It’s an age-old question. Can art affect change in a way that other human activities, such as politics and religion, cannot? Michelle Woo, the co-founder of For Freedoms, an organization that aims to increase civic engagement with art, believes that it can. “When you position as something political or social, people tend to take positions pretty quickly,” she says. Art, she says, is less divisive. “It allows people to enter into a subject in their own way,” she says.
Last month, in honor of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Heritage Month, For Freedoms collaborated with 40 artists, activists and cultural pioneers to create billboards that visualized support for AAPI communities, as well as expanded the notion of what it means to be Asian American in the United States. The billboards, which appeared in Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Columbus, Denver, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Antonio and Washington D.C. throughout the month of May, were created by artists who identify as Arab, Southeast Asian, Jewish and Pacific Islander, among other ethnicities. The project, which Woo co-curated with Erin Yoshi, also included the AAPI Solidarity film series, a social media campaign that examined Asian American solidarity with black, brown and indigenous communities, and was produced in collaboration with A-Doc, the Asian American documentary network.
Woo felt an urgency to work on the project after the spa shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, in which six women of Asian descent were killed. “I think there is a narrative being told that this is an isolated incident, and it’s not,” says Woo. “As an Asian American woman, I’ve experienced racial discrimination and othering my entire life.” Mainstream media, she noted, tends to gloss over the history of Asian Americans in the United States, and fails to capture the complexities of the identity. For example, that the term “Asian American” captures a broad swathe of people, from Arab to Chinese peoples.
The billboards convey urgent, important messages of resilience during a time when 81% of Asian Americans say that violence against them is increasing. As artwork, the billboards can read like empty aphorisms that are being dealt with a heavy hand already on social media. Some have single phrases that chide the viewer for past misrepresentations of AAPI people. (“I am an artist. I am not a female Asian artist,” reads the text on one billboard by John Yuyi in Denver.) Others attempt to challenge wrongful assumptions (“Asians have been here longer than cowboys,” reads another billboard by Stop DiscriminAsian in Los Angeles, which also shows Asian men dressed up like cowboys, and is related to an exhibition by Kenneth Tam that closes June 23 at the Queens Museum.) And yet others attempt to emanate hope and love after a difficult year. (“Our grief will not break us. Hope blooms here,” reads a billboard by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya in Boston.)
The billboards that are the most effective are the ones that mimic the format they are utilizing. For example, the billboard by Maya Man, which was installed alongside a highway in Pittsburgh. The billboard shows a portrait of the artist crudely clipped, and pasted alongside the words, “The model minority IS A MYTH. CALL (412)-256-8055 FOR TRUTH.” That billboard caught my eye, in the same way that it would have if it was advertising an abortion reversal pill, or the path to heaven. “What looney toon organization put that thing up?” I would have asked myself if I came upon that message on a drive to a big box store. And I would have dialed the number to find out.
The number on Man’s billboard leads to a voicemail that talks about why propping up Asians as a “model minority” damages not only the AAPI community, but also other minority communities, and especially black communities. The model minority myth posits that if you work hard enough and assimilate well enough, you will be successful in America — and that if you are not successful, it’s your own fault because you’re lazy. It’s the sort of assumption that is still used today to justify racism. (For example, Jared Kushner, the former President’s son-in-law, said in 2020 that Black Americans need to “want to be successful.”) The crude, familiar format of Man’s billboard opens up a portal to talking not only about AAPI experiences, but also, the experience of people of color in America.
If anything, the For Freedoms project, which continues to evolve — most recently, the organization celebrated the history of Juneteenth — might unwittingly prove that art needs to more than just art to make an impact. You can say all of the right things in the best words, using the prettiest imagery, but ultimately, you may reach people best by being a little bit ugly. It’s a hard truth to swallow in an age where purity of expression is the highest standard to attain.