Cecile Chong and Sophia Ma on Curating a Show with 45 AAPI Artists

By Cecile Chong, Sophia Ma, and Shannon Lee
August 7, 2023

In the spring of 2018, artists Cecile Chong, Sara Jimenez, and Maia Cruz Palileo, along with curator Gabriel de Guzman came together as an informal group of AAPI artists and art workers under the name, “Asianish.” Their aim was to create a space where artists could share conversation, art, and food in a space where they could be vulnerable and feel affirmed. With the concurrent events of COVID-19, the spike in anti-Asian violence, and the global reckoning with racial injustice in 2020, the need for this type of safe communion became all the more vital. By 2021, the meetings became weekly.

These days, Asianish includes over 100 members, many of whom currently have their work shown as part of “Gathering” at FiveMyles gallery through August 13th (the second part of the exhibition, which took place at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, closed on July 30th). Curated by Asianish member and curator Sophia Ma and Cecile Chong, the exhibition invited the community to submit works via an open call. Forty-five artist responded, including Ae Yun Kim, Christina Yuna Ko, Chanel Matsunami Govreau, Risa Puno, Natalia Nakazawa, zavé martohardjono, and Winnie Sidharta Ambron, making it one of the largest exhibitions of AAPI artists to date. The result is a show far greater than the sum of its parts, showcasing the ever-evolving vastness, and multiplicity of AAPI identity.

As the second half of “Gathering” comes to a close, the Amp’s editor Shannon Lee spoke to Chong and Ma via email about Asianish, the process of curating such an ambitious exhibition, and what’s next for the group.

Shannon Lee: When the members of Asianish started to come together in 2018, what were some of the initial conversations?
Cecile Chong: Asianish was formed by Maia Cruz Palileo, Sara Jimenez, Gabriel de Guzman, and me. We have all been friends for quite a while. I met Maia in 2008 when we both received the Joan Mitchell MFA Grant. I moved to EFA Studios in 2009 and I met Gabriel during one of my early open studios there. I met Sara in 2013 when Gabriel curated a group exhibition titled “Dimensions Variable” at Rush Arts in Chelsea. Both Sara and I had work as part of the exhibition. In March 2018, Maia was invited to participate in the NYC Art Salon. The topic of discussion was identity. We all had so much to share that we thought we had to get together and continue the discussion. A few weeks later, we formed Asianish. Our interest was to informally share and discuss the nuanced, complex iterations of Asian/South/Southeast/East Asian/etc identifying individuals in NYC. We are interested in holding space for these ‘Asian-ish” hybridized identities that sometimes overlap and that are often unique to each individual while recognizing each other as resources for growth, strength, and wisdom.
“In many ways, this show comes from a deep sense of pride of our AAPI identity and a refusal to let others define us.” —Cecile Chong
SL: What were some of the goals of coming together as a collective? It goes without saying that a lot has happened in the past five years since the start of the group. I’d love to know how those beginning conversations and the collective have evolved over the years.
CC: We come together to celebrate community. At the beginning, we gathered every few months in person and had a different topic of discussion. Our earlier discussions were about home, embodiment, community, food (where we shared family recipes), and nature. In 2019, we had a one-day community celebration sponsored by the Dedalus Foundation with the Sunset Park community where I taught. We filled the day with performances, hands-on activities, and slide presentations. Once the COVID-19 crisis began, we met via Zoom. When attacks against Asian communities throughout the country escalated, we felt the need to meet weekly. We also felt an urgency to center our discussion around Asian solidarity with Black Lives Matter. We shared stories, read articles, took turns leading sessions, and had artist presentations/studio visits. Since the pandemic ended, we have been gathering in person and have been invited by members of the group to take field trips to Harlan and Weaver Print Studio, DoClay Ceramic Studio, and most recently the Asia Art Archive. Next, we’ll be visiting Arlan Huang’s exhibition “Just Between Us” showcasing his personal art collection at Pearl River Mart.
SL: What prompted the group show?

CC: For me the answer to this question is twofold. It includes intention and personal reflection.

