Tuesday, November 24, 2020
 Back When It Was Said To Me I Had No Right...

Recalling some exhibitions and memories:

I was born and raised in Newark NJ in the Black, Puerto Rican and downtown neighborhood, apart from the Chinatown that barely existed back then.  My family’s laundry was four blocks from the area where the riots of 1968 broke out. When Black students took over the law building on Rutgers local campus I was with them. When many years later my father mentioned that someone came by the laundry, said something was going to happen that evening, and he need only take a chair and sit outside in front of his plate glass façade, and nothing will happen to his store. Clearly this was a planned uprising, not a riot. When AAAC mounted the Ancestors exhibit an Asian American artist said to me I had no right to do such a show. I knew I had every right.  

Dr. Alan Crite created a body of work that recorded life in the South end of Boston. He started working as an artist for the US government through the WPA. For decades he worked with African American churches. He mentored and encouraged many African American artists.  Artists at Northeastern University would call him father. He took under his wing the artist Lotus Do and she is forever grateful for his mentorship.  As board member and chair of The Association of American Cultures (TAAC), I brought Alan Crite to their bi-annual national conference, to promote and generate the collection of papers and oral histories documenting the relations between African and Asian American individuals and communities. Unfortunately we never received the support of foundations to continue this.


 Ancestors: a Collaborative Project with Kenkeleba House

This public exhibition was designed to encourage the act of paying homage, not only to one’s own ancestors but those of our neighbors, the ancestors of another people. It paid tribute to all America’s forebears, whether they be Asian, African, European, Latin American, or Native American.   By focusing on two, Asian and African American ancestors, it recognized that the rites and beliefs of diverse people permeate society as a whole and that acts of homage are fundamental to the development of the sense of community.  

“…we recognize the wealth of our heritage as Americans and encourage the act of paying homage

 to all the Ancestors of this Land”

Organized by Corrine Jennings & Robert Lee

Mounted at Kenkeleba House 214 East 2ed Street & at Asian American Arts Centre 26 Bowery

Artists Participating: 24, including several Afro-Asian artists and five Afro-Asian Collaborating artists.

Exhibition Flyer for “Ancestors,” Asian American Arts Centre, 1995.


Participating artists in Ancestors:

Camille Billops                                               Lotus Do Brooks  

Roy Hiro Calloway                                         Albert V. Chong      

Simone Leigh                                                  Richard Mafong

Sana Musasama                                              Helen Oji

Howardena Pindell                                         Yoland Skeete

Thomas Vu Daniel                                          Anton Wong

Elaine Wong                                                   Lily Yeh

Lui Lan Ding / Robert Craddock                    Eunju Kang  / Charles Burwell                        

David Higginbotham / Toshinori Kuga          Hyon Joo Kim / Prestone Jackson

Lisa K. Yi  / Faith Ringgold 


Simone Leigh

Untitled. Salt fired stoneware, 2006. Approximately 25 inches high.


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 In 1987, several African American artists participated in the four-part Mind’s I exhibition.  Robert Colescott, Alison Saar, Benny Andrews and Albert Chong, an Afro-Asian artist, participated with several other diverse artists. The accompanying essay noted: that the African American novelist Richard Wright, wrote of psychological siege as a normal state for persons of color.  


Albert Chong

Aunt Winnie's Story      30x20 inches    1995   thermal transfer print on canvas with incised copper metal 


                                                     *                                         *                                     * 

 In “Betrayal/Empowerment I” held at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1994 its written, “one of the stories of Asians in America is a story of betrayal.  Carlos Bulosan, a renowned Filipino novelist wrote as early as 1938 of the condition of the pinoy (Filipino) as one of betrayal. “  This is suggestive of a kinship between an African and Asian American sensibility.



