Thursday, September 21, 2017
AAAC Testimony on the Cultural Plan for NYC

AAAC Testimony at a City Hall Hearing on the completed Cultural Plan for NYC    
Sept 20, 2017

Int. No. 419 stated in 2014 in its opening statement,  “It is important to understand the scope of cultural services throughout the City, where these services are lacking and how cultural service gaps may be filled.” Many sought to seize the opportunity afforded by this visionary effort to address the problem of cultural equity in NYC. After decades of a history of benign neglect, racism, and discrimination suffered by the POC artistic and cultural community, a resolution to this problem was sought through listening to the needs and concerns of all those affected. Even the CIG started to worry publicly their funds might be shifted to POC orgs, reversing 40yrs of documented inequity. With the completion of CreateNYC that promise has now died.
Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl testifies at the Hearing. City Councilman Peter Koo are among those listening.

Asian American Arts Centre was one of those who saw in this an opportunity that had been impossible for forty years. After nearly two years of listening to New Yorkers and the publication of an extensive record of such interactions, the city has demonstrated it fails to listen where listening counts. AAAC and a thousand other arts organizations and the communities and boroughs they serve, our voices go unrecognized. Instead the lions share of funding to CIG has been re-inscribed, their funds assured, 67% of NYC as people of color their homes and their neighborhoods, are left to the real estate developers. Opportunity in America reigns - for developers, as the people get priced out of their homes and their neighborhoods.  

At the Cultural Equity Conference held in April of 2015 sponsored by the Cultural Equity Group of which I am a member, I stated the need to recognize the value of multiple cultures, especially traditional “wisdom bearers” who should be honored, and recognized, as well as the elder nonprofit cultural organizations many of these begun in the Civil Rights era whose community infrastructure has grown priceless in their value to the city of New York as a roadmap to cultural transition.

At a New York Community Trust gathering held at Museo del Barrio In November of last year I spoke again of these elder community organizations how their need for succession funding was crucial for their continued survival. City officials including Tom Finkelpearl were present at both these events.  The city listens, however it listens selectively. Now today three of these elder POC organizations are dying as our Mayor fiddles with the numbers of people of color on the staff of CIG institutions.

CityCouncilman VanBramer, sponsor of the Int. No. 419 and chair of the Cultural Committee listens to all who testify at the Hearing 

 Clearly this is just a ruse, the return of the New Audiences program of the 90s in another guise.  This was when the work of artists of color became so prominent, funding was given to established institutions to ‘grow their audiences’ instead of the POC organizations where these artists were developed.  Our Mayor cant seem to give resources to organizations where POC are on staff and also in control of their institutions.

Will the CreateNYC plan fill cultural service gaps, or offer even a few glimmers, in the next three to five and more years? Yes, however the challenge of a cultural plan for NYC, meaningful to race and cultural relations in NYC will have been lost. The question then becomes, how will 60-70% of NYC population deal with the continuing tradition of cultural neglect, denial, tokenism, misrepresentation, and suppression? 

Perhaps it should be no surprise that our Mayor, and all those to chose this time to address cultural equity, could not rewrite a cultural policy that has been in place for generations, consistent with domestic and international policies going back to before the ideas of Manifest Destiny if not to slavery itself.

Marta Vega (far left, of the Caribbean Cultural Center) testifies pointing out flaws in the language, definitions that affect the validity of the whole plan.
The record of the history of this nation, of the many streams that constitutes its mainstream, the entitlements it has endowed to itself, to empire, and to its dream machine, does help us to see the diverse forces fighting for its soul. Technology may open vistas to an incredible future, but our limits, the delusions within our ambitions, our human foibles, may give us pause before indulging in dreams that may be better left as dreams.

Waves of immigrants have dreamed bringing their energy to these shores. The price extracted, that their descendants pay is to leave behind who they were - a truncated memory. The price we may all pay for this is a society rooted in materialism, in dollars.  Seeing the CIG in this light, their role in maintaining  NYC and the USA as head and shoulders above all others, it is conceivable though not necessarily laudable why our Mayor has chosen to re-entrenched them.

He may claim New York as a sanctuary city, but there are limits to what our Mayor means by it. POC can take greater clarity as to the reality of our status, our difference, and those who dream can be forewarned - the social consequences generated, regardless the rewards it offers, how they may be used. 