During the pandemic, Asian American communities were going through a lot of pain and suffering, and I wanted to do something positive to celebrate our community. Having virtual studio visits with artists in our Asianish group and seeing the high quality and impact of their work made me want to see it all brought together. As an artist member of Tiger Strikes Asteroid (TSA), I want to curate exhibitions that “fill gaps” in a way. My first exhibition at TSA was titled (Be)longing. It was co-curated with Eva Mayhabal Davis. We included artists who work with concepts of migration and belonging. For my second curatorial project at TSA, I was determined to bring joy and uplift Asian American voices. I invited Sophia to co-curate with me. I also wanted to approach Hanne Tierney, the director of FiveMyles, to see if she would be interested in hosting a part of the Asianish exhibition. We had so many artists interested in participating we knew we could not all fit at TSA. To my surprise, Hanne had already had the same idea and asked me before I could ask her!

On a personal level, when imagining the show, I reflected on my childhood experience of growing up in Quito, Ecuador, the place that I call home. In the ‘70s and '80s, there were perhaps about only 500 Chinese people living in Quito. My mother was the vice-president of the Colonia China, a group for Chinese Ecuadorians and recent arrivals from China. That group got together a few times a year and was one of my mother’s most cherished communities. Although my mom was born in Ecuador and blends seamlessly into the Ecuadorian culture, I often sensed her joy and how she looked forward to getting together with her “paisanos chinos.”

At that time, the sight of an Asian person was not common in Quito. Whenever my sister and I were picked on or bullied on the streets due to our Asian appearance, my mother often asked us what we did about it. “Y tú, qué dijiste, qué hiciste?” (And what did you say? What did you do?) This question sometimes still rings in my ears. I soon realized that she was putting the power back on me to do something. In many ways, this show comes from a deep sense of pride of our AAPI identity and a refusal to let others define us.

SL: What was the curation of this show like?
CC: It was really fun and collaborative with the artists. Given the egalitarian nature of Asianish, we were not going to turn away any artist from the open call. Out of the then 100-plus members, forty-five artists proposed existing and new works for the show. We asked all the artists to present a limited selection of works for us to choose from and that was where we were able to think through how the works linked to the overarching theme of “gathering.”
Sophia Ma: The works submitted address “gathering” in four main ways. Visually, the most evident theme arises from the illusion of, or the spaces of the home as a convergence point for individuals, families, and communities. The most abstract way of alluding to the show’s theme are artworks that invite healing and processing as a collective action. With the 2021 Atlanta shooting fresh on our minds as we were planning the exhibirtion, it was not surprising to us that the artists also sought to bring the community together in this way. Fragmentation and the reassembly of the shards into something new emerged as a third way. And the last sub-theme is storytelling as a way to connect people. By sharing each other’s histories, cultures, and narratives, artists find ways to broaden the audience’s understanding of Asian experiences in the U.S. and abroad. Many works consist of more than one of these sub-themes, but it was a helpful framework as we mapped out the exhibition.
CC: We knew early on in the planning process that we wanted to give all the artists an honorarium for their participation. Based on the sub-themes that arose from our selection, we were able to illustrate our ability to execute by laying out the exhibition for the two grants we were submitting to in 2022. We were fortunate enough that both the Asian Women Giving Circle and the Brooklyn Arts Council’s Brooklyn Arts Fund thought that our project was worth realizing as we envisioned it.
SM: With proposed works and a long lead time, there were changes to those original plans. As works are finalized, the guiding framework of the sub-themes helped group the seemingly disparate works together. It was important to us to provide each work with its own viewing space while highlighting the relationships between the works. For a show with this many artists, we paid close attention to the balance of mediums, scale, and color in the two gallery spaces, so as not to oversaturate in any particular way.
“I think that the works tell us that we need to relate and connect with one another. It is essential to building the future we like to live in. We are linked and we are dependent on each other.” —Sophia Ma
SL: Do you have a sense of how artists chose the works that are in the exhibition?
CC: We respected each artist’s interpretation of the theme “gathering” and I loved seeing the results of those interpretations. One wonderful example is Priyanka Dasgupta and Chad Marshall’s multimedia installation titled Parley, Under the Banyan Tree (2023). The piece resembles a barbershop station, referring to how in many villages in India, barbers often set shop under a Banyan tree. The tree itself becomes a shelter and a place of gathering. The artists brilliantly tied in to their ongoing project of Bahauddin (Bobby) Alam, their imagined character from Bengali who lived as a black jazz musician in New York and New Orleans. The artists included a wallpaper illustrating Bobby gathering with his friends and getting a haircut under a Banyan tree before his transoceanic journey to the US.
SM: I suspect that the artists thought about how their works communicated the idea of gathering. And many of the works convey it in personal ways. For example, Tomo Mori’s proposal specifically detailed that her piece, Seven Bowls for Remembering and Repairing (2023), pays tribute to those who have lost their lives to anti-Asian hate. Utilizing rice bowls, a Japanese ritual offering for the dead she made at her grandmother’s altar for her ancestors, as a gathering point to reflect and process loss is a powerful visual. I think that the artists want to contribute and share what resonates with them for the wider community to bare witness and to hold space for the variation on the theme, ranging from love and joy to hate and violence. The exhibition shows the spectrum of our lived experiences.
SL: Seeing these works all together, do you feel that there are any takeaways to be gleaned about AAPI identity?
CC: That is complicated. In so many ways we as Asians living in “the west” are grouped by non-AAPI and by ourselves, by the way we look. It’s ironic, when in fact, there is often much less in common culturally between many AAPI countries than you would find between other countries viewed as cultural cohorts. In the west, because of our appearance, we find ourselves together in a basket of “outsiders” we call AAPI that everyone is looking to define. What I am hoping for the exhibition to do is have us all look into the basket and feel all of its richness. If you see underlying commonalities, both within AAPI and within the rest of humanity, that’s great. If you see breathtaking diversity, that’s great too. Just see us and hear each individual voice that resonates, whether it be in harmony or discord.