Joseph Goto                                        Untitled #21 ,                   1979   welded steel 

 Sui Kang Zhao                        Fluorescent Pamphlet 1992   Fluorescent light, pamphlet, transparencies


                                           *                                        *                                          *

 In “We Count! The State of Asian Pacific America” in 1993, held in the Court House, adjacent to City Hall the catalogue essay “Towards an American Covenant With Difference” stated: …a national program should be implemented to promote a cultural/artistic dialogue, such that the gaps in understanding and communication between diverse peoples and traditions that has existed for so long are overcome. Such a program would prioritize diverse organizations and artists.  It would be based upon major initiatives to reverse the racial precepts and exclusionary policies of preceding decades. It would recognize an American covenant with difference is an important precondition for participation in an interdependent world.”    http://artasiamerica.org/artist/detail/71


Dolly Unithan

Banners of Martyrs (Victims of Police Violence)         348x40 inches       1993      site-specific installation


                                            *                                               *                                                *


 The theme of ancestors continued with The Reintegration of Tradition into Contemporary Art in 1999 where it points to, “…what cultures share in their spirituality without raising their separate characteristics.  The three sectors that describe American life (the marketplace, deliberative processes of democracy, and the civic sector) may have omitted their dependence on the fourth.  Their roles in the public arena cannot do their work without a mindfulness of the ‘larger silence’, and the great diversity of beliefs this republic has yet to encompass.”  A material and secular society tends to overlook the higher realm where spirituality and its silence tends to be drowned out by the noise and commotion of the chaos endemic to modern political processes. 


Hisako Hibi

Topaz         16x20 inches         1945      oil on canvas       Created in Topaz, UT


                                                   *                                     *                                     *


 In 2007 the exhibition Mixed Skin was held with Kip Fulbeck, Dorothy Imaguire & Toni Thomas and essays by Teresa Kim & Albert Chong, artists of mixed Asian descent & mixed African roots made manifest proudly this question of mixed identity.  To celebrate the identity of Hapa as a heart centered relationship, a basis for family, and for society’s diversity, was something AAAC could do.


Dorothy Imaguire  

Hapa, Sansei Project, 1992, Pastiche Kimonos, Mixed 3rd generation Japanese American project creating kimono garments from fabrics representing an individual’s ethnic heritage.



                                *                             *                              *      


 Yes, we were celebrating Asian and African relations and cultural ties. We were recognizing a similarity in the mental impact of oppression both faced.  We acknowledged the issue of skin and the hurdles it placed before us. We stated policies back in 1993 government policy makers should commit to. Maybe now is the time to revive the memory of those actions, to realize actions and decisions that could indeed move toward the kind of changes that are potentially viable today.  


Many mistakes were made, particularly in underestimating how a material and secular society tends to close itself from the higher realms where spirituality resides, and its silences tend to be drowned out by the noise of a competitive democracy. In a fringe organization like AAAC we could take advantage of being an outsider, saying things no one else was saying, pointing to cultural relationships that were being ignored, but that did not move our actions to be adopted.  We could only raise for viewers these ideas expressing our concerns. What audiences want and what the situation calls for is quite different today.


            *                      *                      *                      *                      *


As a senior community arts organization we thank you and are grateful for your support. We encourage you not to forget such elder organizations.  Even in the midst of all that we are going through, we are going through this together, so please keep us in mind.  Your support  and your donations are very much welcomed and needed.  Your skills and your time may be of great value to us.  Please do not hesitate to contact us. In this regard we invite you to donate to Asian American Arts Centre (see artspiral.org for donation link) or to one of the three elder arts organizations of your choosing below.

These are dear friends that you may already know.  Otherwise we invite you to get to know them. 

Towards intergenerational and intercultural elan: 



Kenkeleba House

214 East 2nd Street, New York, NY 10009    (mail check to this address)


Corrine Jennings


Great Leap

Suite 300 1730 W. Olympic Blvd      Los Angeles, CA 90015 

http://www.greatleap.org/   (see link at end of website to donate)

Nobuko Miyamoto


Brandywine Workshop and Archives

730 South Broad Street  Philadelphia, PA, 19146

 https://brandywineworkshopandarchives.org/  (see website to donate)

Allan Edmunds



With Kind Regards, 

Bob Lee


Artspiral.org                            Artasiamerica.org                


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Monday, February 3, 2020
Historical Documents from AAAC


Below is a selection of articles, policy statements that set AAAC direction as it evolved. Never published before. These mark changes in AAAC work as well as relations to its funders. 