In speaking with artists who live in countries where limits to artistic freedom is explicit, some council that their situation is not so bad, once as artists you accept your role, and that desperate times require desperate measures.

Thuan Uyen Le recently spoke in Brooklyn on the censorship artists have learned to live with in Vietnam.

This is about insight, the vision of the arts and artists – their gifts given to us. It is oddly from this room, this hall, that it is inappropriate to speak of art as art, to even see or recognize such a horizon exists. Arts voice is where the horizon speaks.  For those of us who are listening deeply, and there are many, this legislative process is quite antiquated.

The issue of a multicultural America under whatever revised terms it becomes known by, will remain a question beyond my generation and perhaps for many generations. It is likely to become increasingly central to what shapes this country and the people who reside in it.

Robert Lee, Asian American Arts Centre

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Sunday, August 13, 2017
Mo Bahc Painting from 1989

Mo Bahc Painting from 1989

August 2017   After so many years a painting of the late artist Mo Bahc, known now are Yiso Bahc has been found. The painting/collage from 1989, originally painted for AAAC’s CHINA: June 4th exhibition marking the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square, is titled, People+Army=PeoplesArmy. About 24” in width, framed and sealed, the clever wit yet strongly felt image ties together what happened in China 1989 and what is happening today with Pres. Trump threat to unleash “fire and fury” against North Korea could repeat the dark logic of that time and bring us again to the edge of disaster. The Tiananmen Sq. exhibition itself, originally retained to exhibit in China, seeks a permanent home where its historical and artistic significance will be appreciated. Consisting of over a hundred artworks, interested parties please contact AAAC for details.
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Godzilla and Asian American Arts Centre

“So many I’ve had the chance to support, to see them all together, recognizing what they achieved, I feel fulfilled. How many years its been, regardless of how it happened -
I just want to congratulate each one, such a wonderful event marking a historic moment. Having An/other NY, a young new group pay tribute to them, and seeing how the cultural situation is morphing,  its clear what I did in the 80s and Godzilla did in the 90s has established Asian/Asian American art’s presence on the American landscape, laying a foundation for the future. As a second generation Asian American my concern for establishing a home on these American shores – a cultural acceptance – for people of Asian decent is no longer. We have a cultural voice, and its Asian inflections hold no small significance. We have a vital place in the discourse on visual arts and in the institutions where the public can access them, and in the contested spaces where cultural confrontations reinvent us anew.  I didn’t know I would ever see this day when I started. Amazingly its here.  Thanks to all who made it happen.” Written after the Godzilla event at Gallery Korea on May 23rd2017 by Bob Lee, Asian American Arts Centre.

From Godzilla’s Wikipedia page:
“Godzilla Asian American Arts Network was an arts collective and support network started in 1990 for Asian Americans. Founded on the premise that they did not have a suitable organization to promote, support and encourage their visual arts, Godzilla's founding members sought to fill this void.”

In the three interviews of the founders of Godzilla conducted by Alexandra Chang, see -  - it is clear they were working at or with the Asian American Arts Centre at that time. 

How many years we had been working together nor how the split occurred will not be written here. .Suffice it to say their split from AAAC affected operations severely, the impact lasted for too many years,,, I too buried it at the advise of my board thinking that the AAAC archive is the best place to leave this story for those who want to know how change in grassroots activism really takes place within the context of late capitalism.* Now it’s clear that such things will not be unearthed, old wounds will not be allowed to heal with myths too popular to fade, and another revival is about to take place on August 10th. Only by choosing no longer to suppress them, to bring them into the light after so many years, will reconciliation be felt by those most effected. It’s good to know many Godzilla artists had no notion of what happened at the start and the work they did came from a positive place.

