drawings for them, and one of me working in the office.

More of Martin's work can be found here. Images from the AAAC archive.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Editor's Commentary on MOCA's Oil & Water: Reinterpreting Ink Symposium

On April 27th, the Museum of Chinese in America mounted a symposia along with the exhibition Oil & Water: Reinterpreting Ink. The exhibition featured works by Qui DeShu, Wei Jia and Zhang Hongtu and will be up until Sept 14, 2014.  More about the symposia can be found here.

This was an innovative event for a community institution, echoing themes and issues that were the prerogative of mainstream institutions like the Metropolitan Museum with their exhibition Colors of Ink. MOCA’s choice of featured artists highlighted their unique perspective, with each artist having a unique background and artistic stance distinct from the art practice in China. 

The art critic Robert Morgan’s interest in the artist Wei Jia formed the basis of a panel where the two discussed Wei Jia’s traditional yet innovative approach towards ink painting. Other talks paired Zhang Hongtu with the art critic Richard Vine, artist Qiu Deshu with Joan Lebold Cohen.  The prominent lawyer Jerome Cohen concluded the talks with a discussion of censorship and the artist Ai Wei Wei. 

The symposium featured an interesting panel talk entitled “What is Asian, What is American” with Lilly Wei and Aileen June Wang, where they took up the question of Asian American art, a rarely discussed subject in academic circles. The complexity of the subject was duly noted.   

Given that the Asian American Arts Centre (AAAC) initiated discussions about the complexity of Asian American art in 1983, and has continually advocated for its legitimacy by mounting exhibitions annually for over twenty six years,  it behooves us to take this opportunity to comment on it.  
Excerpts from the AAAC's exhibition catalog, Emily, Anna & Ti Shan, 1985

Historically speaking, the idea of proposing Asian American art as a legitimate field of study was undertaken in the midst of the Asian American movement, which arose from the Anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements. Basement Workshop began on the East Coast in the late 1960s as a hub for community activism. By the 1980s, Basement Workshop was more than a decade old; their activism had shifted to the campus, where they sought to establish Asian American Studies as an academic discipline through fighting for legitimacy and tenure. In the 70s and 80s, the media deployed terms such as “Political Correctness,” “the Model Minority,” and “the Culture Wars” to critique activist efforts that arose in the 60s.

“Yellow Power to Yellow People” In front of court house at Huey Newton's Trial – Oakland , California – l969

To maintain a sense of community activism, the AAAC exhibited and featured artists in its community gallery. More importantly, the AAAC established its archive for these artists to demonstrate the historical significance and value of creating art, an idea that had little resonance among grassroot people struggling to get by. Yet community is where the Asian American movement was born and where the notion of Asian American art arose. This is where the experience of immigration is central, unifying all whose art is touched by it.  We decided to shun the mainstream art market, and its publicity/media arm. Academic institutions were also suspect, generating their own community and sense of legitimacy separate from the generative energy of real communities. We chose to establish an archive for later generations when Asian American interest would increase, and speak and write directly to the community, our audience through our own publications.  
AAAC's Eye to Eye Panel (1983)Panel: David Diao, Margo Machida, Lucy Lippard, Lydia Okumura, Kit Yin Snyder, John Woo, John Yau

For the AAAC, Asian American art was not about consumerism. It mattered little if an artist had made it in the market.  Asian American art triggered an awakening of our cultural roots, of an early 80s multi-culturalism that would transform this country, possibly set it on a new course. It was where many peoples and heritages dreamed of coming together to chart a new destiny for America. Asian American art was not then a 'next wave' that would further fuel the marketplace. For the AAAC, Asian American Art was a case study of how two civilizations collide yet interweave on countless levels. 
It is on the community level that generative forces are still active. Here, people live with all the contradictions two cultures imply, despite the jingoism of rhetoric and politics, learning how to be practical with ears to the ground, at the same time, not giving up who they are or what they believe. Supporting artists has meant having the strength and faith to explore the changes and permutations of 'Asian sensibilities', regardless of how they might be affected by trends in the market or university art departments. Awareness of artists’ feelings and inflections are vital to seeing the art, and key to understanding both the aesthetic and political issues embodied by the art. An openness and an awakening to different cultural perspective on the most basic questions of being is crucial.  
A view of Bowery Street at night
A cursory view of printed materials by the AAAC  reveals where it stood and how it functioned.  We welcomed all Asian American artists, from whether they were from Afghanistan or the Hawaiian Islands, whether they had just arrived on the shores of the US, or were here for ten generations.  We also welcomed other artists, particularly American artists, if they could submit a reasonable statement of how they were significantly influenced by Asia in their art.  Our vision guided us, our historical approach opened us so that how artists chose to innovate attracted our focus and challenged whatever interpretive skills we could find or bring to bear ourselves.

