What It Means to Make Art as an Asian American in the Pandemic

Many Asian-American artists feel a calling to make explicitly political art that pushes back against racism during the pandemic, continuing a legacy of protest art that began in the 1960s.  (Eda Yu, Mashael Al Saie, Christine Oh)

A few months ago, I felt like 2020 was going to be a pivotal point for mainstream cultural acceptance for the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. 2019 seemed to offer one win after another: Rapper Saweetie’s “My Type” became a summer hit; K-pop group BLACKPINK headlined Coachella; indie favorites Beabadoobee and Peggy Gou made big waves in the underground. Photographer Andrew Kung and Banana Mag brought Asian American identity to the forefront. And Always Be My Maybe, starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, won hearts with its Asian American take on a relatable rom-com plot line

In the fall, the momentum reached a near-fever pitch when Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, a film that tells the poignant story of a Chinese-American family navigating their grandma’s cancer diagnosis, released to critical acclaim. And then there was Bong Joon-ho’s phenomenal Parasite. The film is actually a foreign one—it was created by a Korean filmmaker in Korea—but for me, it felt like a win when it became the first non-English film to ever take home an Oscar for Best Picture in early February. Together, these artistic accomplishments felt like a massive shift towards recognizing Asian influence in the American cultural fabric.

Then, COVID-19 made it to the United States. My family followed the Chinese news, so they’d been updating me on the virus’ spread since January. I wasn’t that surprised when racist attacks started being reported in February and March—but what did surprise me was how many of them took place in New York, a city I recently relocated to from the Bay Area. A masked woman was kicked in the face at Grand Street station. An Asian man doused in water while smoking a cigarette. Another was sprayed with Febreeze on the subway. A woman was punched in the face in K-town. A woman had acid poured on her outside her house

And then, beyond New York: Student Jonathan Mok was brutally beaten on the street in London. An elder was harassed and attacked while collecting cans in San Francisco. Two people were assaulted by a group of teens at a train station in Philadelphia. A 2-year-old girl, 6-year-old boy and their father were stabbed in a murder attempt at a Sam’s Club in Texas.

A woman poses in a mask among cleaning products with the text, "March 10: An Asian woman is punched in the face for not wearing a mask."
Author Eda Yu in a photo series that draws attention to recent hate crimes against Asian Americans. (Eda Yu, Mashael Al Saie, Christine Oh)

The anger that comes from seeing this kind of racial violence is raw and exceedingly visceral. It’s hard to put into words—especially for Asian Americans for whom speaking up in matters of social justice is more difficult after decades of believing that their level of privilege, created by the model minority myth, shields them from having to advocate for civil rights. This is even more complicated by the fact that silence is a traditional East Asian cultural custom. As Gu Xiao-le describes in A Contrastive Analysis of Chinese and American Views about Silence and Debate: “In ... Chinese culture, communicators assume a great deal of commonality of knowledge and views, so that less is spelt out explicitly and much more is implicit or communicated in indirect ways … Silence holds a strong contextual meaning, such as showing obedience to senior people, or being a sign of respect for the wisdom and expertise of others, or disagreement while avoiding direct confrontation.”

Sponsored

It comes as no surprise, then, that Asians have had trouble finding the voice to stand up for themselves—or others—in America. In recent years, we’ve seen the national conversation start moving past assimilationist ideals, but that shift hasn’t necessarily been reflected in the art we make. Crazy Rich Asians, a Hollywood film that broke ground with its all-Asian cast in 2018, is a perfect example of this kind of art—a win for representation, but one that plays heavily into tropes of assimilationist whitewashing. To All the Boys I've Loved Before, a Netflix Original also released in 2018, echoes these ideals: the film differs in practically no way from a classic American high school rom-com—it just substitutes an Asian girl for a white one. 

Now, during the pandemic, our art carries a different weight entirely. Asian-American artists have a sense of responsibility of tackling issues of identity—of fighting this hate and xenophobia. That very feeling is what inspired me to make the projects I recently released on social media: a photo series with friends that denounced these attacks of racial violence, posts that spoke to how Asians were unfairly targeted for wearing masks. 

And it wasn’t just me. In the rise of this discrimination, I saw an extraordinary amount of Asian American cultural work—essays, photos, videos, makeup—innumerable forms of expression all geared towards addressing the massive spike in anti-Asian hate crimes. The art I saw differed greatly from the kind often touted in the American mainstream. It is, at its core, protest art—meant to challenge the status quo and incite change.

Asian American demonstrators rally for Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton's release from prison in 1969.
Asian-American demonstrators rally for Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton's release from prison in 1969. (Courtesy of Roz Payne's Newsreel archive)

In contrast to the relatively tame AAPI-centered work that tends to get the most attention today, radical, progressive art played a key role in shaping the modern conception of Asian American identity. Before 1968, the concept of Asian America didn’t exist. The Asian American movement—often overlooked—changed all of that. In the late ’60s, public outrage over the Vietnam War spurred massive protests throughout the United States. At UC Berkeley, the first-ever Asian American Political Alliance formed in May 1968. 

As Karen Ishizuka details in her book Serve the People, Asian American activists were heavily inspired by Third World solidarity and the Black Liberation Movement. They lobbied together against American racism and imperialism, and found power in their dual identities rather than assimilating. Eventually, as the movement grew during the ’70s and ’80s, action spread to community initiatives, like protesting evictions and gentrification in the Bay Area.

In those years, AAPI protest art grew. “Roots,” a visual art exhibition in Los Angeles’ Chinese American Museum in 2017, featured artworks from those decades: AAPI newsletters were illustrated with slogans like “More power to the people;” films like Cruisin’ J-Town offered a counterpoint to the racialized depictions of Asians in Hollywood; posters played on Chinese astrology to critique police violence, reading “Year of the People. Off the Pigs.” 

The movement died out in the early ’90s as forces of assimilation and economic ambition separated identity politics from their militant ideals and drew these progressive agendas to a close. But, disappointingly, the way our community is represented in the mainstream now feels far removed from this drive for change and the solidarity between other minority groups we hope to find today.

Now, beyond the mainstream, there are still many AAPI works today that could be considered protest art, even if they take a different form than the works of the ’70s and ’80s. I recently read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, for example, and felt its complex portrayal of the immigrant-Southeast-Asian experience challenge many opinions I’d formed about my AAPI identity growing up in L.A.. Singer Rina Sawayama’s latest SAWAYAMA is brilliantly strong, tackling deep East Asian issues of shame, fetishization and intergenerational trauma.

And friends in my community like Ada Chen, an artist who makes sculptural jewelry that simultaneously breaks down Chinese stereotypes and celebrates Chinese traditions, constantly make work that goes deeper than just representation. Through these pieces, as well as my own work, I’ve found that any kind of art can be protest art—it isn’t any less powerful just because it’s less loud.

Sponsored

As we move forward in the tumult of the coming months, I hope that we can remember the foundations of our AAPI identity. I hope that we work harder at dismantling the model minority myth and carry the ideals of the people who made our identity a reality. And no matter what we make, I just hope we create every piece of art with meaning—because we still have so much left to say.