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

Passage. 1978.

Costume Design: Kwok Yee Tai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amy Loewan at Horace Mann School detail 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning about the NYC Chinatown Art Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on Godzilla and the AAAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Maxine Bell, 2019 Summer Intern.

Read more