AAAC defined Asian American artists in the way they have been changed by their encounter with American culture, how they see their homeland differently, and how they may chose to express this in their art. The origin cultures of Mohenjo Daro in India and the An Yang River valley in China established civilizations different from the West. The complexities of cross cultural art do not appear on the horizon until later, when globalism created situations where an artist can be located in Korea, yet still encounter Western influences of such magnitude that their art, as well as their person changes. Experiences such as traveling to the US or to Europe remains key in shaping these perspectives.  
Zhang Hongtu “Kekou-Kele (six pack)”, porcelain, 2002
The collision of two worlds is still happening, and is now commonplace. There is no longer a question of split loyalty, except for special situations like Wen Ho Lee. The marketplace continues to absorb all in its path, and it can be argued that Asian American art is no longer viable as a way to transform society significantly. Each artist, however, had their impact, and some have shaped a path, points for others to make their own imaginative leaps. Change has happened and Asian American art was part of it. Issues of identity are now part of the mix. This history continues to be made and should be written, whatever political, sociological, and racial formations form. 
Theresa Chong "Budapest" 2008, colored pencil and gouache on paper, 25" x 36"

In writing about this situation, words can lose their points of  reference, including terms like ‘multiculturalism’ and 'China'. In the absence of new words, old words and references may become vague and ambiguous - part of the process where two worlds become one. As we become accustomed to the feel of this fluid era, we come to know it, somewhat. Bewildered perhaps, or resistant, much seems new, though in essence it may not be. How we come to see it, live with it, interpret it, becomes most critical.  A recent cartoon depicts a road sign informing a pair of lost motorists -  "you are now entering the Middle".  We might ask, the middle of what...of where?  The answer - here.
Comments from readers are welcome.  This may be the first and last time AAAC has been challenged to engage with this question explicitly.

Robert Lee

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Danny Yung's Flower Plaque Installation at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

The Bamboo Flower Plaque

The Story of the Bamboo Flower Plaque

A celebratory tradition hailing from Hong Kong, the flower plaque is a product of collaboration between artist Danny Yung, chief craftsman Choi Wing Kei and his workshop, and the Smithsonian Institution. Find out more about the flower plaque here, and view some more photos of the event here.
A statue of Tian Tian

Who Is Tian Tian?
The flower plaque at the entrance to China: Tradition and the Art of Living at the 2014 Folklife Festival prominently features a character named Tian Tian. Created by artist Danny Yung, the blank boyish figure represents curiosity and the desire to learn and explore. Find out more about Tian Tian here.

Danny Yung and AAAC founder Robert Lee imitating Tian Tian's iconic pose.

Press Coverage:
The "godfather" of Hong Kong contemporary art, Danny Yung, was honored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office after his installation for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage successfully finished its run in Washington.
Commissioned by the center, Yung was asked to create a piece that centered on the theme of "folklife" and the Shanghai-born artist produced a 40-meter-wide, 10-meter-high flower plaque bamboo installation on the National Park in Washington, garnering more than 1 million visitors during its two-week run.
The flower plaque installation — called a fa paai in Cantonese — is one of the biggest installations ever built in the Smithsonian Center's annual festival and was on display from June 25 to July 6. Titled Gateway – Tian Tian Xiang Shang, it was designed by Yung and built by craftsmen from the Wing Kei Flower Store Ltd in collaboration with the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. The fa paai is traditionally displayed in Hong Kong for celebratory events, such as weddings, family gatherings, or store openings, combining cultural heritage and artistic exchange, Yung said.
When the center initially commissioned him, Yung said he was unsure of the theme, because as a contemporary artist, he didn't know if he could make something in response to the idea of traditional folklife. But he said the importance of being able to spotlight Asian culture at a historic American location motivated him to take the challenge.
"The most important thing I wanted to do was deal with the cross-culturalism. I wanted to see how we can cope with the new challenges that's coming up [between China and the US], which have been around for quite a while," he told China Daily at the celebratory event held in New York on Monday.
"I think crossover is so important in dialoguing. If we changed our positions, I think we'll see things differently. I think we gain new perspectives and new sensitivities, so what I did with my installation is include a big wall, like the one in Tiananmen Square, but in the middle there's a gateway, so people can walk through it so that they can see where they come from, so they can learn what's on the other side," he said.
On the installation are four-character Chinese proverbs that begin with the character for "sky" — the title of the exhibit is one such proverb, meaning "to make progress every day" — which Yung said is a huge focal point in Chinese culture.
"Sky is so important in China, because China is an agricultural country. You have to look at the sky — if it rains, if it rains too much, if it's shining, if it's shining too much. All this affects the crops. So I did some studying and I traced many proverbs that start with the character ‘sky' and I collected about 160 or something, and I picked 16 of those" to display on the installation, he said.
"Everyone would agree that the four-character idiom is the essential step to understanding the thousands of years of Chinese culture," Yung said in an artist statement about the installation. "My childish opinion was that the idiom ‘look up to the sky as you conduct your life' is to remind us to watch the weather forecast, as it can help us determine whether or not to carry an umbrella when we go out; perhaps I understood the sky to represent seasons, the sun, and rain, which predicts the yearly harvest."
Featured in the installation is a statue of a mouthless child named Tian Tian who points up at the sky, symbolizing a person who's always striving to make progress every day, something that Yung said he wants to share in a dialogue between US-China artistic exchange.
"I hope new sensitivities arise from those who visit the installation], as does a new way of looking at oneself. It's one important part of cultural exchange," he said. "Creativity too, because when I create a piece of work, I think that I learn more about myself and what I don't know."