On the Basis for Gallery Talks  - A one on one approach designed to awaken and engage personal identities and culturally diverse sensibilities and integrate a stronger sense of self into our highly systematized society.  2001

An Interpretive Approach for the Traditional Arts - The special value of traditional arts & master folk artists in an Asian ethnic enclave is crucial to understand the "realpolitik" of cultural survival in a NYC subculture. 1996

"The Gold Mountain Road”  The Arts Centre proposes an American ethos that encourages and stresses Color Consciousness and rather than Color Blindness. Difference as bio-diversity can be regarded as an asset.  1999

ABOUT ASIAN AMERICAN ARTISTS – The contrast between the mystical and the rational, the intangible and the material, creates aesthetic issues that are in alignment with Asian American artists own cultural dilemma. Their potential to bring creative sparks to such questions as well as speak to the issues of their day may enable them to play a central role in planting seeds for a new society. 1993

Notes on the Archive: An Introduction by Robert Lee. In 2009 artasiamerica.org went public marking twenty seven years of focusing on an annual exhibition program for Asian American artists. How to unpack this digital encapsulation, tap the texture of this experience and why it was undertaken is addressed here. 

On the Basis for Gallery Talks 

Written for NYSCA Special Arts Services   May 14, 2001

Gallery talks were undertaken to test an approach designed to awaken and integrate culturally diverse sensibilities into a highly systematized society.   A method of personal encounter with an art work in relation to one’s own background/ethnicity was developed. The goal was to open a viewer’s eyes, to becoming aware of their eyes and becoming conscious of what is learned intuitively subliminally mythically, combining this with cognitive faculties to shape meanings and conclusions.  This is the nature of looking at art. Done well, art can re-establish its place in our daily lives in a culture that has lost its connection to this primordial ability.  An arts institution such as AAAC premised on three pillars – art, community, and Asianness  - unlike other institutions, aims to contribute what was lacking in the US before the 1960s - ethnic awareness, ethnic history, personal knowledge and shaping an ability to see a different future for how one may want to live one’s own life, and ultimately an ability to envision a future for this nation less dominated by materialism.   As a facilitator, at other times, as an example of leadership, I have sought to open a perceptual door closed to most people. Doing this with young children has demonstrated how diversity and visual focusing games can be integrated seamlessly as a valid, enriching and fundamental addition to their education.  In a statement on Multicultural Education drafted for the NYC Board of Education by AAAC in 1994 stated,  “It is in the meeting of people who are different, not in a crowd but one on one, in a reliance on first hand primary sources, where personal identities and values are engaged that education comes alive.  A book can only be secondary to the human encounter which needs to take place.”

An Interpretive Approach for the Traditional Arts

Written for NYSCA Folk Arts Program 1996

The Arts Centre's Traditional Arts program aims to research and present the traditional arts as art practices with spiritual, ethical, health, and communal components.  Far from naive, 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.

Community organizations reflect the dynamics of their community.  They retain their existence through an interlocking growth relationship with their community, preserving their history and reinventing their creative cultures.  Community Arts organizations unlike major institutions, take their spark of life from the tumult, confusion and anguish of an unstable existence suppressed by a racial and cultural majority.  Such organizations negotiate a relationship between the mainstream and their community's subculture.   In seeking to institutionalize, they pass on their special outlook and characteristic procedures to the next generation of culture workers.   Community arts organizations are a storehouse of racial and cultural knowledge unique to their context.  The cultural work of diverse people provides an entry point, both for understanding this "real politic" dynamic, and for understanding the reality of difference.   They are a gateway for artists, staff, interns, members, volunteers, and audience, a window to see and grasp art in a subculture.   

