Arlan Huang and Howie Chen on Art and Activism

By Arlan Huang and Howie Chen
May 15, 2023

In All About Love, bell hooks offers her insights on generosity as a core pillar of the kind of love that builds true communities. “A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming,” she writes. “In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers — the experience of knowing we always belong.”

Consciously or not, Arlan Huang seems to have lived by that tenant for the last five decades. In addition to his own work as an artist, activist, and owner of Squid Frames in Brooklyn, he has lovingly and fastidiously been collecting the artwork and ephemera of his friends and colleagues since the burgeoning days of the Asian American movement. Up through August 27th, part of Huang’s collection is currently on view at Pearl River Mart in an exhibition titled “Just Between Us,” organized by Danielle Wu, Howie Chen, and Think!Chinatown.

Among the works included in the show are photographs by Corky Lee and others documenting members of Basement Workshop from the ‘70s. There are letters of encouragement and watercolors from Huang’s aunt, Edith Lew; countless silk screened posters designed by Huang and other artists including Tomie Arai for protests. There is a copy of the 1972 anthology, Yellow Pearl, prints by Martin Wong and Nina Kuo, drawings by Huang’s wife, Lillian Ling, ephemera from Godzilla, and recent paintings by Kazuko Miyamoto and Alex Paik.

In “Just Between Us,” Huang’s collection represents a living archive and record of Asian American relationships and community in NYC. It stands as a record of our constantly evolving conversations and concerns. “Arlan’s archive makes space for ‘Asian America’ as one of constant flux and open contention, particularly among Asian Americans ourselves,” writes Wu in the exhibition’s catalog. “It is unified by neither aesthetics nor politics. It is limited in scope and scale, tethered to place and time, fallible to memory, and feels woefully incomplete. Yet, this small sliver of an archive tells the story of how an entrusted space for Asian American ideas, culture, and art might not have been a museum or an art gallery, but rather shepherded between people.”

Also from the catalog is the following excerpt from Chen’s interview with Huang discussing Huang’s involvement in Basement Workshop and the crucial challenge of cultivating your own voice:

Howie Chen: Can you describe how that moment in which you got politically involved fed into your participation in the Basement Workshop?

Arlan Huang: Through the Asian Coalition I met Min Matsuda. We silkscreened the poster for the next March. She introduced me to AAA (Asian Americans For Action). They were mostly Nisei women of my mother’s generation organizing anti-imperialism activities. The group included Kazu Iijima (Chris’s mother), Min Matsuda (Karl’s mother), and Mary Kochiyama.

After the Health Fair and a few marches, Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie held a concert at the Japanese Buddhist Church up on Riverside Drive and 105th St. in Manhattan. There I met the church kids Alan Okada, Teddy Yoshikami, Nancy and Elsie Okada, Takashi Yanagida, and Larry Hama. After the concert Rocky Chin and Terry Dofu announced if anyone was interested in working on a project publishing the music and lyrics of Chris, Nobuko, and Charlie, there was going to be a meeting in Chinatown at a place called Basement Workshop.

Word got out and on the day of the meeting, a basement in Chinatown was packed to standing room outside the front door. A person named Danny Yung greeted everyone.The first thing Rocky says is he and Terry are leaving for the West coast and would someone like to take over the planning of this pamphlet. Myself and Takashi volunteered. We became the co-coordinators of Yellow Pearl and that’s how uptown came downtown.

HC: Wow. That’s pretty crazy. What I do know about Basement was that it was community specific yet very intersectional. For example, the people who performed or showed up there weren’t just from the Asian community. There seemed to be an understanding that it was part of something larger.

AH: Everyone who has some relationship with Basement has their own story. But it was the early period when the coalition was setting its tone. The glue that held everything together at that time was Chris, Joanne, and Charlie. They were performing anti-war rallies, Asian American rallies, and Chinatown activities. Through them, one was easily exposed to, for instance, the Young Lords, in an overlapping zone where different political consciousnesses, parties, and struggles intersected.

Those were heady times. The connections with Third World internationalism seemed so clear. It was more than just Chinatown.

HC: How did your experience at Basement—the politically charged activities and projects that you took on—resolve with or dissolve your experience of art?

AH: The idea that art should serve the people takes root. School is an afterthought, but I still have to pass my classes. I do not want to disappoint my parents. Even with Yellow Pearl meetings dominating five out of six days a week I managed to squeak by and get my BFA. Art school curriculum seems useless in cultural art work.

My time at Basement was one minute in the long history of Basement Workshop. But it coincided with the dawn of the Asian American Movement. It was a period that changed my life forever.

“The art I produce is evidence that I see through Asian American eyes. Evidence that I’ve thought about and traveled through all those things.” - Arlan Huang
HC: In the wake of this profound change, how did you involve art in the community?
AH: Murals seemed to be a resolution. There was a political mural movement bursting in San Francisco (La Raza) and Chicago in the early seventies. We started the first mural right before I left for San Francisco in 1972. When I came back, I plunged right into Cityarts Workshop. Every summer we would paint two murals. Alan Okada, Tomie Arai, Karl Matsuda, Susan Shapiro, Jim Jannuzzi, Sue Green, and Alfredo Hernandez were the mainstays. It was a multicultural and multinational group. It was also an activity that was rooted in community, designed and painted by everyone. Murals were the outlet for politics.
HC: What were the subjects of these murals?
AH: They ranged from ethnic identities to Maoist politics to gender politics to celebrations of life.
HC: Interesting and says a lot about the social and political milieu of the left at the time.
AH: That was what my art was all about then. It was collective and generous. We studied how political murals were done historically, tracing a thread from the Mexican muralist to the influential Chicago mural movement to the Maoist peasant painters of China. I revered Diego Rivera having touched his art when I was in high school.
HC: By the mid to late 1970s, there was obviously fatigue in leftist movements with the calcification of American politics and bad economy. How did that feel to you entering the 1980s?
AH: I essentially burnt out from my revolutionary zeal. Lillian and I got married and we started moving in a more moderate path. She worked for AALDEF (Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund). I turned back to painting searching for redemption.
HC: Was it mainly the internal politics that seemed intractable or that the revolution did not deliver the promise of real change?
AH: The revolution started to turn into an authoritarian track. I was in a cultural study group making posters, and we sort of became workers for their propaganda with instructions in form and content. It was art for telling the people and not art in serving the people. I became disillusioned and wanted out. I wanted to smoke my own tobacco.
HC: Art became a space of freedom and individuality.
AH: This is when I realized art had always saved me. It is my salvation. Art provides the arena where I can confront my demons or travel to a seemingly free weightless space in my mind. However, there was a dilemma between community-oriented art and the individual type of easel art. They seemed diametrically opposed. That was the new struggle that I found myself in again.
HC: I am surprised you haven’t brought up your pie metaphor—I have heard you use this reference many times over the years in both public and private discussions. Other people are no strangers to this too.
AH: There are lyrics in one of Chris and Nobuko’s songs that defiantly declare, “we don’t want a piece of your pie, we wanna bake our own.” It became my mantra for many years. During the Godzilla years I said, “OK I’ll take a piece.” Now, it’s, “I don’t need it.”
HC: It seems to be an enduring mantra.
AH: Yes it is. Finding and shaping your voice takes a long time. Presenting that voice is critical. A tough question is for whom do you make art? So the mantra shifts into I don’t need your pie, I have my own.
HC: Would you say it’s because your art is not just about art per se but a way of living and being with others?
AH: Yes. The art I produce is evidence that I see through Asian American eyes. Evidence that I’ve thought about and traveled through all those things. And yes, a way of living in communion with life.

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