Tuesday, August 11, 2015

EXHIBITION: Made in USA / Some Parts Imported

Heidi Lau, Lithos Sarkophagus

Nicole Awai, Audacious Asphalt (detail), acrylic paint, graphite, nail polish, bubble wrap, construction foam, polyester mesh, resin and flocking on synthetic paper

Jenny Cho, Suburbia: Cul-de-sac (detail), oil on canvas

Arthur Simms, Skunk, Rollerskate, wire, bones, wood 

Armita Raafat, Untitled 1, Plastic, resin, mirrors and paint

Monica Palma Narvaez, Ti ti ta ta ta, Charcoal and color pencil on paper

Arthur Simms, Beaver Stick, Feathers, wood, wire, screws, rock

Caption: AAAC Exec. Director Bob Lee and Manager of Archive Mitsuko Brooks meet co-curators Naomi Reis & Heidi Lau and artists Jenny Cho and Esperana Mayobre during the closing of "Made in USA / Some Parts Imported" at TSA New York in Bushwick. 


TSA is pleased to present “Made in USA / Some Parts Imported,” curated by Naomi Reis with Heidi Lau and featuring the work of Nicole Awai, Jenny Cho, Ignacio González-Lang, Christopher K. Ho, Daisuke Kiyomiya, Heidi Lau, Esperanza Mayobre, Mónica Palma Narváez, Armita Raafat, and Arthur Simms. At a time when most American manufacturing has moved offshore and the question of origin is so hotly disputed (e.g. the debate about President Obama’s birthplace), where something is made—and by whom—remains a basis for perceived value. Using the Country of Origin label as a metaphorical starting point, this exhibition brings together 10 artists currently working in the U.S. who were born or grew up elsewhere. Their work blends an American reference point with a global consciousness that comes from outside the Euro-American canon; it is “Made in the USA” from a perspective that resists correlation to a fixed point on the traditional world map.

Grounded in a celebration of technique and a strong understanding of materials, this group of artists distills disparate cultural influences in the objecthood of the work itself, combining impossible geographies into a singular entity: the eye of a storm around which swirl questions of identity, formalism, and beauty. For some the work emerges from a meditative and repetitive motion that offers a retreat from language, a portal to a wordless space where the ego dissolves into the labor of making; for others the work represents a kind of map, a visualization of psychic space that transcends time and place; for another, meaning is derived through a reinterpretation of oil painting. The work is personal and realized through a studio-based practice of trial and error, embodying the ever-evolving process of becoming.

With 2043 set by the U.S. census as the year ethnic minorities become the new majority, the line between mainstream and Other continues to blur. This liminal space—which defies classification in a dichotomous culture of native/foreign, Republican/Democrat, us/them — will increasingly be the place we all inhabit. It’s not that we’re all becoming the same in a new “post-racial” era; it’s that our ability to decode the full spectrum of difference will become more refined. As the work in this show suggests, rather than seeing the world in terms of us versus them, learning the gradient language of Now will open up new ways of understanding and navigating through our shifting place in the new New World.

See reviews of the show at the Agora Culture and Hyperallergic.

Monday, July 20, 2015

China: Through the Looking Glass- An Open Letter 

Dear Friends,

The following is an open letter to the Metropolitan Museum of Art concerning their exhibition China:Through the Looking Glass.  It charges the museum with the continued exotification of Asia and Asians for profit.  By relating this exhibition to Kimono Wednesdays at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the cultural work of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, it indicates that such exhibitions may serve to maintain the foreignness/otherness of East Asians and Asians/Asian Americans . 

 However, it also discusses the complexity of this problem, the validity of exploring cultural ties, and approaches other than fashion that could lead to some understanding of the cultural presence of Asian aspects and their perception in the West.  Please feel free to reply with your comments.