By Amy He, from China Daily. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


蛾 Mothpoetica
Poetry of Moth, Man, & Migranti

"For him the earth remains flat, not round
A narrow island of fate and misfortune.
The migrant skims a torn map,
A moth unfolds its wings flying
Apart from East to the West...."
                                Russell C. Leong "Moth"

MOTHPOETICA is a spoken word performance collection conceived, written and enacted by the veteran awardwinning-writer, editor and professor Russell C. Leong (梁志英)

MOTHPOETICA is modeled after the persona of a New York City fast-food delivery man and brings together the worlds of moth, man, myth, and migrant captured in a lyric, humorous, and often soulful performance reading.  

Together with the opus poem "Moth" Leong includes other original poetic works which span Southeast Asia and the Chinese diaspora in his readings.  

"Moth" debuted at Bob Holman's Bowery Poetry Club in New York City in June 22 2014.

Themes of MOTHPOETICA range from getting a haircut in a bullet-riddled barbershop to love, sexuality and AIDS; from Asian migration to urban insurrections; and race, class, martial arts.  For his readings, Leong often works with local musicians and artists including Lorin Roser of NYC, Lei Mo in Nanjing, and others in Los Angeles and Beijing.  

RUSSELL C. LEONG is a spoken word artist, writer, editor, and university professor.  He has read poetry and given literary talks internationally at venues in Los Angeles, Beijing, Nanjing, Taipei, Kaoshiung, Kobe, San Francisco, and New York.  He was one of 50 U.S. poets featured in Bob Holman's five-part PBS series, "The United States of Poetry,"  and reads and speaks in the Annenburg Media Series on American writers. 

Leong received the American book award for "Phoenix Eyes and Other Stories," and the PEN Josephine Miles award for "The Country of Dreams and Dust." Leong, born in San Francisco Chinatown, received his formal education at San Francisco State College, Taiwan National University, and UCLA.  He has taught at UCLA, University of Hong Kong, University of Kansas, and Hunter College (CUNY) New York. 

CONTACT for readings, performances, talks and workshops:
Schools, art centers, and other venues contact the writer for availability and locale. Special rates for non-profits,and schools.

Russell Leong 梁志英

Phone: 213-479-2148  E-mail:

Reviews & Presentations of Russell C. Leong's Literary Work:

Los Angeles (LA Times)
"Leong always shows us how memory and identity persist even in the melting pot of America..his acute powers of observation and his poet's gift for capturing the experience of transcendence are given full expression in the pages of Phoenix Eyes."

Educational:  Annenburg Learner Express (N. Scott Momaday and Russell Leong)

Monday, June 23, 2014


Asian American Arts Centre's "China: June 4, 1989" Exhibition show was a great success! We would love to thank all the folks, especially the AAAC staff, Whitebox Art Center, and all of our volunteers, that were a part of putting this show together. We appreciate your time, energy, and sweat - we couldn't have done it without you! 

