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Historical Documents from AAAC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 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., 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. 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 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 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 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.
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Historical Essays from AAAC Exhibitions


Some essays are more revealing than others.  Here is a selection of essays that accompanied seven art exhibitions of contemporary art at AAAC.

The creative act is a self affirming act, an act of self naming, creating forms that become synonymous with our history, our traditions, and our outlook. This is how art serves Asia America. – A Covenant With Difference 1993

Now that diverse peoples have embarked on the path of empowerment, it is appropriate to ask, is that enough, will it restore our sense of humanity?

- “Betrayal/Empowerment at Columbia University’s Teachers College, 1994

Does the flap of a butterfly wing in Tokyo affect a thunder storm in New York? This kind of thinking has been termed the non-linear character of the world, developing new theories of Chaos.  1998

The practice of meditation has brought about a mindfulness of a larger silence and a consideration of the great diversity of beliefs this republic has yet to encompass.

- The Reintegration of Tradition into Contemporary Art 1999 

In the body of his art Yoshiki Araki’s evolution can be seen the profound impact of Hiroshima on his psyche, where it led him to produce the kind of haunting imagery that remains his legacy.  - Yoshiki Araki: Hiroshima Born 2006

A story that has haunted me for years, is the link between Asia and the West. After so many years, fragments remain hopelessly scattered over vast stretches of history, a tale that has been ignored and denied in the West for so long. 

-  Alternatives to the Story of Christopher Columbus Today 1992

Towards an American Covenant With Difference

Tsuchiya Toyo, Untitled, 2003 

For Asian Pacific Americans as well as other ethnic communities, the Arts play a crucial role in developing an identity, in reconfiguring values appropriate to the American context.  The Arts transform the way in which we understand and identify ourselves and the way others see and understand us.  

Asian Pacific communities continue to live an existence largely marginal to the mainstream.  Modes of behavior, sentiments and feelings not to mention language, are still regarded as outside of the mainstream.  Portrayed as alien, and thus not a legitimate part of the "polis", the civic order, such enclaves are often described as exotic and part of another world.  Most individuals are left to make independent compromises to integrate and reconcile different and contradictory aspects of their lives.   American civic norms have made half hearted allowances for cultural differences.     

The creative act is an act of self naming.  It de-legitimates stereotypes, false names, and is a self affirming act.  To  become aware of the excitement inherent in the creative act is to recognize the act of faith that it embodies in identifying and affirming values.  Asian Pacific Americans must recognize this asset and lay claim to those artists who take on the challenge to create Art which address these issues.  Asian Pacific Americans can identify those tangible shapes and forms that become synonymous with Asian Pacifics, our history, our traditions, and our outlook.


The Arts of Asian Pacifics and other diverse communities are a rejuvenating presence, a new and vital part of the mainstream.  We represent another generation's interpretation of this nation's principles.  The culture of Asian Pacifics and other diverse cultures contribute to the mainstream cultural landscape by support for the integration of the Arts into the sustaining issues and concerns of our economy and our society.  Asian Pacific Americans take part in shaping America's culturally diverse future.

In this issue, national policy issues projected to the year 2020 are discussed.  In the area of Arts policy, in preparation for this year 2020, when culturally diverse populations will approach a majority of the population, 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.  With such a policy in place, a national dialogue through the arts can ensue, which will be instrumental in preparing our country for the America of 2020.

ArtSpiral 93’  Editorial by Robert Lee  

May 1993 Intro to the exhibition  


 In May 1993, in commemoration of Asian American Heritage Month, Asian American Arts Centre and the Mayor’s Office for Asian Affairs in New York City mounted an exhibition entitled, “We Count! The State of Asian Pacific America.”  It was held on May 10 to May 31, 1993 at the Tweed Gallery adjacent to the City Hall.

This exhibition of contemporary art works were selected to correspond to a survey of major issues of the Asian Pacific American population in the United States with particular emphasis on New York City.  The issues, based on the book, The State of Asian Pacific America:  Policy Issues to the Year 2020, recently published by LEAP Asian Pacific American Public Policy Institute, will have major repercussions on Asian Pacific Americans and on the development of the nation as a whole, particularly in the area of race relations. The topics include Population Growth, Education and Higher Education, Health and Mental Health, Arts, Cultural Preservation, Immigration, Labor, Civil Rights, South Asian Refugees, Politics, Race Relations, Affirmative Action, Language Rights, Women, and Media.