With Kind Regards,
Bob Lee

To : Met Museum Chairman, President & Costume Curator
Re: China: Through the Looking Glass - An Open Letter

I write to you largely because I was in direct and indirect ways, asked to by professionals in the arts and curatorial fields, people who are close to my field, the cross over arts of Asia and the West - artists who I call Asian American, and close to your institution, the Metropolitan Museum of the Arts.  The subject is an exhibition you currently have on view, China: Through the Looking Glass.  However, its similarity to other museum’s activities clarifies and expands the basis for this letter - Kimono Wednesdays at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that was recently cancelled, and past exhibitions with similar public programs at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco entitled Geisha in 2004 and Samurai in 2009.  (see http://asiansart.wordpress.com/,http://asianart.com/exhibitions/samurai/index.htmlhttps://news.artnet.com/art-world/museum-of-fine-arts-boston-apologizes-for-kimono-event-315000 )

These events exhibited refined traditional Asian clothing as the Mets exhibition does, however they went a step further inviting visitors to the museum to try on selected garments or come dressed in traditional Asian clothing as part of a socializing event.  Demonstrations of protest by members of the Asian American community were able to bring about the cancellation of the Boston Museum's event. We've yet to see if contrary demonstrations are able to bring back Kimono Wednesdays. Demonstrations and oppositional art works/happenings in San Francisco since 2005 have evolved a network of scholars and community activists who have established social media sites and thoughtful papers critiquing the museum's curatorial direction.  

Your exhibition materials state: 
Through the looking glass of fashion, designers conjoin disparate stylistic references into a pastiche of Chinese aesthetic and cultural traditions.  High fashion is juxtaposed with Chinese costumes, paintings, porcelains, and other art, including films, to reveal enchanting reflections of Chinese imagery... infused at every turn with romance, nostalgia, and make-believe. Fashion designers such as Paul Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent are mentioned.  

If the Met were a department store, or a movie theatre I think the public would understand that this is a commercial venture designed to entertain and promote, featuring stunning garments created out of the fashion industry’s illustrious past and present inspired by the mystery and inscrutability of China's distant past. Your disclaimer that this is not related to any commercial intentions and has a legitimate theme of re-evaluating Edward Said’s ideas of Orientalism is clearly an excuse to affirm the acceptability and dominance of the Western market and its reliance on Orientalist notions. That films from China and of Anna May Wong participate in these fantasies of China does not support your claims of overlapping creative complexity, rather they affirm the power of the dominance of Western Orientalist commitments to define the Other as they see fit. 

Neither Anna May Wong nor even many in China’s creative community can succeed in the marketplace without meeting audiences expectations of China’s serenity as aesthetic make-believe. This aside from abiding by Beijing’s regulations of never depicting reality. Audiences are dazzled, they are entertained. And why not. This has been established as the norm, easily imaginable as a reality in a high class interior design magazine.  Mao’s jacket (Tseng Kwong Chi’s spectacular politically infused humor) and Vivienne Tan’s dress based on Zhang Hongtu’s art (recognized as the initiator of art ridiculing Mao) on the first floor, become gris for your mill, a contrary aesthetic left in the dust of a long flight of stairs to a higher plateau of really classy stuff. 

The question is then, has the Met become a department store?  Has its role held in the public trust been compromised by the fashion industry's largess, to authenticate and sanction a long term 'fashion' a cultural direction that will reap years of profit? Are you doing this in line with other museums, like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts or the San Francisco Asian Art Museum? Are you testing a national cultural policy obviating the presence of Asian Americans and preferring to further entrench a fantasy about China, about Chinese and Chineseness?

 Has the scholarly role of the museum been forgotten such that in the beautifully installed displays historically important art pieces play second fiddle to well dressed dummies? If a museum goer seeks to discover what is true about a culture and a people, how do you think they will feel to see that put aside by the fashion musings of those who take as their birthright to dream up fantasies of whatever turns them on? Or should I say, whatever works in the marketplace. This exhibition demonstrates how your mission and the public trust that have been given to you, can be given a vacation, perhaps not just in this instance, but more often than your public would like to think. Your willingness to affirm and sanction the continued exotification of Asia is blatant, It is a disservice not only to the Asian American community, but to the American public and their hopes to move beyond racial stereotypes.

