Thursday, June 27, 2024
T o o F a r T o o C l o s e: 24 y e a r s l a t e r

Below find two articles, one is by Hitomi Iwasaki written for AAAC and Korea Society.

24 years ago in Sept 2000. The other by myself also published in Korea Society Quarterly at that time. Both synchronistically found recently, a forgotten perspective for me on an essential aspect of AAAC ‘Annual’ exhibition program through the 90s, why it was important and why it became a default or taken-for-granted aspect, resisting the criticisms that led to Senator Jesse Helms attacks. A moment in time when Asian American/Diaspora art had little entry into the mainstream we buckled down to establish a history & a track record. The Annual series was key to that position. Korea Society in partnering with AAAC sought a potential opening for its own contemporary artists. Written with a sense of its past historical changes begun in 1985 into its potential prospective future moment.

Published with Hitomi Iwasaki’s astute article on the issues of identity and its complex permutations. Insightful on the perspective of major cultural institutions even convincing except 24 years later after the renewal of anti-Asian Violence the term “Asian American” has revived and its assertion as a rallying cry as well as a refuge much needed in these times. This is the post-pandemic era but more so society’s seemingly invisible estrangement from the earth has broadened from a 60s sensibility to an international recognition of a feature of the West for five hundred to a thousand plus years.  

Stephen Jenkinson (author of Die Wise) expressed it this way: “We are children of strange times. Our birthmarks are both troubled and troubling. We do not, most of us, belong. We inhabit, we own, instead. Being in the world but not of it: that was once a foundation of Western spirituality. It will end up being a stain by which we will be held in disrepute. Our way with the land entrusted to us bears the marks of our unbelonging….”

‘Asian American’; came to be adopted at AAAC to set ourselves opposed to the Vietnam War but also apart from the sensibility, the tacit manner of the hubris that claimed us as other.  This opened a space where we could seek friends, allies and an art for a different world. And be a site of refuge for our community. 

I wonder if mainstream institutions are now more receptive to contemporary Asian or what I would call Asian American art, how would this shift be understood?

Bob Eng Lee June 2024

In a Perfect World (Different Americans/Different Asians)

Hitomi Iwasaki

Originally published in Korea Society Quarterly Sept 2000

Together with 2 Far 2 Close & The Annual Series of Exhibitions by R. Lee

Economic dynamism in Asia in the late 1980s and 90s allowed for a considerable Western interest in Asian culture. As notions of how Asian strength might appeal to the Western imagination, terms such as the tiger and dragon were routinely used to represent the renewed postwar economic power wielded by the countries from the East, particularly during the last two decades. With the desired cultural package for Asia came the inevitability of a flawed skimming of the surface or a subconscious oblivion to the multivalent meanings that are embedded in Asia’s many evolving histories. However, the effort has been put forth to generate a more comprehensive and well-rounded perspective to demonstrate an engaged attention to the complexities of Asia.

A parade of large-scale exhibitions of Asian contemporary art passed through major New York institutions in the 1990s: Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties (1990), Across the Pacific: Contemporary Korean and Korean American Art (1993), Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art (1994), Traditions/Tensions: Contemporary Art in Asia (1996), Inside out: New Chinese Art (1998), Out of India: Contemporary Art of the South Asian Diaspora (1997), and Cities on the Move (1998). As timely responses to the evident sociopolitical changes, these exhibitions strove to demystify Asian exoticism for Western viewers. In various degrees, exhibition organizers, including invited curators from Asia, carefully eschewed stereotypical designations. Many of the artists chosen to participate were given space at these major venues virtually for the first time. The ethnically based exhibitions naturally invite the viewer’s expectations of inherent eccentricities in the works from non-Western countries. Ultimately, the critical reception to such exhibitions always involved the debate over whether the works were too derivative of Western trends and inauthentic, or, too ethnic to pass muster against the contemporary art yardstick.