About a year or so later while working with TAAC, The Association of American Cultures, I came to visit Karamu House in Cleveland, Ohio, the oldest African-American theater in the US. In speaking with the director she shared with me their experience. Gathering African American artists together they developed a program to train them for the larger art world and when completed, ushered them out into this world. They met with such rejection that the artists returned and attempted to shut down Karamu House. When I heard this I remembered my own experience, how it felt like an embargo around Cuba, those years were hard. That's when I realized this was not a phenomena affecting only my organization nor only Asian Americans. The larger dynamics of the mainstream is not to allow an ethnic community to have strong leadership or any effective infrastructure other than in its own enclave. This is not the place to argue such questions. What became clear for me was such disputes within people of color communities and families were that people became merely pawns in a larger political/cultural contest
From left: John Allen, Nina Kuo, Lynne Yamamoto, Tomie Arai, Ryan Wong, Charles Yuen, Helen Oji, Herb Tam, Arlan Huang, Eugenie Tsai, Zhang Hongtu, (Sung Ho Choi not pictured).

Much is made of economic opportunity but in an ethnic community, particularly for Asians, we have to break our ethics of modesty, learn to be self promoting if not aggressive, exploit our own people to advance in a context where money means everything. Thus the idea of poverty pimps came to apply to non profits. When my generation were all volunteers at Basement Workshop in the early 70s and government grants were offered us, we knew what had to be done if we wanted to continue our work. When most of the volunteers left Basement years later it was because the way funding was allotted in the support of staff who had to have a way to live. Thus when actions were taken for our community or for artists, our motives were seen as tainted, even corrupted. The ethics of self gain as fundamental to society led in an ethnic enclave to tolerating this as a secular sin such that the natural tendency to gratitude was undermined. These and other factors may help to shed light on how to understand an ethnic community and the split with AAAC.

When artists as sensitive beings, had to fight for their identity, their humanity, to survive the streets of NY, our culture could only make a place for this as a fight for recognition, for status. (Asian American Art: A Community Based Perspective March 1997 in a Brandywine Workshop catalogue – Impressions: Contemporary Asian Artists Prints) It was called identity politics. Bumping into one another in a crowded subway even can be taken personally, a misunderstanding can be construed as a betrayal. Aside from the melodrama of betrayal that sells so many films, in NYC betrayal as a human perception has become a norm. Yet this is how I felt.

Whether it was my personality or my training as a historian, apparently I could not realize my goal as stated in 1983 at the Eye to Eye artist panel talk of enabling all to share and work together. As a curator I did what curators do in organizing exhibitions. So much for applying a historical approach to a contemporary context.  

Helen Oji with Charles Yuen & Herb Tam    
The tactic I evolved of an annual continuum of thematic Asian American art exhibition programs - repetition of the same refrain, a seemingly innocuous norm when there was no such thing on a societal level as Asian American art though there was Black art and Hispanic art - came about as a survival tactic
--- given the context of the 60s assassinations including Bruce Lee & his son, FBI Chinatown deportation raids in the 50s & IWK (I Wor Kuen where I was cadre) surveillance in early 70s, in 1969 asserting our cultural difference as Asian-Americans within the mainstream of Lower Manhattan at Basement, police violence in Newark in 68’ where I was raised, & decimation of the Black Panthers in 60s/70s, gang repression of IWK and AAAC in the 90s (see the New Yorker Magazine June 17, 1991 Gwen Kinkead pp56-84), the closing of Park Row by NYC Police Dept., being ignored and blackballed by pro Taiwan forces for anyone pro mainland China, being blackballed by the NYC press for several months based on quality, not race, as the only acceptable basis for exhibitions, and beginnings of Patient Rights at Gouverneur Hospital in early 70s with Chinese language rights being finally vouchsafed by the HHC (Health & Hospitals Corporation). Aside from barely survivable funding, a minimum was structured as visual events that open the door for cultural growth.