This exhibition was the first of Asian Pacific American artists mounted by the City of New York. The exhibition featured artists of diverse Asian background—Bangladesh, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Pacific Islander, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Hapa (mixed ancestry), as well as two artists of Brazilian and Caucasian background whose work and participation represent a message of welcome to all supporters of Asian Pacific America.

Each artist’s work represented the presence, character and concerns of a respective Asian nationality.  The issues discussed were linked to the issues of cultural sensibility and change demonstrated by each artist’s work.  The exhibition suggested a cultural framework to integrate the complex issues and dimensions of an Asian presence in American society.  In this way, the Arts became a vehicle for the dialogue on public policy addressing the general public as well as elected officials and community leaders in the Asian Pacific American community. 

The exhibition was curated by Robert Lee, Executive Director of the Arts Centre.  Lorinda Chen, former Asian American Outreach Specialist for the US Census Bureau and currently with the Health and Hospitals Corp., summarized the main issues and wrote those materials giving special attention to New York City

BETRAYAL/Empowerment I 

April  1994

Asian American Arts Centre and Columbia University’s Teachers College, Office of Continuing Professional Education, presents “Betrayal/Empowerment I” from April 18 to May 4, 1994.   This exhibition seeks to raise issues on the current phase of the struggle for empowerment by reflecting on the works of selected Asian American artists.  It includes artists who began their careers in the 1950's, the 1960's, the 1970's, and the 1980's.   These artists are of diverse Asian background: Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Pacific Islander.  The artists are:  Arun Bose, Joseph Goto, Sang Nam Lee, Quynh Nguyen, Lily Yeh, Junko Yoda, Toshihisa Yoda, Charles Yuen, and Sui Kang Zhao.  Together they represent the diversity and sensibility of Asian American artists from the 1950's through the 1980's.

It has been said that 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.   Richard Wright, the African American novelist wrote of psychological siege as a  normal state for persons of color.   The Mind’s I, Parts I - IV exhibition at the Arts Centre in 1987 concluded on this note.  The demand for empowerment responds to this condition.  Now that diverse peoples have embarked on the path of empowerment, it is appropriate to ask, what will restore our humanity beyond empowerment?  If we have access to the race for power and, perhaps, to win it, is this clearly our aim or is the race for power itself limited, even flawed?   In seeking a humanity beyond empowerment, artists from each generation can recall for us cultural memories that, as Amalia Mesa Bains has said,  "....allows us to assert our sense of continuity against all odds". 

Yuen Charles, Device for the Collection of Tears1990

Arun Bose began his career in Calcutta, India in the late 50’s, studying in Paris with Stanley Hayter in 1962, before coming to New York to establish a prominent printmaking facility at Lehman College.  Joseph Goto came from Hawaii to study sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago.   In 1951 Alfred Barr of MOMA acquired one of his sculptures.  Joseph won a Graham Fd. Award in 1957 and received numerous grants throughout his career.  In the 1970’s Sang Nam Lee was a professional artist in Korea before coming to New York in the early 80’s  where he has pursued an art with explicit spiritual intentions and strategies.  Quynh Nguyen from Vietnam, former professor of art at Columbia University has written and lectured on art and philosophy in both English and Vietnamese.  Quynh began his career in the early 1970’s, exhibiting in Vietnam and Germany before coming to New York in the 80’s.  Lily Yeh from Taiwan learned Chinese brush painting at an early age before studying contemporary painting in Philadelphia in 1960’s.  She has since established a community organization that has helped to renew an entire neighborhood in the African American community of North Philadelphia.  Toshihisa Yoda came to New York  in the mid 1960’s to develop his minimalist  mode of painting.  Junko Yoda exhibited in Tokyo before coming to New York where she developed her special form of paper knotted collage. Charles Yuen from Hawaii came to study art at Rutgers in the 1980’s and has developed a mode of painting related to Middle Eastern miniatures.  Sui Kang Zhao studied and exhibited in Shanghai in the early to mid 80’s before  coming to San Francisco and New York to get his MFA.    In the last few years he has developed his sculptural wall units to interface with technological and linguistic counterparts.