In the wake of postcolonial ideology, the West’s attention to “others” has shifted gears, and is seen as an attempt to stimulate a seemingly exhausted Western art history in the Modern and Postmodern lineage. Both the capacity and the need to bounce the Western self-concept off of something else, to set a point of reference, became profuse. It is crucial to note the subtle difference from the arguments in “Orientalism”—that the notion of the orient was a mere reflection of European arrogance and Western prejudice—as discussed by such authors as Edward Said. The realities of globalization and information technology update the East-West gap from one of civilization hierarchy to that of cultural difference. And while this is not an attempt to make a haphazard equation between the issue of Orientalism and the current proliferation of Asian or “non-white” contemporary art, the discussion of the subject has certainly illuminated some of the operative complexities of the climate cued by such buzzwords as multi- or trans-culturalism, globalization, and nomadism. The manifold intricacies become even more complex as one takes into account cultures fostering other cultures within, as in the case of numerous immigrant groups, including that of the diverse Asian Americans, contained within a vast nation such as the United States.

Being indigenous neither to “America” nor to “Asia”, Asian American artists have yet to be comfortably positioned in an international art scene that has of late championed artists of Asian origin. This is precisely due to the geographical uncertainty of their cultural identity, embodying an ill-fitted culture within another culture. The title of the exhibition organized by the Asian American Arts Centre, 2 Far 2 Close, zeroes in on this dilemma. As a community-based organization, the Centre was founded in 1974 with its commitment to promote the preservation and creative vitality of Asian American cultural growth through the arts and its historical and aesthetic linkage to other communities. The dilemma doubles when we realize the Centre’s mission has been to address the distinctive concerns of Asian Americans in the United States that go in two directions both within the very community itself and to the larger society. There is a difficult paradox in the simultaneous pursuit of preservation and assimilation. The Centre’s effort has always been to embrace the shifting state of “Asian American-ness”. The artists represented in the current exhibition 2 Far 2 Close reflect this posture by including nomadic/diasporic “Asian Asian” artists who recently moved from their native countries and have chosen to be based in the United States but reside here semi-permanently. The Centre’s programs have been all inclusive in this sense from the very beginning of its exhibition programs begun in the mid-1980s.

The construction of identity in every age and every society involves establishing opposites and “others”. As Said maintained, “the development and maintenance of every culture require the existence of another different and competing alter ego.” An individual’s self-concept emerges often when one recognizes oneself as separate and different from others. Cultures need to go through an analogous process and so must identify themselves through an alter ego. In other words, the need for an “other” is built into human nature at both the individual and collective levels. Now that the geographical border of culture is becoming rapidly fluid, the act of reaffirming cultural identity seems increasingly complex.

I have a vivid recollection of my own embarrassing and naïve surprise at my first encounters with Asian Americans when I arrived in the United States about a decade ago. They look Asian just like myself, but have Western first names, speak English without the slightest accent, and might be incapable of reading Chinese haracters. This unexpected and beguiling “foreign-ness” I felt from them was much greater than that of other Western people of different races. More than anything, this was “the” culture shock of my coming to America. It is imperative to recognize the sheer relativity of what appeals as exotic or different and to whom. As cultures increasingly fracture, the identity of the individual becomes further hybrid. And this hybridization of cultural identity is evidenced not only by artists, but also by art professionals who institutionalize it, and by the public whose embrace or rejection of it feeds the cycle of production--whether towards radical or mainstream ends.


By Robert Lee

Executive Director Curator, Asia American Art Centre

The Annual series of exhibitions began modestly, as a reformulation of a series started five years earlier entitled, "Ten Chinatown: First Annual Open Studio Exhibition." Five of these Open Studio exhibitions were held. Thus the Annual series is actually sixteen years in the making. The series was changed when, after five years, too few artists had their studio in the neighborhood and the idea for the annual exhibition had to be changed. How then write about the Annual series as an Arts Centre endeavor? Judging from hindsight may render one useful perspective.

The role of the Annuals/Open Studios in the Asian American Arts Centre's visual arts program was an opportunity to exhibit many artists, often quite diverse, eclectic, and innovative. It was, however, only one part of a larger effort to bring attention to a particular kind of artist who, we believed to a large measure had been overlooked. The work of AAAC began with visual artists in 1982 with the start of the Archive. This work was shaped in 1974 when the organization was named "Asian American" and again in 1984 by identifying artists as "Asian American". In this way we sought to raise the visibility of the presence of difference. Some of the artists in the first Open Studio show were Kunie Sugiura, Arlan Huang, Jerry Kwan, Martin Wong, Zarina Hashmi, Charles Yuen, John Duff and Tom Butter.