Traditional artists themselves have multiple orientations:  they may simply remember fondly the past and continue their art practice within the context of their own social peers; they may find a way to adapt their traditional practices to their modern life; they may consciously resist modern ways; they may affirm traditional ways as a contribution to contemporary life; or their art form may embody a clear outlook and philosophy enriching contemporary diversity and ambiguity. 

The Art of traditional practices in a community context is inflected by the historical American struggle to legitimize and celebrate diversity.  The Arts Centre's presentation of traditional art in a community context aims not at quality so much as truth.  The Arts Centre seeks to maintain the integrity of its community's cultural transformation.  The interpretation of traditional Asian arts within the context of the United States begins with this fundamental premise.

"The Gold Mountain Road"

Written for NEA 1999

 AAAC annual Lunar New Year Folk Art Festival in 1989 with Kwok Mangho 

The Arts Centre as a culturally specific organization, proposes a different American ethos.  Its cultural stance is color consciousness, an awareness of self in the context of a cultural past.  Once one accepts oneself as such, an individual of color has the basis to accept and embrace other individuals and cultures.  Education can do much to further the establishment of this as a societal expectation.  Color blindness, an American ethos based on merit and equality, dispenses with difference and the cultural heritages of other peoples.  From the Art Centre’s view, this is no longer desirable nor viable and will become increasingly so given demographic patterns.  Given this perspective, the phrase, 'culturally specific' is a misnomer since for such organizations, specific cultural roots serve as points of departure to see and embrace the whole.  The multiple perspectives that now compose the American landscape and our global context can be accepted and recognized as a non-hieratic basis for cultural development, dialogue and co-operation.  The assertion of cultural difference inflected by its oppositional posture of resistance, can be redirected to address the new millennium's international climate.  Cultural difference as asset can overcome and embrace problems of ambiguity and friction given the new emphasis on ethics, civic culture, spirituality and meaning.  Tolerance and difference arise together, as does globalism and localism.  The Arts Centre's stance as part of the new millennium's diverse mainstream is ready to expand its programs and its audience beyond national and ethnic limits.  In shedding its ‘oppositional’ past, the Arts Centre has come back to the ancient rule of the Golden Mean.  The name guiding this position of affirmation of Asianness, a diverse
mainstream, and its new web site program is "The Gold Mountain Road".


Written for NYSCA Oct. 1993

                 NY Eviction Blues, Opening Reception 2005

Asian artists in America are in a unique position to draw from asian, western and international sources. These artists are pioneers in breaking new ground of artistic exploration. Nurtured by the modern milieu and the individual freedoms that are integral to Western society, yet confronted by a heritage of spiritual and philosophical probity, Asian American artists have the opportunity to face a personal congruence between issues of identity, aesthetic sensibility and the crisis of western thought.

Asian American artists work however, ranges widely in intent and character. Asian elements and their
generative role are frequently reflected in this body of work. This art increasingly carries with it a
consciousness of racial and cultural identities, as well as the issues that plague our cities. A critical view of artists and their work according to racial and cultural connections reveals lines of interpretation of the contemporary context of change and fragmentation. The historical experience of Asians in America plays a key role in this interpretation. Examining traditional folk forms help to reinterpret continuity between the past and contemporary artists work. One of the Arts Centre's goals is to elucidate this critical viewpoint. A secondary goal is to implement an educational context in public schools based on this view point.

The work of Asian American artists enables people of Asian background to see authentic images of
themselves, to see their beliefs and values expressed in tangible forms, dispite the seamlessness of a mass media environment. Identity issues of an asian ethnic group, it should be emphasized, have not been the central goals of the Arts Centre. Artistic issues remain primary. This has been a strategic response to the defining issues of this century, ie. the conflict between East and West. (For some, this conflict has now been resituated as a northern/southern hemisphere issue.)

