On the streets of New York's Chinatown images of porcelain ancestors in the shop windows compete with Dewar whiskey ads and a multitude of Asian faces. Daily, I see the faces of community people, I see the changes in their dress and language, witness the grass root political battles for community empowerment. Once, a life size model of a white horse was brought into Chatham Square under the guise of a March of Dimes campaign. It was a replica of a Renaissance bronze in plastic. I was surprised to hear people in a local coffee shop respond by unknowingly quoting the sage, Hsieh Ho and his first principle of Art, "No life force in the Horse, no Chi!"

The Arts Centre operates as a cultural community site, not an academic or marketplace site. It is a privilege to have been working from its vantage points for so many years. From the creative work of artists, critical and historical perspectives can be developed. Staying engaged with one's community, while crossing borders of race, class, and neighbourhoods to integrate a unifying human perspective, is the challenge. By setting up a community cultural practice, one often finds history walking through the door.

A community cultural practice offers a different process, a different dynamic through time. A community approach to encompassing the historical passage of Asian American Art has much to offer. Such an approach documents, advocates and facilitates. It participates as a witness, neither totally objective nor disinterested. AAAC's Archive has developed as a record of this engagement.

The model of the AAAC's Archive is based on this experience; it is a body of work that has engendered a body of knowledge - a gathering of resources of historical value and documentation of a process that continues to grow. This is not a collection of material on unrelated artists. The Arts Centre's many previous exhibitions, along with more standard access methodologies, enables ways to search the Archive using a thematic approach linked to issues and ideas prevalent in Asian American art.

Thus, in an issue of En Foco's Nueva Luz journal in 1999, I wrote the following about a show of three photographers, May Ling Chang, Osamu James Nakagawa, and Chee Wang Ng at the AAAC, "In this era of a global world, peoples' differences are becoming the basis for a new unifying ethos . . . releasing a flood tide of interest in the spiritual concerns of all cultures - the great diversity of beliefs humanity has wrought. It may be time to put aside oppositional strategies and contribute to a re-envisioned centre. In view of this, the public ethic of perceiving people based on merit, maintaining a colour blind attitude, should change. Affirming cultural difference requires colour consciousness as a public ethic. Shorn of this out dated notion, society can reckon with change more appropriately, and people will be able to accept themselves and others for who they are."

Thoughts such as these take shape after many years of encountering the lives and works of artists. I met Matsumi Kanemitsu in Los Angeles in 1991, who was determined to track down the predecessors of young artists working today. He was one of nearly a hundred artists who had begun their career in the post World War II era. He had a magnetic personality and was a natural leader among many artists. Although the term ‘Asian American' was not coined until 1969, he was one of the first to identify with it. He had experienced racism in the US on numerous occasions, and knew how difficult it was to strike out on one's own without the support of family in his homeland. He was not Japanese or American, but both.

I met Lily Yeh around the same time. She had begun to organise nearby low income residents to revitalize an empty abandoned lot in North Philadelphia. Having learned brush painting from her father in Taiwan, she attended graduate school in the US, where she struggled to find her way. Inspiration for her paintings, which remind me of Pennsylvania Dutch table cloths that radiate from the wall, came from the gospel singing emanating from a church in her neighbourhood. Seeing an opportunity to give back to this community from where her inspiration came, she began turning an empty lot into a garden of art for the public. During one of our conversations, she spoke to me of her desire to let go of the traditional forms she knew so well and take a journey into the unknown, so that one day she might find ‘a dustless world'. The cycle of Asian American art has become clear to me through her work and attitude. Lily has recently won a prestigious award from a program cal led, Leadership for a Changing World.

Venancio C. Igarta lived right around the corner from the centre in Chinatown. When I met him, he was doing a series of geometric paintings that paid homage to Josef Albers, while attempting to go beyond them in terms of colour relationship and logic of forms. He had come to California from the Philippines as a farm labourer, later studying at New York's Art Student's League. In 1940 he was the first Filipino artist exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum. By the early 1960's his phenomenal rise came to a halt and, in despair, obscurity and isolation, he nearly burned all his artwork. He gave up art and found a job with a company called Colour Aid Paper. For over twenty years, as their chief colourist, he produced the silk screen colour mixtures familiar to every art student. In 1982, he began painting again, and in the post-Marcos era of the Philippines, he was celebrated as a cultural hero.

Events also play a role in AAAC's work and shape the material collected in the Archive. In 1989 a one-year exhibition was mounted entitled, CHINA: June 4, 1989. By May the following year the exhibition travelled to PS1 and included 271 artists. Many donated their work to AAAC including: Martin Wong, Luis Camnitzer, Leon Golub, Agnes Denes, Donald Lipski, Lillian Porter, Mo Bahc, Kunio Izuka, Yoshiki Araki, Sue Kwak, Anna Kuo and Ik-Joong Kang.

The Asian American Artist Slide Archive began in 1982 and currently consists of over 1500 artist entries. As a historical archive, national in scope, many artist's materials are extensive. The Permanent Collection consists of about 400 contemporary art works. Unfortunately, these and the Arts Centre may soon loose their home of 28 years. The record of its work is in jeopardy. AAAC currently seeks partnerships to preserve its work, and to ensure that it is kept alive and active.

The Asian American Arts Centre of New York was founded in 1974, one of the early Asian American community organisations initiated to affirm, document and create an Asian American cultural presence on the East Coast. Its storehouse of records includes documentation extending back to the beginnings of Basement Workshop in 1970, the seminal East Coast Asian American organisation from which many cultural organisations today found their beginnings. The coherence of Asian American culture and its history in the United States is substantiated through on-going activities presenting community programs, folk artists, oral histories, thematic exhibitions, young, mid-career and senior artists.

The Arts Centre wishes to enter into a relationship where these materials are more permanently protected, as well as maintaining a level of vitality such that materials continue to grow and remain available for public use. Its resources, gathered over 30 years includes documents, records of activities, video/audio records, research materials, a Permanent Collection of art, and the Asian American Artists Archive.

AAAC Website:http://www.artspiral.org 



Robert LEE

Tue, 1 Feb 2005

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