In the early 70's the disaffection with government policies, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement lead to the view that major institutions had left out a piece of American history and were not serving a distinct segment of the population. This demanded of people of color that they uncover for themselves their own story. The history of Asians in America was one of these. The Arts Centre chose to present and explore our community in the Lower East Side of New York. The concept, Asian American art, is both ethnic, cultural and political, a middle ground whose value awaits recognition. Asian American Art is in the middle of a river, so to speak, of political, cultural and artistic complexities. It is a way of looking at art that is not only Asian and not only American nor simply artistic, but a combination of these. Its implications require the choice of a different ethical stance; we chose community action.

"Diverse communities seek to legitimize their perspective on the generic American story. The master narrative of American history can no longer presume a singular cultural perspective, and the process has begun to reconcile the contradictions of its multifaceted populations, and the cultural visions which they embody."

Our moral tone in 1996 was high, and certainly a sense of righteousness continues to be a part of what underlies Asian American art. Participants in the Second Annual Open Studio show included Kazuko, Ai Wei Wei, Prawat Laucheron, Albert Chong, Toshio Sasaki, V.C. Igarta and Nina Kuo. The Arts Centre proposed a different American ethos. Its cultural stance was and is color consciousness, an awareness of self in the context of a cultural past. For once one accepts oneself as such, an individual of color has the basis to accept and embrace other individuals and cultures. Color blindness, an American ethos based on merit and equality, dispenses with difference and the cultural heritages of other peoples. From the Art Centreís view, this is neither desirable nor viable given demographic patterns. The multiple perspectives that now compose the American landscape and the global context can be accepted and recognized as a non-hieratic basis for dialogue and cultural development. Given this perspective, the phrase, 'culturally specific organizations' is a misnomer since for such organizations, specific cultural roots serve as points of departure to see and embrace the whole. In a world that claims universality while implementing market share and turf fights (prime victims of this are fragmented ethnic enclaves) this is criticized as negative separatism and a ghettoization. Yet by initiating this identity, despite efforts to dismiss it, the question of difference has grown to become one of the many ambiguities the contemporary world lives with, and a point of departure to shape a more viable society.

Our effort to establish a place for Asian American artists and their work helped exerted pressure on mainstream institutions to change and make the American public aware of cultural developments in Asian American communities if not those in Asia. Cultural activities in ethnic communities routinely were ignored; the public knew nothing and could know nothing of the press blackout on so-called race based exhibitions. The national effort to assimilate or be inclusive of minorities and/or sheer ignorance kept this policy in place. When major institutions finally recognized these developments and then adopted them in the early 90s, it was seen in Hispanic, African and Asian communities as the appropriation of the mission, program, and funding of community art organizations. This is partly why most diverse community institutions did not grow to mid size or become institutionally stable. Some of the artists in the Fifth Open Studio show were Arleen Schloss, April Vollmer, John Allen, Toyo Tsuchiya, Rashid Arshed, Paul Wong, Ken Hiratsuka and Hilda Shen.

What was it like in the early years? Its promise of growth, the energy of righteousness, the support and encouragement we received, Dance Theatre performers rehearsing in the next room, we were a start up with no where to go but up. It was a joyous time, full of energy, borne by faith and enthusiasm. The long haul set in when funds were cut, supporters got jobs, married and left, The idealism of the 60's had past, and the thrill of the 70's with all of Chinatown's new groups began to settle. In the arts if it wasn't resistance from Asian American political groups, it was the label of ethnic separatism that claimed it was unsightly, even un-American to put quality second behind race. For such critics, the story of ethnicity could not possibly be synonymous with the story of serious contemporary art. Participants in the AAAC Annual 1990 included Kip Fulbeck, Henry Cainglet, Kwang S. Lee, Sui Ying Hung, Stanley Nishimura, Sui-Kang Zhao, Lalitha Ananthanaman and Julia Nee Chu.

