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 enough. Communities 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.