Artistic ideas and innovations cross fertilize one another through multiple connections. The Arts Centre supports the growth of a diverse cultural sensibility. The Arts Centre seeks to bring Asian artists and their communities together, to open these communities to the multiple cultures and creative energies that hold the seeds to a new society.

In 1974, when the Arts Centre began, very few Asian American artists had received more than token
attention. Now in 1990, Asian American artists are visible participants in the cultural life of many cities. The Arts Centre has played a role in the development of this change. For many years, both the Archive and the Exhibition program, focused on Asian American artists, were the only programs of its kind in the nation. Traditional Asian dance was rarely seen. Contemporary Asian dance was almost nonexistant. The ongoing mission, to establish Asian American artists, their historical presence and aesthetic contribution has had some fruitful results. Programs based on the Arts Centre has developed in other parts of the nation. Artists such as Ti Shan Hsu, Toshio Sasaki, Yong Soon Min, Arlan Huang, Tetsu Okuhara, Bing Lee, Ming Fay, Mel Chin, Margo Machida, Emily Cheng, Ming Mur Ray, Martin Wong, Lily Yeh, Zhang Hongtu, Ik Joong Kang, Byron Kim, Kip Fulbeck, Albert Chong, Dinh Le, Nuyen Long, Zarina, Tai Dang, Ken Chu, Xu Bing, Tomia Arai, Dorothy Imaguire, Li Lan, Ling Ling, Mo Bahc, Kazuko, Chihung Yang, Helen Oji, Charles Yuen, and many others had all been exhibited early in their careers at the Arts Centre.

Such performing artists as the following have all performed with or received grants through the Arts
Centre: Barbara Chang , Satoru Shimazaki, Sun Ok Lee, Saeko Ichinohe, Audrey Jung, Muna Tseng,
Junko Kikuchi, Naini Chen, Frank Lee, Kei Okada, East West Fusion, Swati Bhise, Kuang Yu Fong, Tomie Hahn, Fred Ho, Wu Shao Ping, Jo Humphrey, Janaki Patrik, Yung Yung Tsuai.