Furthermore, Asian American Arts Centre wants to thank The Bay and Paul Foundations for their support of this program. Thanks also to Asian Americans for Equality and Manhattan Mini Storage/ Edison Properties Inc. for your continued support. AAAC recognizes the support of individuals, namely Wing Tek Lum, Germaine Wong, Fay Torres Yap, Charles Yuen, Susan Switzer/ Daniel Orlow, Norma Tan, Jeanne Lee Jackson, Edward Ma, Dennis Donohue, Roudy Leath, Paul O'Neil and Liz Young. Thanks to Asian American Writers Workshop as a publicity cosponsor. Special thanks to Whitebox Art Center and to Human Rights in China, and especially to all the artists who participated in this effort, their participation made this exhibition possible.

Lastly, we would like to recognize all the guests that came out to visit and view the "China: June 4, 1989" Exhibition. This exhibition could not have been without your support. As we continue to bring awareness to such historical moments in time through the arts, we hope to inspire others to use creative means to respond and express themselves to the social injustices faced within our communities. 

To see more images of the show, please go to our Facebook and Flickr page! 

Monday, June 9, 2014

"China: June 4, 1989" New Artist Statements - Looking Back, Looking Forward

With AAAC's "China: June 4, 1989" Exhibition soon approaching, we thought we would share some artist statements written especially for the 25th Anniversary Exhibition in commemoration of the Tiananmen Square 1989 Student Movement. These 2014 statements share the view of participating artists as they look back/ look forward from that year of 1989, as well as share what they are involved with now. As more artists submit their statement we will continue to post them to the blog. 

Don't forget the opening reception of "China: June 4, 1989" Exhibition will be this Sunday, June 1st, 5-8pm at Whitebox Art Center. See you there!

John Duff

My piece in this show as well as the previous one just after the event (Tiananmen Square) involves the use of fortune cookies, in my view a popularization of the I Ching. A layer of wet fiberglas was layed down, a cookie was broken, and the fragments as well as the fortune layed down on the wet fiberglas and then covered with a piece of dry fiberglass cloth and then resined, so it collapsed around the fragments (wet into wet) and over the fortune (which had been placed face down) forming a kind of shrink-wrapped pocket. This was done a number of times so that when the resin set up and was lifted up these pockets are seen through the flat plane of the fiberglas. This was all done within the context of a hollow frame door (a theme of the show) the inside of which had been cut out within eight inches of the perimeter. What remained of the door was painted white, and painted in red letters, extending the length of the door vertically on one side and horizontily on the other, the words "BROKEN FOTUNES". This painted door was layed down on wet fiberglass; the activity with the cookies took place within the opening cut-out of the door, and the door was picked up (after the fiberglas set). All could be seen on both sides: the words, the fragments, the fortunes. 

To me, the broken fragments of the fortune cookies represent the broken bodies of the demonstrators and the fortunes their unrealized destinies. To put it another way, on the edge of the door it`s title is written "The Host" , which is to say that the cookie becomes the bread which is transubstantiated into the body of the martyr(s).

Anna Kuo

Tiananmen: Are Body Bags Required?
"I never thought this would happen to happen to me." Today this outcry cycles too often on the news after sudden and shocking events. It's a common lament exclaimed by different people, in different scenarios in different cultures around the globe. It's 2014 and now we're lost in the virtual reality of tech devices. What does it take to wake us out of an anesthetized consciousness and brain overload? Does Tiananmen 1989 have any impact on us? My piece, entitled "Deva Invocation" was a tribute to those who passed and those left behind. More importantly it raises a personal question, "What does Tiananmen mean to me as an individual? How do I locate myself in relation to a disturbing global crisis?" In the tradition of Buddhist awareness, I believe our inner issues and conflicts become a collective energy creating larger events like catastrophic climate change, population uprisings, corruption and war.

The Tiananmen exhibition transforms art into a human aesthetic that historicizes life and becomes a country's material culture. It's a powerful vehicle of communication that supports free dialogue and forward thinking ideas. Typically governments first seek to mute the voices of students and artists when social and political disagreements surface. Must it require piles of body bags for meaningful action?

The Tiananmen rebellion is now part of a historical legacy, a domino in a chain of global events that is changing countries today. Change is constant, the karmic wheel turns and the profoundly humble, fundamental, modest, radical desire for all people is simply happiness and freedom.

For more of Anna Kuo's work see here.

Edgar Heap of Birds

America and the world must remember that forever the Statue of Liberty literally has her back turned to all Native Americans and their sovereign nations.

The welcoming freedom of "Miss Liberty" is not a positive offering to indigenous peoples of this continent; it is an invitation to murder and plunder.