Godzilla artists I supported before 1990 worked together to achieve what AAAC saw as its mission. From 83’ to 90’ AAAC exhibited over forty Godzilla artists in twenty two exhibitions. AAAC continued support of several Godzilla artists throughout the 90s and beyond, ie., Charles Yuen, Arlan Huang, Colin Lee, Sung Ho Choi, Tomie Arai, Bing Lee, etc. The initial break with AAAC however hostile, freed Godzilla from the tone I had set, historical and serious to social and media savvy. The sensibility of a youthful, rebellious generation will out.
Zhang Hongtu with Eugenie Tsai & Sung Ho Choi       
Hidden in silence for twenty plus years, this story was mentioned in an essay of Young Park that was never published. Written in 2002 for the AAAC Story exhibition titled AAAC: its History of Reintegration, she wrote on page 9 of 15 pages "...Asian American Art community could have been much more powerful and generated strong impact ... I believe that the lesson between Godzilla and the Asian American Arts Centre would make their next generation vigilant and alert of their opportunities for forming a solid cultural unit of Asian American Art in the United States..." – maybe, but AAAC continued, key important exhibitions happened and continue to this day, issues of identity have found their place among many issues that give shape to art.  Thus from the vantage of this moment, Asian American art has established itself as a historical phenomena at minimum among many contemporary art circles. Public exhibitions as actions with printed cards documenting for its audience a message and action on a regular basis, even with minimal publish reviews, impacts consciousness, awakens others to action, and becomes part of the flow of the art community.

Lillian Cho, formerly of the Asian American Arts Alliance speaks from the audience
In 1994 the sudden news of Chinese contemporary artists signaled a shift of the art market, the next wave transformed perceptions of contemporary Asia through its art. That this signal was delivered by Asia Society indicates how well orchestrated is the American public's news about who Asia is becoming. This also indicates the significance of Asian American art is far beyond domestic borders.  After 911 the wars of South East Asia move to the Middle East, Muslims become the next racial target, OWS responded to the 2008 international financial crisis but it could not maintain the pressure, and now the Alt/Rt. presents us with alternative truths – another media driven perception. The media itself has transformed our attention and become part of the art culture that has merged Asian/Asian American art with the international Asian art spectacle (as in Field Meeting:Thinking Practice). The particular sensibility that Asian American domestic concerns bring has overlapped with art in Asia, and are yet raised in the public arena by Black Lives Matter, gentrification, immigration, and re-zonings, and they have become embedded in the art of local, regional, market and ethnic communities. The world is an aesthetic place, yes, and as we make a case for a multiplicity inclusive of Asia in each city’s tumultuous urban bubble our choices need to make space for what Gordon Hempton calls “One Square Inch of Silence”.
For every non profit who was not appreciated for what they gave, Margo Machida's, not my own arrogance and shortcomings, are listed here:  
           She benefits from AAAC actions at the following events:

 Panelist on Eye To Eye  with Lucy Lippard, John Yau, etc 1983 ; Artists-in-Residence - a nine month residency 1984-85 ; AIR organizer, participating artist & speaker in a Symposium on Contemporary Asian American Art  - May 1, 1985 ;  Two Person exhibition with Charles Yuen entitled “Orientalism” April / May 1986 ; Artists Selection Committee & Wrote Exhibition Introduction for Roots to Reality II: Alternative Visions  Oct / Nov 1986 ; Chosen for a three person exhibition entitled “The Mind’s I, Part 2  with Luis Cruz Azaceta and Robert Colescott    March / April 1986 ; Guest Curator for Invented Selves  December 1988 ; Conference participant - Independent Curator/Cultural Critic   “The Players: Asian American Art”    A conference co-sponsored by AAAC & Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program & Institute at NYU)  with the AAAC Story exhibition  June 1, 2002 ; selection panelist for 12th Annual Exhibition: Contrary Equilibriums (A collaboration with The Korea Society)  Sept / Nov  2002   (This and more can be found at )

John Allen, Arlan Huang, & Colin Lee
Allexandra Chang’s book:  In the exhibition at the New Museum organized by Gregory Sholette in 1998 entitled Urban Encounters, six NYC art collectives were presented including Godzilla. Installed on the wall at the opening there was a large panel with the name of Basement Workshop on the top. On the bottom row was the name of Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network. In the middle was the name Asian American Arts Centre indicating the sequence how Godzilla evolved.  In Alexandra Chang’s book Envisioning Diaspora, Asian American Visual Arts Collectives: From Godzilla, Godzookie, to the Barnstormers on page 82-83 she displays a timeline poster, From Basement to Godzilla: The Legacy of Asian American Activism in the Arts. This timeline obscures the relationship between AAAC and Godzilla that the New Museum wall panel presented.  It did however hint at the relation between AAAC and Basement which Alexandra knows well since she was once staff with AAAC and was hired also to video document an AAAC event (Nov.03’) held upon the return of one of the seminal founders of Basement, Danny NT Yung where many of his friends were invited. (Dannys papers from those years are available to serious researchers through AAAC.)