But wait, perhaps I am being too harsh.  After all, cultural appropriation takes place all the time, everywhere.  We live in an era of cultural borrowings, of false starts that nevertheless hang on and sustain a profit, of artistic re-inventions that die and those that catch on and flourish, of great controversial creations that walk the line between who your willing to offend and who your not. The marketplace does not care for what you stand for or what you believe, or whether every shred of reality dissolves into fantasy.  It only cares about whether it sells.  Does the name ‘Opium’ enhance a perfume’s capacity to sell more? Does a natural gas company have the right to destroy sacred land of Native Americans? Does the Redskins football team have the right to call themselves Redskins?  Does a museum have the right to occasionally become a department store?

I happened to meet the curator of the San Francisco Asian Art Museum whose role it was to mount three contemporary exhibitions a year.  Oddly his PhD was not in contemporary art, rather it was in the Chinese Bronzes, the formative era of Chinese civilization over 4,000 years ago. I was curious because my mentor had written his tome and become an authority on the bronzes of the Late Chou Dynasty.  I do have some sympathetic leanings for a contemporary cultural direction of this sort. As one art/history buff to another we do know that the affinity between Asia and the West goes much further back to Europe’s Migration Peoples as evidenced by the fibula pins you have in one of your display cabinets. We do know also that Christopher Columbus emerged from the psychic confrontations of that period and that he was originally looking for Asia, not just for its wealth but for its wisdom, its philosophy. I admit, there is some validity for the theme of your exhibition. I even have a confession - my organization, Asian American Arts Centre, at an outdoor Asian American Heritage Festival, did have a prized Kimono and Samurai costume and did allow the public to try them on and take pictures, all with the blessings of one of our dancers who was from Japan - these precious garments belonged to her. 

Am I guilty, is the Asian American Arts Centre guilty of exactly what I am charging the Met, the San Francisco Asian Art Museum and the Boston Fine Arts Museum of? AAAC is part of an Asian ethnic immigrant community struggling to survive gentrification, to retain its traditions as hundreds of its creative artists struggle mightily to wrest from the city, its detritus and its media pounding through their beings, snatches of meaning that somehow can be made into the stuff of what America is, to be recognized for their innovative art signifiers inclusive of the appropriations they knew necessary.  In my view the difference does not lie in my right or your right to use these art garments, these distorted cultural signifiers, as well as these emerging potentially potent new art signifiers waiting interminably to be seen, heard, & felt, the difference does not lie in our willingness to appropriate what each of us wants to signify to bring forth a true audience.  

The difference lies in power, the power to create and sanction a fashion trend, the power to instill in the public romanticised notions of what China and Chineseness is and do this for profit, the power to destroy sacred land regardless of the people for whom the land is sacred given as a minority their beliefs can be disregarded. Your institution is entitled, entitled to choose, to determine value, to manipulate the cultural signifiers of others as you wish, to retain the right of the more powerful to consume and profit without guilt. 

Do the Redskins football team have the right to wear their Redskins helmet? When I think of this I am reminded of Donald Trump.  Not him but his son, in Africa, killing elephants. I think of the trophies he will take home and place on his wall, the heads of animals he will have won. How important, even essential for him to have such trophies, for without them what does he have?

I also think of the archeological dig into Machu Picchu, that after the written language had been deciphered recently, the servants and native workers supporting the archeological team, rose up to claim the artifacts that is their ancestral culture. The people are learning to take ownership of their own culture, not leaving it to those who claim to mean well.  

Though my head is filled with art works of young artists who I've supported, (they're older now but I still think of them as young, in fact two of them are on the first floor of your exhibit) my thoughts turn to a film my daughter was spellbound by when she was three years old. I offer this to you in gratitude for that one moment in your exhibition when the moon and its reflection spoke volumes. It was On Golden Pond in 1981, with Kathryn Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Jane Fonda, and the sound of the Loons as dusk fell echoing across the lake.  Jane was having marital problems and had to leave her two small children with these old timers who just wanted a restful time on their old lake cottage. Henry Fonda could tilt and put the cast and viewers on alert of an impending fall, perhaps due to the upheaval scurrying children can cause.