SM: As Susette S. Min (Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis) proposes in her book Unnamable, we sought to reform and reorient the perception of Asian American art through shared themes that address identity, rather than just grouping because of one’s identity. So while it was important that we acknowledge the artists’ heritage, it was not the only attribute of import.

That said, I walk away having learned many histories I was unaware of and finding parallels across cultures. AAPI covers 20-75 countries depending on the source. This show presents an expansive view of AAPI identity, where there is no uniform identity. In fact, it is the fluidity with which the artists related to themselves and each other, as well as the expression within their works that I find as the shared characteristic. There are self-selection, self-determination, and self-identification that feel valid and apt for the person taking on the categorization.

SL: What do these works tell us about ourselves?
CC: Behind every work there is a story and a lived experience of a person. Each piece connects us with what it means to be AAPI and to be human. These different forms of expression and reflection are built on our common need to be respected and to belong.
SM: The works offer multiple entry points to grasp the facades of our histories. Many stories told, and many stories yet to be told. I think that the works tell us that we need to relate and connect with one another. It is essential to building the future we like to live in. We are linked and we are dependent on each other.
SL: What does this show mean for the collective?
“William Chan says we should do this every two years; make it a biennale. To which I say, ‘let’s find funding and commitment from spaces!’” —Sophia Ma

CC: That there is power in numbers.

For me, it also means that we need to create intergenerational connections. We’ve had many early pillars of our AAPI art family show up to support our efforts. For example, I am thrilled that Robert (Bob) Lee has been attending our events. Bob and his wife Eleanor Yung founded the Asian American Art Center in Chinatown in 1974. I’m grateful to those who have paved the road for us. We see Bob as one of the original Asianish artists and we stand on the shoulders of the pioneering AAPI artists of his generation.

SM: I don’t feel equipped to speak for the collective. Many of the artists have either come up to me or written to me about how they felt about being a part of the show. Many expressed joy and excitement that they are in a show with so many other artists of Asian descent and said with much admiration for their peers. I hope that it brought us closer. It personally meant a lot to me to see the relationships between the artists and their work come together and be featured in such a way. It was my honor to work on this project. Thank you Cecile for the invitation to co-curate with you!
SL: What happens next?
CC: For me, I’m going back to my studio! Doing this show has stirred up a lot of thoughts and emotions in me. Curating is great, but nothing beats being in the studio making art! For Asianish, who can say? There is no shortage of creativity and drive in the group! There is no limit to what we can do.
SM: We have gained new members in the process. As the group grows larger, I think that there will be more opportunities. William Chan, one of the artists of Asianish and the gallerist of Home Gallery on Grand Street, says we should do this every two years; make it a biennale. To which I say, let’s find funding and commitment from spaces.

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