This exhibition is curated by Robert Lee, Executive Director of Asian American Arts Centre, a community based arts organization celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year, whose programs include contemporary art, performance/media, Chinese folk arts, arts in education and cultural research.  It is based, in part, on an ongoing research project begun in 1986 entitled, “Asian American Artists and their Milieu: 1945-1965”, that is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.   It is held in conjunction with an exhibition at the Asian American Arts Centre on 26 Bowery entitled, “Betrayal/Empowerment II” encompassing artists who began their careers primarily in the 1990’s.   It is being held from March 18 to April 30, 1994.


Do you know what a Filipino feels in America?  I mean one who is aware of the intricate forces of chaos?  He is the loneliest thing on earth.  There is much to be appreciated all about him, beauty, wealth, power, grandeur.  But is he a part of these luxuries?  He looks, poor man, through the fingers of his eyes.  He is enchained, damnably to his race, his heritage.  He is betrayed, my friend.

Carlos Bulosan, May 2, 1938  from Selected Letters

Robert Lee

The Day and Night Transparent    the 8th Day and Night - an artists talk 1998

Does the flap of a butterfly wing in Tokyo affect a tornado in Texas, or a thunder storm in New York?  Edward Lorenz, meteorologist, said yes.  This kind of thinking has been termed the non-linear character of the world, and it has begun to account for such phenomena with new theories of Chaos.  This is where very small fluctuations in a system can expand in effect and change profoundly the entire structure of a system.  

I am not an expert on Chaos theory but I know this is what we have always sought to do in placing our attention and focus on Asian American Art at a time when the idea that art could actually be 'Asian American' did not exist.  In earlier times (1966-72) they were called 'Forerunners' and 'Artists in Exile'.  In starting to focus on them as 'Asian American' a whole new set of questions were raised.  For example, "If your Asian American, then are you not American?" or If your Asian American, what does that mean about me, who am I?" 

        Eung Ho Park, Sperm Spoons, 1995

Today we see major magazines and exhibitions on the new Asian art inclusive of Asian American artists.  Articles saying Asian American art is about 'tension', or new culture study books that multiculturalism has become a trick of the mainstream to avoid the contradictions and ambiguities inherent in the term.  Luckily, artists do not read or take these remarks to heart and continue to spin their art out of their own meditations.  The audience, however, can be left in a tither, bewildered as to what to think, which expert to believe or which book is the most up to date.  We suggest, that if you try hard, you can see and enjoy the art work, letting your questions spin in their most inimical way, and be more like the artists themselves, leaving experts to their own arguments. 

Of course there are real questions that Asian American art raises that need to be resolved, and 
some of these questions will be touched on here   
tonight.  Have no fear, that with more evenings like tonite, we will come to understand these questions, given a gradual growth of perspective.  And the commodification of knowledge need not interfere with our joy of art. 

Welcome to the flap of a few butterflies in New York.

Robert Lee

7lb. 9oz. :  The Reintegration of Tradition into Contemporary Art

An Art Exhibition held on March 26, 1999

This exhibition is of four artists, Yeong Gill Kim, Chee Wang Ng, Osami Tanaka, all of New York, and Hisako Hibi of San Francisco. These artists are for the most part young artists representing three different approaches, with Hibi representing artists of an earlier generation who took a similar direction.  The subtitle of this exhibition is taken from a 1997 exhibition at the Arts Centre in which four Americans were included.  What all these artists have in common is Asia as their point of departure.  Of these, Kim, Ng, Tanaka and Hibi have resolved what for some diverse artists in the US is the conundrum of identity, by a renewed confidence in the vitality of their Asian traditions.  The unbridgeable gap born of two seemingly irreconcilable cultures is spanned by centering in the roots of one's historical origins.