With the fading of the Asian American movement, with the obscurity and irrelevance contemporary art held for the survival issues of most Asian American families, without news coverage in the major New York press, enclave containment was as debilitative or more so as the blockade of Cuba. And our response was similar - to entrench our community ethics and make frugality a value instrumental in effectively and persistently making Asian American art a permanent if microcosmic fixture on the fringe of the City. Without, as one "chuppy" expressed it, critical mass, and shedding the conventional ideas of what it means to make it in New York, we sought to amass a history, an Archive and a track record of the presence of Asian American art for later generations to build on. Without a marketing budget to generate a large audience and thinking being "in", "making the scene" was unnecessary for those who would seek us out. We continued to plug away and do what we knew was right.

In this we were wrong. Being "in" in the capital of commercialism where rumors and hearsay snowball into successful stampedes is crucial in how you are regarded. The incommensurability of the visual arts when the written and spoken word in a hyper-politicized urban environment holds far, far more weight than what is felt. Even the gap between Asian American Studies & Literature and the issues and concerns of the plastic arts infused with Asian American elements remains wide. Without a voice, those on the fringe know well what it means to be neutralized, manipulated, when any other course save towing the line is simply not viable. The dilemma remains as long as powerful elements in America refuse to hear other modalities, insisting on a national identity and a hierarchy that does not give credence to multiculturalism as an important if not defining description of the US. Some of the artists in the AAAC Annual 1992 were Jackie Chang, Hyun-Mi Yoo, Sungmi Naylor, Yoshiko Shimada, Ava Hsueh, Sowon Kwon, Gaye Chan and Ela Shah.

So we dug in further, zeal turned into regularity, burnout turned into savvy, and innocuous community programs maintained a facade that allowed us to continue our focus on Asian American art. By appearing to become undefined, subliminal, even obscure, to promote and establish its presence, not as a threat but as a habit, a given, AAAC sought to be normal, a part of the scheme of things. In this process Asian American art became less an idea, an ideology and more the daily support of the concerns, issues, idiosyncrasies of a multiplicity of artists and their work. Crafting themes provided a context and a history, a critical perspective that, in the light of arts incommensurability, maintains a human voice while the art speaks for itself. The Annuals become theme-less and five person panels formed to select the artists, enabling a gathering where Asian American issues could be discussed. This was the experience of AAAC as we saw and felt it. Asian American art has come a long way since then, accepted now in many quarters. But it has far to go. Its unabashed complexion, obscured increasingly by shortsightedness, a reconciliation between the civilizations of Asia and the West, is inexorable.

A note by the curator Young M. Park in her catalogue essay for “Cross-Cultural Voices” held at Stony Brook states: "In an interview that was done on October 7, 1998, Gao Minglu, the curator of Inside Out at the Asia Society and PS1 mentioned that, although he tried not to choose many immigrant artists since the exhibition is about Chinese art, he had to depend on Asian American artists such as Wenda Gu, Xu Bing, Cai Guo-qiang, Lin Tian-miao, and Wang Peng for the major installation projects. In addition, of the sixty artists participating in the exhibition, seventeen artists reside in or were educated in the West; nine among these seventeen artists are Asian Americans." For many reasons, Asian Americans artists still go under-recognized for their significance in contemporary art developments.

Just as creating an art without relying on the marketplace is possible, so living a committed life dispite American societal conditions, is possible. An engaged life without thought of self gain is still a choice. In chosing the creative side of Asian American communities, how they are pulled apart in a thousand ways becomes obvious. However, to begin to listen and appreciate Asian American voices, is one way to bring them together. AAAC in Chinatown? Yes. Abidding while observing the siege on this crowded enclave, and on the growth nationally of an Asian American consciousness, brewing a body of work that will continue to spawn and feed the urge to create. AAAC programs continue.

What other conclusions can be made about the visual arts program of the Arts Centre and in particular, the Annual series? Judging them with hindsight is useful but ultimately this only creates another perspective, another trajectory, another plan, another conceptualization, another pebble in your shoe. From the past we can look for pebbles or see the ever-present genesis of the present moment. The Annuals are an effort to capture the openness of this moment. “Now” is a privilege happening before our eyes. To resist seeing them as past, to be reluctant to say ultimately what they were or mean is to celebrate them for what they are.