Its was at this stage of life that Kathryn, in a private moment alone, as she passed through a tiny clearing midst the foliage surrounding the cottage, that she was moved to do a little dance, a sorta powwow jig, softly murmuring a child's rhyme, quickly interrupted by the arrival of one member of the family or the other. It was an interlude that just happened, unplanned, a quiet celebration, a marking of these normal moments of daily living on the wing, utterly primal.  That jig, that dance, it just happens. Whether it happens in an artist studio or on the streets of our cities, or in the hearts of children, of seniors, of people of color, always serendipitously, spontaneously. Thats where our faith is, our art, our trust, of where our country, our culture is going. It is not accessible to us by way of a trophy.  It can not be programmed, structured, planned or marketed. It will never arrive to us as a trophy.

My mission my commitment is to a community, to a family of artists, who are part of a larger family.  Yes, I too am concerned about how Asia and its muliplicity of forms will take root on this soil, in recognizable or reinvented, unrecognizable forms. We can only witness and encourage, we cant let capital seek to control where it goes. May I suggest, from my humble abode to yours, that reflecting on what formed your institution and its way of addressing a public is a good thing. If you must take a hiatus from your mission please do so in a space where the art works under your custodianship are not present.

And may I ask one last thing, that the Met invite an Asian American audience to an evening where there is a discussion about the role of a museum and its relation to an Asian American audience (and secondarily to the broader American public.)  The diversity that defines the future of this nation - your obligation to this diversity, not to separate out any one group as foreign, as exotic, needs to be clearly expressed. Our culture and institutions will change as the color of Americans change. Are you in tune with them, are you preparing for change?

With Kind Regards,
Robert Lee
Exec. Dir.
Asian American Arts Centre

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

GIRL IN GLASS : How much is a human life ultimately worth?

On Sale July 14, 2015 Amazon - B&N - iBooks - your local indie

 "In this courageous and passionate book, Deanna Fei tells the story of delivering a medically fragile child at 25 weeks. Even those who know the outcome will be gripped by the novelistic depiction of oscillating hope and despair. But the real accomplishment of this book is that it takes memoir as a jumping-off point for pondering the obligations attached to scientific progress and collective wealth.
 In addressing the issue of how much a human life is ultimately worth, it becomes a deeply moving work of moral philosophy." -Andrew Solomon, NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author of FAR FROM THE TREE

 "Deanna Fei has written three gripping tales in one--hertranscendent journey as the mother of a child born way too soon; her plunge into the harsh realities of corporate greed and bumbling when a certain CEO publicly labeled her daughter a 'distressed baby'; and her hard-won understanding of what society owes its most fragile beings. Readers will fall in love with Fei's daughter, and come to see that she is all of our children." -Lisa Belkin, author of LIFE'S WORK and former columnist for the NEW YORK TIMES's Motherlode blog

"Luminous . . . An unflinching testament to the improbable miraculousness of life. This is an astonishing book, full of dark beauty and grace and a hard-earned integrity, one that will haunt me for a long time." -Thrity Umrigar, bestselling author of THE SPACE BETWEEN US and THE STORY HOUR “Fei grippingly details her dread, anxiety, and wonder with her second-trimester delivery… An urgent call for corporate compassion by a woman with a baby in peril.” -Kirkus

From the publisher: Deanna Fei was just five-and-a-half months pregnant when she inexplicably went into labor. Minutes later, she met her tiny baby who clung to life support inside a glass box. Fei was forced to confront terrifying questions: How to be the mother of a child she could lose at any moment. Whether her daughter would survive another day—and whether she should. But as she watched her daughter fight for her life, Fei discovered the power of the mother-child bond at its most elemental.

 A year after she brought her daughter home from the hospital, the CEO of AOL—her husband’s employer—blamed the beautiful, miraculously healthy little girl for a cut in employee benefits and attached a price tag to her life, using a phrase, “distressed babies,” that set off a national firestorm.

Girl in Glass is the riveting story of one child’s harrowing journey and a powerful distillation of parenthood. With incandescent prose and an unflinching eye, Fei explores the value of a human life: from the spreadsheets wielded by cost-cutting executives to the insidious notions of risk surrounding modern pregnancy; from the wondrous history of medical innovation in the care of premature infants to contemporary analyses of what their lives are worth; and finally, to the depths of her own struggle to make sense of her daughter’s arrival in the world. Above all, Girl in Glass is a luminous testament to how love takes hold when a birth defies our fundamental beliefs about how life is supposed to begin.

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. http://www.ideas-city.org/#event/hinterland-arts

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.