Chee Wang Ng is an award winning designer and artist.  His large computer generated photographs, drawn from the wood block prints of traditional Chinese folk conventions, reassert their forms and purposes.   Technology here, does more than update a traditional recognizable message.   Ng uses the 'exactly repeatable visual image', as a Western artifact, to eclipse the notion of rationality.  He does this by pointing, unabashedly, to an Asian civilization's perennial observations.  Shorn of folk art's naiveté, Ng uses 'rebus', a way of expressing words with objects whose names resemble those words, to invoke an entire Asian outlook - Nature, mysticism (as an un-mediated grasp of the universe), the I Ching classic, folk religion, family events & family ties.  Proverbial motifs are made spiffy, with a social savvy that aims to achieve rapport across racial lines. In his hands ethnicity and difference become an asset.  Feature articles on his graphic designs have appeared in books and magazines such as Progressive Architecture. A graduate of Rhode Island of Design in Architecture, he is trilingual, born and raised in the multiracial milieu of Malaysia.

Yeong Gill Kim saw the transition in Korea from a feudal society to a modern country and the confusion it brought to the people.  By 1995 he had given up purely contemporary idioms and returned to materials and ideas that had inspired so much of Asia's painterly traditions.  The complexity of his brush work on muslin has attained a clarity and simplicity.  He has found a freedom there, a capacity for an openness that could encompass the ambiguity of the multiple dimensions of our current cultural context.  By growing what Asia has and seeing how its ideas can apply in this context, he has come to terms with contemporary times.  For Kim the past cannot be forgotten.  It cannot be dwarfed.  He brings a trust and faith to his work and asks us to do likewise.  He knows mind intuits itself in silent empty space.  In taking a positive affirming stance, free from generic definitive claims, he has enlarged an Asian artistic tradition and made it spacious.


Hisako Hibi was born in Kyoto in 1907, and died in San Francisco in 1991.  She came to the United States at the age of thirteen, and studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute.  She married Matsusaburo George Hibi, who was also an artist, was interned with their children in the Topaz Internment Camp during World War II, and when her husband died soon there after, she raised her children herself.  She moved her family from New York to San Francisco where she lived until her passing.  She developed a way of painting based on landscape that was diffuse in space.  Like Xu Bing's Book from the Sky, she eliminated the underlying structure of her landscapes and was left only with air.  She believed strongly in her art, and her compassion brought her to reflect that everything begins by changing yourself first rather than the world.  Hibi has been included in this exhibition to exemplify the works of earlier generations of artists, e.g. Wucius Wong, now in Hong Kong and Zao Wu Ki in France, who can also be mentioned as taking this path.      

Osami Tanaka came to New York in 1981 after receiving a traditional Japanese carving education where he even learned to make his own chisels and wood carving tools.  He attended the New York Studio School and received many exhibitions in New York, Maryland and Boston.  Reviews of his work emphasize his minimalism and his interest in the voice of the materials. However, his interest is not in minimalism nor even in form per se.  His use of railroad ties lie or stand next to their duplicate in solid wax.  Form does have its 'thereness', but it is its weight that counts.  One of them he made to equal his exact weight.  Another was the weight of his son at birth.  Others, the weight of his friend's children.  The mundane character of this simple nearly invisible adjustment bespeaks a virtue that in its own way, is not devoid of heroism. In avoiding all traces of reification, even explicit traces of "art", he has found a way to be Japanese within the United States.   

Yeong Gill Kim, YG 0805 acrylic paint canvas

Ng, Kim, Hibi and Tanaka assert the Asian presence of difference.  Difference can be embraced, like the sun that simply rises and radiates, ideally giving all life energy.  Ethnicity is neither conservative, closed, nor traditional, it is dynamically changing in the contemporary world and capable of creating new forms.  These artists do not give themselves up to mass perceptions.  They keep their distinctiveness.

The motives for contemporary art now come from other traditions, other contexts, and their needs, what propels them are different from Western domestic fervors.  These artists demonstrate that contemporary art in America need not be founded on the historical experience of the West, nor on claims of the predominance of global technology and democratic material opportunity.  Their art poses an enhanced logic, informed by an affirming temper.   As such they suggest diverse people, including Asian Americans, put aside superficial American mannerisms, put aside the loyal Left's limited sensibility of resistance and assume the responsibility of a re-envisioned, diverse center.