The offering made is one of on going genocide, poverty, deficient educational opportunities, poor housing, very high rates of suicide, lack of political representation and dishonored treaties and promises.

Native nations lost their viability and harmonious human birthright to coexist with this earth after the violence of so-called "Liberty" was perpetrated upon countless indigenous families of these once kind lands. Today Native communities are at a severe status of recovery from brutality and loss. Will they ever truly recuperate and heal from such profound harm in the name of "Freedom"?

In regard to the naive 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration to accept and promote "Liberty" I would instead extend a vigorous warning and alarm!

Edgar Heap of Birds
A Leader of the Traditional Elk Warrior Society
Cheyenne Nation, Oklahoma 2014

Jean-Loup Msika

In 1989, we were horrified by the violent repression of chinese students, on Tienanmen square, when they asked for a little freedom.

Today, in 2014, Tibet is being invaded, more and more, and crushed, and so is Sin Kiang. Both Tibetans and Ouighours are repressed savagely. The Kurdish people would also deserve to be independent but their land is divided between Iran, Irak, Syria and Turkey, 4 murderous dictatorships. The Jewish people, on the tiny land which has been theirs for millennia, is still being threatened of a new holocaust by totalitarian regimes like the Islamic Republic of Iran and by Hezbollah and Hamas terrorists. People are killing each other by the thousands, in Africa, in Syria, Irak, Egypt, Ukraine, etc ... The world is in a bloodbath because the UN are useless and corrupt, controlled by the worst dictatorships. This is all very sad...

Ian Laughlin

The Tiananmen Square events of June 4th, 1989 sparked global outcry, solidifying the power of action against oppression.

For the nucleus of my work, having watched the events on television over and over, I digitized stills from video footage of Tiananmen events, much the same way Chinese authorities did in identifying individuals who participated in the uprising.

Using the imaging tools of the time, I scanned footage using an Amiga 1000 then printed the stills out in banner form using a Canon 1080A. Co-opting the image of a placard-style Mao, typified in Chinese state propaganda stadium art, I supplanted his visage with facially recognizable images of students who took part in the uprising. Crowds of protesters with the Stateʼs inherent "amnesia directive” was declared on the verso.

I feel this work I created in 1989 is just as relevant today. Following Tiananmen, surveillance has expanded globally and exponentially, as the demand for peopleʼs self-determination has collided with Oligarch and Totalitarian States. Now the battle of the old wealth world and empire is in full swing against climate change responders and human rights activists.

Agnes Denes









Lotus Do

At the end of March 1989, I returned from an Art Exchange in the Guangdong Fine Arts Academy. Having taught art classes and lectured to unusually large art student groups on abstract compositional elements and creative problem solving techniques, my work was exhibited at the Guangdong Fine Arts Academy. The privilege of leading the American delegation of artist educators was my second participation an International Art Exchange with China. Artists, faculty, and students became fast friends; eager to learn about progressive methods of art making and art education. What a wonderful time we had learning from each other, enjoying the love of visual art and discussing creative ideas with artistic freedom. Upon returning to the USA, I maintained communication and friendships with my overseas colleagues. I happily shared news stories with them of the student movement (in China) that we were learning about.

It is my understanding that many of my new friends may have been supportive of the movement. But to this day, I cannot feel comfortable telling you this for sure!

On June 4th 1989, traumatized, I watch news images, in horror.

Personally I was deeply struck by the violent nature of the proceedings. I could not shake the personal shock.

The second painting I made personified the idealism I had witnessed in China in the faces of Artists and students I met. The first side of the door portrayed the tragedy of death swathed in an upside down anonymous body that was only implied by the news reports. I haven't seen this painted door in 20 years but the painting of it personifies The Unknown Idealist -Struck down -Swathed under the purity of a white robe or a sheet. I remember wanted to paint everything on the flip side- upside down. A world turned awry. I remember the sadness as I painted the door. I remember The Asian American Art Center as a rallying place for artists of all backgrounds to respond to what happened and to do something to bring awareness to the human rights of the young people who wanted to make a better place in their world. The Asian American Art Center promoted awareness that all people have the right to express their feelings and ideas.

Thanks to the life-long dedicated work and vision of Bob Lee for it was he who inspired his artist friends in the USA to do something!

Grimanesa Amorós

It was an honor to be a part of such an important exhibition. It was very exciting and at the same time painful times to be a part of China's history. A country that at the present moment go every year at least twice to share my work or lectures with students.