Many artists, since participating in Open Studio/Annual exhibitions, often early in their careers, have done well. Among these the following can be mentioned: Santiago Bose, Jackie Chang, Albert Chong, Theresa Chong, David Diao, Kip Fulbeck, Kenta Furusho, Wenda Gu, Yang-Ah Ham, Zarina Hashmi, May-Ling Hom, Arlan Huang, V.C. Igarta, Jung Hyang Kim, Woong Kim, Kwok Man Ho, Sowon Kwon, Amy Loewan, Toshio Sasaki, Peng Wang, Martin Wong, Paul Wong, Xu Bing, Charles Yuen, Zhang Hongtu, Sui-Kang Zhao.

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Monday, July 31, 2023
Eleanor Yung and the AADT: Dancing "Asian America"

Passage. 1978.

Costume Design: Kwok Yee Tai

What Jenny Huang has written on Eleanor Yung and her choreography is beautiful.  So well understood and articulated, I feel as if she were there, seeing Eleanor’s dance with us for the first time. Her writing makes explicit an embodied insight into being Asian American in the 70s when a racial/political consciousness was emerging. At that time the thumbs up accolades of mainstream dance reviews seemed enough, but they were certainly not writing for an Asian American audience. Jenny's critical perceptions of that - an analysis of how we are perceived - is most helpful.  It is a remarkable moment to have Jenny Huang do this now some thirty years later. It is our pleasure to share this piece with you.

After introductory remarks on the term ‘Asian American’, background on Eleanor starts on p2, Basement Workshop on p3, Eleanor’s comments about Asian American dance and the make up of the company on p4, the Ribbon Dance and Passage on p5, Kampuchia p6, the developing purpose of the traditional company p7, Asian bodies, Orientalism and mainstream reviews p8, p9, & p10.

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Thursday, July 27, 2023
ArtAsiaPacific Review of AAAC by Roberta Lord

This review by Roberta Lord on AAAC was written long ago but it is more comprehensive than other reviews posted here. Recently rediscovered, it sheds an interesting light on AAAC's work.

The Asian American Arts Centre
Article by Roberta Lord, published in Art Asia Pacific 2004

Robert Lee, executive director of New York City's Asian American Arts Centre
(AAAC), was an undergraduate physics major at Rutgers University in the 1960s. One summer he took an art course taught by a Sinologist who also happened to be an artist. “An artist teaching art history somehow communicates things that are not verbal,” Lee remembers. He switched his major to studio art and art history, finished his bachelor degree, and moved to Chinatown. "I worked here and took part in the activism of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement. Given the politics of the time, I thought it was more important to be in the community than to try to work on these issues in academia."

At first, he says, “I didn't know how to use what I had learned.” Slowly he began to envision a bridge linking the past to the present and the future.

In the middle of all the political activity and community activity and arts activity, I began to relate these Asian American artists I was seeing to what I had learned in school. These artists would be the beginning. They would not remain an insignificant minority. They would mean something, and they would mean something in relationship to everything I had learned about the founding cultures of China, India and the West. And so we started to make a collection, an archival collection, and then a few years later we started to look at artists who were difficult to collect because they were in their later years or had passed away.

The AAAC occupies 2500-square-feet of loft space on the third floor at 26 Bowery, just south of Canal Street, in the heart of Chinatown. The non-profit organisation's focus has shifted over the last twenty-five years from dance to the visual arts. Lee has directed visual arts programming since 1978. He instituted the first Asian American artist slide archive in the United States. The archive functions as a registry of over 700 Asian American artists as well as a permanent historical record of their works and their development. It is used by national and international publishers, curators, art consultants and community organizations.

Earl Jung Reflections Oil on Canvas 1961 63 x 58” 7th AAAC Annual: Stream Segment: The Reintegration of Tradition in Contemporary Art 1997

Despite the inevitable struggles for funding, the exhibitions at the AAAC proceed with boldness, freshness and faith. Lee maximizes available resources by putting together two-to-four-person exhibitions that serve as visual conversations around unifying themes. These conversations are enhanced in brochure essays by Lee and invited critics, and in the related panel discussions and/or gallery tours.