Rather than the ironies of appearance and identity, Ng, Kim, Hibi and Tanaka have chosen to express the stability and coherence attainable by choosing an inner way of seeing oneself.  Tanaka points to it tangibly in substance.  Ng finds it in the folk practices derived from folk religion.  Such knowledge comes from intuition, for Kim and Hibi, from silent empty space.  This is a notion that is at the heart of every religion, at its primordial mystical core.  The role of silence or, it could be termed, the work of silence in the public arena, is part of a re-envisioned center. 

In early 1996, before he left the Senate, Bill Bradley suggested that the ethics of three sectors of American life were different and should not be confused.  The frenetic competitive marketplace and the fair deliberative processes of democracy should not forget their dependence on the civic sector where a belief in cooperation and giving freely without expectation of return is fundamental to society.  A forth sector, of some value for diverse people to recognize, is the process of silence.  Silence is not the best term to use, particularly for some diverse groups, however, it points to what cultures share in their spirituality without raising their separate characteristics.  The three sectors that describe American life may have omitted their dependence on the forth.  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.   The three sectors of society has just begun to debate the eclipse of the Enlightenment and the need to move away from the belief in the myth of rational progress.  Did not Joseph Campbell say we needed a new myth?  Incremental steps towards this in America is not without its ethnic dimension.  This is where a re-envisioned center begins.

The study of Asian American art begins with the recognition of diverse people, clarifying the cultural, ethical, and political issues at work.  Here, the relationship between the public sphere's civic responsibilities and the private/personal sphere points to the significance of these artists' works in the development of diversity in America.  Ng, Kim, Hibi and Tanaka have chosen this direction recently as young artists.  Hibi took this direction in the post war years.  This is their choice, it has not been inherited without question, and that has made all the difference.  It is OK to be Asian in America.  Said simply, this is the path they have taken.  It is not the choice every Asian American artist will make, nor do I suggest it should be.  However, it bears the blessings of the Asian past, and there are some artists who want that.


Artists make this path accessible.  It is within the power of artists to do this.  The West has created so many objects to establish the assumption of their material world,  Asian Americans need their artists' creations, concepts, and processes to establish a non-material dimension.  Ng, Kim, Hibi and Tanaka's works are not consumables, still through their circulation in society they will further the economy as art, as practical evocation objects.  Asian art in America seeks to generate a new audience, a fashion for rice and rebus, a new appreciation for the emptiness of vast landscapes to meditate upon, and a sense for the weighty presence of formless form come to the fore.

Robert Lee


Yoshiki Araki: Hiroshima Born               

July 7 – August 11, 2006

Yoshiki Araki: Hiroshima Born

Yoshiki Araki was born in March of 1950 in Hiroshima.  Raised by his mom in Kuri, he did not see his dad much, who had served in the navy during the war, rising to the position of Rear Admiral in the Defense Department.  To nearby islands he could swim to pick watermelons or see rocks dressed as people. Theirs was similar to an old “Samurai” family.  When the bomb fell in Hiroshima his grandfather was there.  The next day his mother, then a young girl, went into what was left of the city to search through the devastation for him.  She never found him.

As a young man Yoshiki studied with a folk master of layered opaque watercolor illustration for a few years in a small fishing village in Hokkaido.  Wanting to come to the US of A he saved for a year by working a jackhammer in a mine.  He then spent it all in a month in fun.  Yoshiki did make it to New York in 1974 studying at the Art Students League, living on Amsterdam Ave, in Harlem and later on Presidents Street in Brooklyn. This is where he could lose himself in books, especially Japanese detective novels. He performed in the Tibetan Singing Bowl Ensemble in the late 80s/early 90s, traveling with them to perform in Hiroshima.  

His paintings became larger in the mid 80s, when he confronted his ties to Hiroshima, and then his surfaces began to be covered by black tar.   Cans, bones, cages and/or tree branches could be taped there with eggs or lemons or sheet metal.  Later paraffin wax became part of his work with an exacting form of photo collage.  Finely constructed small flat boxes filled with wax surrounded a central surface with a painted collage image.  Body parts in surreal configurations often populate this small stage painted dark, at times with a horizon in yellow. Large standing railroad ties became his sculpture, topped with wax and long protruding bones splayed.  In the late 90’s Araki prepared to produce hundreds of wax boxes, filling the basement below his large studio with materials he had crafted ready to go. 

