New York Times on Virtually Asian

Pushing Against Hate:
Asian-American artists are spurred to activism

Aruna D’Souza
April 18, 2021


The rise of racist attacks, some of them horrifyingly lethal, has galvanized Asian-American artists around the country. They are leveraging social media to raise awareness, gathering to protest despite the pandemic precautions, making new work, and — perhaps above all — finding new grounds for solidarity with one another and with other affected communities to figure out how to respond to the current climate.

Recent anti-Asian sentiment may have been stoked by Donald Trump’s xenophobic response to Covid-19 — which he repeatedly called “the Chinese virus.” But it existed long before him, since the arrival of Chinese workers in the 19th century, and stubbornly persists, even after his departure from office.

The effects of this rhetoric have laid bare the vulnerabilities of a group that comprises five percent of the U.S. population, and is breathtakingly diverse in its makeup, marked by extreme disparities in income, language and culture.

The murders in Atlanta, in which a young white man killed workers and others in Asian-owned massage businesses, highlighted additional complexities of gender and race: of the eight victims, six were Asian-American women, mostly of Korean descent.

An exhibition titled “Godzilla vs. the Art World: 1990–2001” that was scheduled to open in May at the Museum of Chinese in America, and a forthcoming anthology edited by the curator Howie Chen about the group Godzilla, a loose affiliation of artists and curators, are timely reminders that activism is not new for Asian-American art workers. They have been organizing for years to increase representation, improve their visibility and forge alliances with other groups. […]

Likewise, today’s wave of activism seems less concerned about representation — inclusion of artists in exhibitions or hiring of more Asian-American museum staff — than on larger issues like the surveillance of immigrant neighborhoods, income inequality, and criminalization of sex work — that put their communities at risk. […]

That encroachment has driven other activist groups to focus on the art world as an epicenter for talking about anti-Asian hate. Stop DiscriminAsian (S.D.A.), which came into being a year ago when Yi began to connect disparate Asian-centered groups and individuals working around the country, including Kim and Tam. As the group grew, the question of how to leverage their own positions in the art world became central.

“It was one of the compelling things that we thought that we as arts workers could contribute to, just because of the fact that so many art spaces, at least in New York and L.A. and even the Bay Area, were physically adjacent to Asian communities,” Tam said.

Because of shutdowns, S.D.A’.s work has largely been visible on social media — Instagram above all. The organization has created multilingual graphics and downloadable posters, generated memes, commissioned short videos by artists, co-sponsored a Zoom webinar series titled “Racism is a Public Health Issue,” and disseminated information about resources for Asian-Americans facing discrimination and guidance for their allies.

After the uprisings sparked by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police last May, S.D.A. called on its followers to act in solidarity with Black protesters.

Its recent open letter against xenophobia and racial violence calls for the decriminalization of sex work and for alternatives to over-policing. It also asks signatories to understand the way Asian-Americans have enabled or participated (sometimes unwittingly) in white supremacy, and work to dismantle it. So far, more than 1,000 artists, curators and art workers have made the pledge.

One of the key strategies for today’s artist-activists is creating visibility: calling attention to the often unseen and unnoted presence of Asian-American communities in cities and in the culture — to their labor and contributions, and to the violence aimed at them.

Countering invisibility is at the heart of a short film by Astria Suparak titled “Virtually Asian.” It splices together scenes from science fiction movies in which urban landscapes are filled with stereotypical “Asian” signifiers, but the actual characters are almost exclusively white. She worked on it during the coronavirus lockdown.

“The piece is part of a larger project examining 40 years of sci-fi films,” Suparak said, “and how white filmmakers envision a future that is inflected by Asian culture but devoid of actual Asian people.”

The project emerged, Suparak said, “out of an ongoing erasure and racism and violence, and how both in real life and in mainstream media our varied and unique cultures are carelessly misidentified and jumbled together.” […]

As artists begin standing up to anti-Asian hate, there remains the question of how useful the term “Asian-American” is, given the range of experiences it’s meant to describe. “Anicka Yi has said this very clearly: ‘What does it mean to be Asian-American in the 21st century?’” said Margaret Liu Clinton, a curator and member of S.D.A., who talks about the desire to develop pan-Asian conversations among the widest possible swath of art workers.

“What continues to unfold is a shared awareness of how different our experiences are across gender, class, generation, immigration, and I think that’s actually what is exciting about this work right now.”

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