The exhibition “Three Generations: Towards an Asian American Art History” in 1997 showed three painters—Tseng Ta-Yu, Phillip P. Chan and Theresa Chong—whose works are stylistically dissimilar but who as artists are linked by a daisy chain of mentorship. “Stream Segment: The Reintegration of Tradition in Contemporary Art” in 1997 included work by non-Asian artists who had taken Asian subject matter and/or iconography as their point of departure. "Silk Light: 4 Artists from Korea” in 1998 was provoked by the Korean phrase “walking in silk robes in the evening moonlight,” which, according to Lee's accompanying text, “describes the passion and futility of the artistic impulse in the absence of the beholder. Such is the situation here. Such is the situation of Seoul, Korea." The AAAC's exhibition titles are always poetic and provocative: in 1996 the sixth annual group show of the work of a dozen artists selected from the archive was called “Twelve Cicadas in the Tree of Knowledge.”

The ongoing "Milieu” project (Parts I and II have already occurred, Part III was recently funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant), focuses on artists active in the two decades after the Second World War. It is based on a national research project, “Asian American Artists and Their Milieu: 1945-1965,” undertaken by the AAAC in 1987 with support from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.

In addition to its work with contemporary and post-war artists, the AAAC also researches and presents folk arts. In a recent statement about the folk arts program, Lee describes traditional arts as:

art practices with spiritual, ethical, health and communal components. Far from naïve, these folk art/life practices serve to maintain a satisfying balance in life. The Arts Centre is mindful of traditional art's potential to offer contemporary perceptions an equanimity that has eluded the stress of modern conceits and the pursuit of excellence.

The 12 March 1986 issue of Nation magazine reported that Chinese Minister of Culture Wang Meng (who resigned after the Tiananmen Square massacre), said about his 1986 visit to the United States: “I am deeply impressed by the interest and friendliness of Americans towards the Chinese people, but I am appalled by their lack of knowledge about us.” Americans are not necessarily any better educated about their own countrymen who are of Asian descent. New York City has the largest Asian American population in the United States. Asian Americans represented 7 percent of the city’s total population in the 1990 census, and 12.2 percent of the population of the borough of Queens. Yet as Village Voice writer Andrew Hsiao pointed out in a 23 June 1998 article about Asian American activism, hollow stereotypes of Asian Americans prevail. “Indeed, portraits of Asian Americans as victimized sweatshop toilers or Ivy League drones connect to a long history of painting Asian Americans as poster children for the Horatio Alger version of America.”

Amy Loewan at Horace Mann School detail 2017

Lee finds that a similar confusion reigns in the visual arts. In a recent exhibition essay he wrote, "Despite many efforts to do otherwise, the voice of artists and thinkers from Asia continues to be reinterpreted or modulated for western ears. Assorted expectations, oppression of ethnic communities, nationalistic intentions, agendas based on disinformation as much as on confusion, continue to make it difficult to hear them.” If the blurring of Asian American identity in the United States can be likened to a storm, then Lee works to maintain the AAAC as that storm's calm centre.

It's like Captain Kirk in an electrical fog and none of your instruments work and you can't tell where you're going and so you have no names and nothing works and so you just fly by your ears and that's where I think many artists find themselves. I think that's exactly where we are, too. All we have are the words from the last period of time that we knew. I use those words as much as I can ... to be helpful ... to let people know the nature of this fog.

The AAAC is distinctly and deliberately an enclave. If it lost this identity, if it moved uptown or even across town, it would lose its bearing altogether. Although Lee understood early on that he could have exploited his expertise in the larger, diluted world of art curatorship—in mainstream educational institutions, museums or galleries—he opted to maintain a local, concentrated presence in the heart of a major Asian American community. He believes that being there, in the heart, plays and will continue to play an important role for both community members and for emerging and established Asian American artists.
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Tuesday, June 20, 2023
Basement Woskhop, Godzilla, and AAAC

Before Covid when AAAC had on site internships and we prized our working relationships with such students, some would write articles for our Blog. This one was written in 2019 and because of Covid and other factors was not posted. The perspective of the young author speaks of her generation and after all that has happened is worth making public at this time.  