Aside from a note on the New Museum’s exhibition I should mention a bit more about media. It is not lost to me that this effort at resolution is initiated and implemented on Steve Jobs computer.  The last thing he gave to all his friends was Yogananda’s book, the book that aided in his realization of intuition as his greatest gift. Yogananda himself completed his autobiography just after a nuclear weapon fell on Hiroshima. A recent film on his life indicates he returned to the US, despite the racism which drove him away to counter this global trend. The American astronaut Edgar Mitchell would have agreed with his intuitions given what he saw from his capsule's bubble. I would not be surprised if several Godzilla artists would agree also. Let then intuition have the final say on this matter. And let intuition guide us through our own tangled paths to the art and world we seek. 
Bob  Lee
Solar System by Charles Yuen   
* We are not free from the vanities and egoism that is common in a culture dependent on competition, just as no one is free of racism, of bias when it is so prevalent everywhere.  We can be critical of biases and point to them with righteous indignation, but that does not mean we ourselves are free of them.  In the 80s at CAPA's Annual Heritage Festival, with nearly fifty tables spread across Lincoln Center plaza, the cultural area was filled, each table a different Asian American organization, and each had their own T-shirt for sale. I remember how those on the next table looked so loathingly at our T-shirts. It was natural. Not Nature. Its capitalism. The worsening of these sentiments is what I refer to as Late Capitalism. That's what has come to a crisis now touching on everything, including NYC Cultural Plan ( - unequal power dynamics and the struggle for equity and the pretense of justice.

Art Slam at AAAC jointly sponsored with Godzookie Nov. 15, 2003
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Thursday, July 20, 2017
Fatal Love; Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions

This summer the Queens Museum in conjunction with the Asia Society’s Lucid Dreams and Distant Visions: South Asian Art in the Diaspora hosted a three-day event that brought together renown South Asian American artists, academics, and curators. The symposium, titled Fatal Love: Where are We Now?, celebrated contemporary South Asian American art and explored issues concerning the South Asian American diaspora.

Photo by Bob Lee
This event was not the first the Queens Museum hosted. Back in 2005, the museum hosted a very similar event, called Fatal Love: South Asian American Art Now. This symposium was created and curated as a response to the increased policing of South Asians in the post-9/11 era and the growing South Asian American artistic community. Since then, there have been significant changes in the South Asian American community and art world. Fatal Love: Where are We Now?, as its title indicates, asks and answers where the South Asian American artistic community is now, twelves years later. It is a sequel to the first Fatal Love, yet also the first of its kind: delving into new, interesting topics.  

Photo by Bob Lee

This year’s three day event held back-to-back performances, panels, and lectures, all of which were recorded and can be viewed on the Queens Museum’s YouTube page. Day 1, which was held at the Asia Society, included an introductory speech by those who made this even possible a panel discussion called Double Duty: Agency and Cultural Production. The following two days were held at the Queens Museums and included panels discussions from sculpture and photography to public art and queer theory. These panels were not only about the art pieces, but larger issues at hand.

Photo by Bob Lee
In addition to these panels and performances, the open exhibit included works by Shahxia Sikander, Kanishka Raja, and Jaret Vadera and many more. Furthermore, AAAC has exhibited various artists from this exhibit including Chitra Ganesh, Mariam Ghani, Vandana Jain, Naeem Mohaiemen, and Zarina. These artists used different mediums and engaged in different dialogues.

Shahzia Sikander, Eye-i-ing Those Amorial Bearings, 1989-97, vegetable, dry pigment, tea on wasli paper.

Add caption Kanisha Raja, I and I (TRANSLATE); SW1, 2015-16, handwoven cotton thread, hand embroidered silk, acrylic pain, and UV-cured solvent-based inks on cotton.
Jaret Vardera, Emperor of No Country, 2016, print on fabric. 
Fatal Love accomplished -- most spectacularly -- in bringing together artists, curators, academics, and the public to have a rich and engaging dialogue about the issues confronting the South Asian American community, particularly in light of the recent 2016 presidential election. It is an event the Queens Museum should continue to host in the coming years, as they should continue to ask: Where are We Now?
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