Then in mid 2000 circumstances changed, forcing him from his home and studio.  In his search for a place to live and work, there was the possibility of having to leave NY after so years in the US. Under the pressure of landlord harassment, the stress and tension of trying to find a new space to accommodate so much that he had gathered and planned, these factors had an impact on his health. Late that year Araki became ill and had to be hospitalized. He died shortly thereafter.

Yoshiki Araki, Mother & Son, 1985

In the body of work that was saved by his wife and friends, Araki’s evolution as an artist can be seen.  The profound impact of Hiroshima on his psyche, how this resolved for him and where it led him to produce the kind of haunting imagery that remains his legacy to us.  Artists who have seen war, can go beyond the human form, violate it, no longer afraid, as he seemed to do, slicing open his own torso, gathering the grammar of his visual parts, cut clean, till bones emerge and a blossom gut.  A deep sea of translucent wax protects us, the salve of ritual confines the enigma. 

We have been taught to tolerate violence, to look past its pain, especially when its surgical and meant for positive outcomes.  The consequences of military action is ‘good’, the collateral damage to people is to be ‘tolerated’, at least until it can be put aside and forgotten.  Like a newspaper image.  So many realities are not faced because of this kind of skillful practice.  The bomb is one of these. 

Araki chose a different path.  His art and his life hold a logic contrary to so much of what is current and acceptable.  His work reveals our subliminal attraction to violence.  It connects us to past eras when the fantasy fodder that cushion us today was not possible, was undreamt. Araki has made the undisclosed underbelly of society into an art transparent.  He exposes social convention to its own undoing. Araki came to this turn in his art, a mode of art making that took hold in the last ten years of his life.  He knew, like others, a Kafka-esque world lies just beneath the surface.  To face it is to live with what humanity is capable of, to re-consider our human limits, as he did.  Araki, however, was on his way to coming out the other side, despite the pain, restored, a human being.

From Hiroshima a reconciliation still awaits us, and may be possible, as Araki has shown, perhaps on terms unexpected. 

Robert Lee

AND HE WAS LOOKING FOR ASIA:  Alternatives to the Story of Christopher Columbus Today

An AAAC exhibition in 1992

Much was written on ‘whiteness’ in the 90s, and The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII) 2018 Biennial exhibition On Whiteness continued this focus. AAAC’s contribution was this exhibition raising the question of the historical roots of ‘whiteness’. 

A story that has haunted me for years, is the link between Asia and the West.  But it did not begin to come together for me until I learned about the art of the so-called 'Migration Peoples'. Now, after so many years, fragments remain hopelessly scattered over vast stretches of history and language. Without the artifacts to meticulously piece these together, how can I relate to you a story so fugitive? But I dare not delay further, to leave in the hands of professional historians, a tale that has been ignored and denied in the West for so long. This is a ‘history’ before his decision to look for Asia, centuries before the formation of Europe, when the 'barbarians' first massed on the frontier of the Roman Empire.  The journeys of Columbus and their fateful consequences were based on events long before they took place when the peoples who were to become the Europe of 1492 first clashed." -  Robert Lee

In the so-called Dark Ages Goths, Visigoths, Merovingians, Avars, and Huns - migration peoples of the 2nd to the 6th Century whose oral traditions and animism were suppressed by the literary traditions and religion of the Mediterranean. Venerable Bead in the 8th C. taught that the peoples of the Barbarian West were chosen Christian heirs of the Roman Empire destined to lead humanity to the City of God.

The art of polychrome fibula pins, the only remains today of the original traditions of the migration peoples. Picasso's bull is identical to migration people's art. “Christopher Columbus wore a round fibula pin with studded semi-precious stones worked with interlacery”, ...perhaps, yes say perhaps...