The following writing is by Maxine Bell, 2019 Summer Intern.

Spending the last day in the AAAC office, I have already begun to take for granted the resources in this room. I began this internship, with a very spotty Asian American art history that I compiled on my own, and I’m leaving now with a list of Asian American artists that I follow and draw inspiration from. I leave with a closer connection to NYC and East Coast Asian American history. I have a list of the many books that have surrounded me all summer to reference in future writings. I leave with an insight that most of my friends and family may never have. Most importantly, I leave with the urge to share, to research, to write, and to create. 

Learning about the NYC Chinatown Art Scene

The first day in the office, Bob Lee handed me a framed black and white picture-day-like photograph. He began to tell me about Basement Workshop. He pointed to faces and told me about them and what they’ve accomplished. The photo immediately brought me back to my all Asian/Asian American class last semester, Writing Asian American Diaspora. At college, I’ve been able to surround myself in and out of classrooms by an Asian American community. From personal experience, to feel part of an Asian American community isn’t always just dropped at your doorstep. Three years ago, I didn’t even think I could be considered Asian American.  Being mixed race, I never knew which circle to fill in. 

I wondered how all these young adults met up, how they welcomed one another, how they knew their voice mattered. During the height of the Asian American Movement (1960-1970), a group of young Asian American activists formed Basement Workshop (1970). As Alexandra Chung describes in her book, Envisioning Diaspora, Basement Workshop served as an “umbrella organization” for the Asian American groups that branched from the initial organization.  

Out of Basement Workshop, a group of active members created Yellow Pearl and Bridge Magazine. Bridge Magazine’s publications scream Asian American with pages reciting essays about identity, news (global and local), poems, and art. I wish I grew up reading these magazines rather than flipping through pages of models who I couldn’t relate to. These magazines are filled with self-expression, community action, opinions, and reflecting on history. I got the chance to read through many issues before we (AAAC) sent them to a University and was even gifted with a few. Bob informed me that Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA) used to have stacks of Bridge at a welcome desk for guests to read and take home. While I am unsure of the total amount of Bridge publications, they were meant to be bi-monthly and lasted from Vol. 1 July/Aug 1971 to the spring of 1985 for Vol. 10. 

As Basement Workshop’s umbrella role, one organization created by Eleanor S. Yung was the Asian American Dance Theater (AADT). This organization was later renamed to its current name, Asian American Arts Centre (AAAC) in 1987. From the beginning of the Centre’s life a big part of its goal was to look at how each Asian American with their own diasporic subjectivities is connected to their identity. As the AADT, performances were held to celebrate both modern and traditional Asian/Asian American dances. Then as the AAAC, the organization worked to uplift Asian American artists and reaffirm value to these artists’ works. 

Bridge Magazine reminds me of an on-campus Asian American publication called Voices. I had submitted drawings my first year in school and was so overwhelmed with warmth and empowerment when the issue came out as it was my first experience of creative collaboration with an Asian American group. I’m connecting my experiences with Basement Workshop and emphasizing my “firsts” in order to highlight the work Basement did almost 50 years ago while criticizing the similarities. I question why it took me until college to feel a part of the Asian American diaspora. I question why I didn’t know about Basement Workshop until this internship. I question why the writings of Bridge Magazine are so strikingly similar to the writings of Voices; how we are writing about the same things yet nobody outside of our community seems to take it seriously enough to stop business as usual by giving these types of readings to future generations. 

The birth of Basement Workshop was simultaneous with the term, Asian American being coined. Bob tells me about how the Workshop had conversations of what terminology to call themselves, Amerasian, Asian American, or Asian in America. These self-identifying terms are still a blockade for many individuals of an Asian ethnicity living in America today. However, the feeling of creating miracles of connection within a cultural community is undeniable. Gaining momentum after the Civil Rights Movement and during the Anti-war Movement, the Asian American Movement was one of community and organization building. In a time where race was viewed as black and white, the Asian American Movement worked to denounce this silencing perspective, yet I question this statement because growing up I felt that all of my peers also saw race as black and white or would claim themselves colorblind. All the work Asian Americans have done in the past and continue to do in the present need to be taught to young Asian Americans, to limit the number of Asian Americans, like myself, who feel/felt out of place and silenced for most of their childhood.