Notes on the Archive: An Introduction 
by Robert Lee

Written under FAQ in About artasiamerica these remarks can be found.
      This archive is devoted to the practice of looking. Seeing requires the desire and impulse to look, however such energy should not be channeled simply into an intellectual pursuit. Other organs or aspects of the human body can take part in the act of perception that do not function cognitively to coax a reciprocal balance in the human person. AAAC’s Artists Archive was gathered by way of such a practice of looking, a process that a viable non-for-profit infrastructure could sustain and keep focused.
      Exhibiting and writing about artists for over twenty five years has lead to this archival approach to the encounter of different cultures. It is designed to witness and affirm artistic attainments that bridge the gap between two cultural mentalities. In this sense, the Arts Centre’s interaction with artists helped shape the themes that gradually formed the substance and the subject of Asian American art. Artasiamerica.org, the digital archive, which covers to date about 10% of AAAC’s Artists Archive, has focused on those artists who signaled key themes and, in the context of AAAC, gave expression to them.
      artasiamerica.org is also a strange fruit of the tragedy of 9.11 and its impact on Lower Manhattan, particularly its devastating impact on the economy of Chinatown. Support of the Lower Manhatan Development Corporation (LMDC) was crucial for enabling artasiamerica.org to see the light of day. AAAC recognizes this support.
      Technology too by way of the internet has enabled access to this archive, but technology may be taking away more than it gives. The drive to technical improvements constantly getting better fuels the illusion of progress and a fervor for the new. This seems to give us something concrete to do, and a measure of control. We should not make the mistake of thinking of life as a machine. Clearly, this is not how human life – works.
      Back in the beginning of the Asian American Movement, like so many, I was neither Asian nor American. With no place to be, not on this shore nor on that distant one, I belonged no where. Exiled from self, I put together a shanty on the beach, so to speak, looking out to that distant shore and used stilts to stay above the ebb and flow. With the dawn I found I was not alone, a multitude had joined to make a Shanty City. With this came the promise of change, a revolution. It didn’t take long for that dream to pass too. This was the late 60s. This is how it started.
     In the early 80s in a Newsday or Daily News article I saw a headline on an inside page that read, “Asianization of American Culture”. Recently at the Asian American ComiCon event at MoCA I saw this term again. The announcement read, “Asianization of American Pop Culture”. What does this term really mean?
     The ‘Asian American’ experience is vast, broad and diverse. My experience is likely different from most. The perspectives this has given me have shaped this Archive and what its value. To me Asian Americans are born of two cultures. As a child I saw a film entitled “When Worlds Collide”. Recently it has come back to me for the two worlds that were important for me were not in harmony. This experience was like falling through the fabric of one time to glimpse another. I could have forgotten this experience, let the contradictions and questions that tumble over each other lay where they fell, but later I realized I could come back to these questions through what artists do. They muse about and reconstruct values, they heal and leaven contradictions. They helped me explore the enigma of being Asian in America.
      The film, “When Worlds Collide” also helped me see when words become useless. The meanings of words come out of a historical stream. They refer back to the context of the culture they emerge. Once two cultures overlap and begin to approach congruency, a kind of reconciliation process changes the whole dynamic. New words in time will form once the tumult and confusion subsides. The name of this digital archive is artasiamerica to indicate how our notions are morphing. I would suggest, therefore, Don’t Get Caught Up In Names! Identities are part of the story, but realize they will shift and slide with time.
      How to use artasiamerica.org: I’m sure I don't have to tell art professionals and researchers how to do this. However, for all the high school and college students who we would like to explore this site I can say, an Archive is like a dance alive, creating ripples. It's a lathe whose ooze can be gathered. Read the work, listen to it, to the art. Find what turns you on, what inspires – that's all you need.
      The Archive is more than one artist. It is many artists who over time and place touch on a related set of questions. They give each other a context, a context of a moment, a sequence of ‘now’ moments, which is what contemporary art is suppose to be about. You can envision the Archive like a Time/Space Tree. On it you can hang your own art and artists.
       Have you heard of Google’s new program, SIY? Search Inside Yourself. There are parallels here to what this Archive can be about. But that's up to you.
An Archive is not forever. It may last ten, twenty years, enough to pass the torch. Then the next technology will come along and make digital passé.
       I went to a wedding recently. The bride, the shy woman I knew was radiant, warm, and in Charge, like a queen. Art like a vow, can do this. Archives can’t. An Archive can only serve, awaiting discovery. An Archive can provide evidence, but not more. Its collections are fragmented, pieces lifted out of a stream, for someone else, missing pieces could tell another story. You have to come to your own conclusion.
       Forgive the anecdotes but here’s another: One night I was leaving work very late. It was almost dawn when I noticed someone crouching in the doorway of the restaurant next door. He had a small alter and some candles he was trying to lite. I asked him what he was doing. He said he had just renovated his restaurant and the grand opening was tomorrow. So he was doing necessary rituals to Kuan Kung, the red faced deity at the entrance doorway. I asked him if he believed in such things. He said no. Then, I asked, why are you doing this? He said, just in case! AAAC Artist Archive and artasiamerica.org aims to be responsible, responsible to the general public and to an Asian American audience. We live with so much absurdity, so much that is out of sync, dreamland is an essential part of the economy. How can we make sense, deep sense? And when it’s time, will we be ready to let contradictions go?
      On PBS recently there was a documentary on the Trail of Tears. That's when in 1838 the Cherokee were stripped of their rights and forced to move against their will on 'The Trail of Tears' by the US government. An archive was established and is maintained by individual Cherokees. Their practice is to pray for everyone, not just all those who died on the Trail, and not just for those who took part in the slaughter, but for everyone.
      What’s on the horizon for us, for this civilization? The individuals who maintain this archive, children of those survivors of the Trail, gave me the sense that a whole other story is on the horizon, yet untold, a story that is not secular, and perhaps not sacred, but very near it.
Welcome to artasiamerica.org

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