In China, the peoples of the north were called ‘Sheung Nu’, whose first son inherited the king’s land, and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th sons were sent out to find fresh grazing land and to establish themselves.  Battle and the harsh open land were an abiding presence.

In looking for Asia, the myths and perceptions of Asia were foremost: the Tree of Life motif, the fountain of youth, El Dorado, Hawaii’s paradise, Hitler's Valhalla, a temple of racial purity. Midst all this how did East-West become polar opposites? if in deep history there was contact and interest in Asia then there are cultural ties we live with yet to be discovered, their implications yet to be unraveled.

Goal - to leave the door open as to the nature of our country and its future; for the West to uncover and accept its own cultural past; to leave to those who will pick up the pieces of this story and search for forgotten history;  

“To fight the good fight is all that ennobles us, and gives us finally our triumph over this mortal coil.” How often have you heard Capt. Kirk or Shakespeare say this? Are not the ethics and traditions of battle in every moment of our Western lives, to push us beyond our limits. A key image of our nomadic heritage: the open road.

Jorge Tacla, Study on One Transformation  Oil on Jute 1991

Denial. But perhaps Asian elements were present even among the Asiatic migration peoples who settled all of Europe in the Migration Period, the so-called Dark Ages which formed the basis for the Middle Ages - what historian Michael Wood on PBS Public TV describes as the "barbarian becomes the Roman, forming the 'Barbarian West'.

For Asian Americans
For Native Americans
For African Americans
For Latino Americans
We wear white masks, and continue a dance whose passions were formed in the dark days of barbarian conquest. We are not separate from the unresolved conflicts in the European Soul that continue throughout the military conflicts, social and political dilemmas of today.  The West has yet to meet us.  We know our art is as crucial to us as it is to our country.  Are we still denied?

Daddy, who was Christopher Columbus?

He discovered America.  But there were other people who discovered it too.  There were Vikings who came here much earlier.  And Asian people probably came across the Pacific before that and had links to South American people.  And Native peoples have been here even longer, perhaps coming across Alaska's Isthmus when Alaska was still connected to Asia.  But we don't talk of Native American peoples "discovering" it. 

Then why do we say Columbus discovered it?

Well, at that time Spain didn't know all these other people had discovered it first and what was across the Atlantic Ocean was unknown to Europeans.  What was new and different was the idea that the world was objectively knowable, a scientific, eh cultural idea.  So perhaps it's better to say Columbus discovered or confirmed that the world was knowable.  

Is this true?

Well, no.  But at the time it was.  People thought objectivity was great and it was just a matter of time before everything that is unknown in the world would eventually become known.   Now, many people believe you have to make room for subjectivity, for each individual's values and beliefs.  You can't reduce the world to mathematical formulas.  

Daddy, what do you mean by subjectivity?........

Vaclav Havel, Feb. 4, 1992, in the NYT: "The fall of Communism can be regarded as a sign that modern thought - based on the premise that the world is objectively knowable, and that the knowledge so obtained can be absolutely generalized - has come to a final crisis. We are looking for an objective way out of the crisis of objectivity... Things must once more be given a chance to present themselves as they are, to be perceived in their individuality. We must see the pluralism of the world, and not bind it by seeking common denominators or reducing everything to a single common equation. Soul, individual spirituality, first-hand personal insight into things; the courage to be oneself and go the way one's conscience points, humility in the face of the mysterious Order of Being, confidence in its natural direction, and, above all, trust in one's own subjectivity as the principal link with the subjectivity of the world - these are the qualities that ...the future should cultivate."

More recently the son of Don Black, grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Derek Black the heir apparent of the royal family of white supremacy, has renounced these beliefs and gone on to the University of Chicago to study early Medieval history on the formation of race attitudes.  

Theologian Matthew Fox whose writings on the Middle Ages mentions Original Sin as from St Augustine and is not anywhere in the Bible. 

“I suddenly realized that the molecules in my body, and the molecules in the spacecraft and in my partner's bodies were manufactured in… the furnaces of stars. Suddenly those were my molecules, not intellectually but viscerally.” (He points to his heart. Samadhi). The late Edgar Mitchell, astronaut.

Takenaga, Barbara, Skidding Toward America, 1992:

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