Reflections on Godzilla and the AAAC

From working at the AAAC, listening to oral histories from Bob, and reading many documents it had come to my attention that there seems to have been a falling out with members of Godzilla and their connection to the AAAC. While I don’t know what happened I can infer, from which I can only piece together what I know and what I hope my generation and future generations can learn from their relationship.  

When thinking about the relationship between AAAC and Godzilla, what pops into my head is Audre Lorde’s quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” The AAAC, the first organization to push for Asian American artists, got a lot of criticism for receiving government funding and was called a “gatekeeper” in a negative sense. Bob tells me, “I thought I was opening a door, a vista. But this could be interpreted by others as a gatekeeper, an agent for those in power to choose.” I can see why the AAAC was not seen as enough, that some people wanted more, that it felt limiting. 

However, rather than placing the blame and frustration on the AAAC, we must step back and analyze this frustration. The frustration is not anger towards the AAAC, it’s anger towards the AAAC being the only place valuing Asian American artists. It’s anger towards gallery spaces and museums not showing Asian American artists, and it’s the anger of being Asian American- finally feeling like that identity fits, and then having your main mode of expression not be heard. This anger is a good thing as it shows that these artists know their worth. Placing the blame on the AAAC is counterproductive when the real anger is towards larger institutions who uphold White artists.  However, the published letter to the Whitney, while the means of the letter were unconventional, the urge to be shown in an institution that makes large profits and erases many creatives of color from the definition of “American art,” feels to me as placing success as ultimate visibility and recognition by the master. I question again, what the best and most effective means are to show the world the power and gravity of Asian American artists and their works. 

The falling out between Godzilla members and the AAAC reflect how many communities of color can feel that certain organizations who represent them are not enoughCommunities of color have been put below their White neighbors, have been strategically pinned against one another and are shuffled in an order to uphold White supremacy. Disagreements in how things are run are natural, and I understand there is always room for improvement and different approaches. 

I believe it’s important for groups like Godzilla and AAAC to engage with their differences and their similarities to see what has worked, what hasn’t, and what their goals are. Ultimately, both Godzilla and the AAAC share(d) the similar goal in placing and sharing the value on Asian American art. The differences in their approaches are exciting, but the lack of recognition of one another is quite upsetting. When we don’t uplift one another, who is really benefiting? In Bob’s essay, “Asian American Art: One Perspective” published in Brandywine Graphic Workshop Inc.’s Impressions: Contemporary Asian Artist Prints in 1997, he writes: 

In a sense, history is the art of telling the future. The history of culture and art is the passage of changing aesthetic ideas and patterns. My bias is that culture and art serve and reflect the people. What we have now divides people, serves the production of wealth, deludes and misdirects young people, and disregards elders. 

 White supremacy wants groups of color to pin against one another in order to distract from the real enemy (White supremacy). This derailment is exactly what delays progress for communities of color and is very much strategic by those in power.  

I hope that my generation and the generations to come can learn from the relationship between Godzilla and AAAC. I hope we celebrate the accomplishments of both groups while being critical of their silences. Whatever happened between the two and the pettiness aside, both Godzilla and AAAC are empowering examples of strong Asian American artists who know their worth and wish the world listened to them and saw their power as well. Going forward we must create strong connections with other groups with similar goals and uplift one another as a strong unit. We must give credit where credit is due and support one another.

Once groups work with one another, whether that be through collaborations, (co)funding, presentations, resources, sharing, etc., impactful opportunities can take place, benefitting all groups involved. We cannot lose sight of the reason Asian American artists are left out of American art, who decides this, and why we must be included in the narrative. We must learn from one another and work on how best to dismantle the master. I can already observe this happening, and I hope it continues. My generation has a savviness with social media where we can connect very easily with one another. I believe we can make large impacts when working together by amplifying each other's voices.  Ultimately, this work is for the future generations to live in a world where artists who look like them or share a last name have solo and group shows in accessible spaces. Spaces where Asian American children, teens, and adults can all smile with pride then go home and pick up a paintbrush. 

Written by Maxine Bell, 2019 Summer Intern.

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