I am glad to say that all the lives we lost on Tiananmen Square open the doors for a new generation of children that are now growing under a very different reality that in 1989.

Dolly Unithan


Observed by the world, a travesty of justice occurred on June 4, 1989 at Tiananmen Square in Beijing when purportedly several hundred if not thousands of city inhabitants and students who staged a peaceful mass protest for democratic reform were massacred by the Chinese Government military tanks in a hail of bullets which annihilated countless numbers of those who took a firm but fatal stand, after the failed attempt of the government in demanding the evacuation and dispersing of the square from the growing throng of dissident occupants.

Although the rumbling military tanks with smoking guns and silenced voices of innocent victims are a long gone aftermath of the massacre, the unholy act with what must be indescribable accompanying images will linger long and haunt our halls of memory till injustice is addressed and till justice is served and done, till an acknowledgement of a grave mistake of great magnitude made and significantly meaningful acts of reparation to be made in approaches only China knows how best to proceed, will the perpetrator of such an ignominious action regain its powerful presence and growing global standing in the eyes of the World.

A mighty country as China may potentially grow to be in some many ways, this act of infamy with its bloody spill will seep and stain the tapestry of her turbulent human rights history and will contribute to her being viewed in the eyes of the World to be much less mighty a country.


When news of the final outcome of the peaceful staged protest at Tiananmen Square hit me, I went limp as my legs buckled under and I sank to the ground, feeling nothing even as my mind grappled to absorb what had occurred and to make sense of it.

The enactment of the unthinkable and the unspeakable had come to pass.

Zhang Hongtu

"Every Action Helps Us to Remember"

When I was a student in the 1950s, we trusted Mao. We believed that if we followed his ideas, not only would we change China, but we would also achieve world peace and end American imperialism. But after Mao’s actions against the Chinese people in the Cultural Revolution, and my experience of being exiled from the city and sent down to the countryside to work with farmers (along with millions of other teenagers), my trust soured into doubt and critique.

In 1982 I left China for New York to make art. Chinese art was still dominated by socialist realism, the style approved by the Ministry of Culture. I have always strived to make art that not only is pleasing to the eye but also shows my ideas about society. So in those early years I forgot everything that happened in China. I didn’t care about my nationality, identity, style or tradition. I just wanted to learn and do something new.

Then, in May 1989, I saw that people had started demonstrating and going on hunger strikes in Tiananmen Square. As the protests continued, I discovered that I was still very much Chinese. I was glued to the TV screen and recorded the news when I went to sleep. I didn’t want to miss anything, because if I were in China I would have been on strike too. For those few days, I think the people at Tiananmen felt free. A protest like that had never happened before in China’s history, and I have no idea if it will happen in the future.

After the Tiananmen crackdown, my art became more political, which led me to paint The Last Banquet and the door for the exhibition “China: June 4, 1989.” My friend told me that in China I would have been killed many times over for The Last Banquet. This only encouraged me further because in the United States I had the freedom to make this kind of art. I started cutting out iconic images of Mao from burlap, canvas, plywood and other materials. I still remember how carving out his likeness felt like a sin the first time. In China this act would be seen as “antirevolutionary” and severely punished—you simply can’t criticize Mao. But I kept cutting his image out of different materials as a form of therapy, until one day I stopped feeling bad about it.

People criticized me for not making “pure art” and said my art was a tool for politics, but I didn’t care, because these politics were my honest and true feelings. Every June 4, I think about 1989 and activist organizations like the Tiananmen Mothers—the parents and relatives of the youth killed that day who advocate for the government to admit its responsibility for the deaths. Meanwhile the party has continued to suppress any critiques about Tiananmen, the Cultural Revolution or Chairman Mao. My own website was even blocked in China for a few years. (It’s up now, but who knows how long that will last?)

Since the Chinese government prohibits all dissent, we must carry on here in the United States. In recent years I have posted images about the Tiananmen crackdown on Facebook each June 4 to remind people of what happened. Every action helps us to remember the students who were killed as well as their mothers, who are still struggling against a government that censors the anniversary of their children’s deaths.

Dina Burzstyn

My work stems from a need to recreate the world around me, to envision a less fragmented and more humane reality. Working with clay I often feel it is like a sensitive skin, receptive to emotions and transformations, which in turn serves to transform me. I made this piece inspired by a line from the I Ching "Holding together amidst dispersion", believing the desire and struggle for a just society can not be broken. More of Dina's work can be found here.