Where would America be without the historic and contemporary contributions of men, women and children from Asian and Pacific Island nations? Since early on in our Nation’s history, individuals, families and entire communities from the Asian and Pacific Island diaspora have been intrinsically connected to progressing infrastructure, politics, education, healthcare and the arts (among many other contributions). Despite all the sweat and devotion, people with Asian and Pacific Island identities have faced vitriol and violence from colonial Americans from the get-go (see: DeLeon, 2020).
While American communities of Asian and Pacific Island (AAPI) descent have consistently stood on the front line in the fight for Civil Rights (see: Maeda Joji, Daryl, 2021 and Janos, 2021), the bias against AAPI communities due to the Coronavirus pandemic was the absolute breaking point for multigenerational frustration to give rise to an outpouring of activism.
Diverse groups have been taking to the streets, town halls, cultural institutions and the internet to counter the hateful rhetoric and devastating violence imparted upon AAPI individuals and communities. Their collective voices portray vibrant expressions against racism and inspire widespread understandings around the intersectionality of identities and the fallacy of cultural stereotypes.
Among these voices are artists and musicians who have been using their skills as symbolic communicators as a means of calling attention to a variety of cultural and social concerns. Stephanie H. Shih and The Linda Lindas each artfully bust stereotypes and represent multicultural perspectives through seriously compelling and catchy work.
Shih is a visual artist and Taiwanese-American working in ceramics. Upon first glance, her work might easily be mistaken for actual pantry items and popular dim sum dishes like dumplings, egg tarts and char sui sou. That is because Shih’s ceramic sculptures are based off of real-life foodstuffs that are the staple of many AAPI households. The content for her work is sourced from her own kitchen and memories from her childhood home, as well as through crowdsourced reflections from members of Asian and Pacific Island communities throughout the United States.
The transformation of mass produced culinary products into unique handmade works of art is a very personal way for Shih and her viewers to connect, share and reconnect over both unique and common experiences from the Asian-American diaspora. The ceramic food replicas are vessels, which contain heartfelt bonds between diverse individuals who share a similar cultural heritage and have utilized familiar and non familiar culinary items to foster a sense of belonging.
Shih’s ceramic grocery items are a homage to vast immigrant communities finding comfort and establishing an identity wherever they call home. Despite their initial Pop Art sensibilities, they are actually the antithesis of the mid-20th century movement that celebrated mass production and the triumphs of capitalism. At large, her oeuvre of food products is critical of white settler colonialism’s influence on the ideology of a “National Identity” through the lens of consumerism and mass media. According to art critic, John Yau (2020):
“Shih’s work is both aesthetic and political, a commentary on assimilation as a process in which one’s national origin is not forgotten or erased. This resistance troubles a significant number of Americans. They might go to a Chinese restaurant and open their fortune cookie at the end of the meal, but they don’t like the colorful diversity that the future holds for them.”
Shih’s aesthetic AAPI kitchen is an affirmation of the essential cultural exchange within immigrant communities and the ability to adapt within a diaspora while resisting erasure.
The Linda Lindas are a band of adolescent girls from Los Angeles, California. The band’s members are Bela Salazar, Eloise Wong, Lucia de la Garza and Mila de la Garza; each of Chinese-American and Latinx identity. The band made headlines via their video for the song “Racist Sexist Boy,” which was recorded during a performance at the Los Angeles Public Library in 2020. It has since become an anthem for intersectional feminism, especially through the lens of the youth. The song’s inspiration comes from an encounter Mila had with a white male classmate who told her that his father instructed him to stay away from Chinese people (see: Hawkins, 2021).
In addition to calling out explicit intergenerational bias, The Linda Lindas pay tribute to positive pop culture AAPI references, as noted in their song “Cluadia Kishi.” Claudia Lynn Kishi is one of the characters in Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series of books. Kishi is notable for her autonomous style, leadership and creativity. Her complex character development has been praised for dismantling stereotypical representations of Asian Americans in mainstream culture. This is poetically reflected in The Linda Linda’s lyrics:
“Hollowed out books to hide her treats
They stay in time, she goes off beat
She wears red high-tops without socks
Her sense of style, it really rocks
I am Claudia Kishi
You are Claudia Kishi
She is Claudia Kishi
We are Claudia Kishi”
Both Shih and The Linda Lindas offer creative critiques to misinformed racial and cultural perceptions, while captivating audiences with their charming and memorable art. A replete art education should inspire students to collaboratively work towards developing an understanding and appreciation of different cultures throughout history. We can learn a lot about Asian American and Pacific Islander experiences from paying close attention to art that expresses the hardship, joys and diversity among the vibrant diaspora.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
DeLeon, Adrian, “The long history of racism against Asian Americans in the U.S.” PBS News Hour, 9 April 2020. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/the-long-history-of-racism-against-asian-americans-in-the-u-s
Hawkins, Derek. “Teen rockers fire back at anti-Asian comments with a viral punk anthem: ‘Racist, Sexist Boy.'” The Washington Post, 21 May 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2021/05/21/linda-lindas-racist-sexist-boy/
Janos, Adam. “How Cesar Chavez Joined Larry Itliong to Demand Farm Workers’ Rights.” History, 22 January 2021. https://www.history.com/news/chavez-itliong-delano-grape-strike
Maeda Joji, Daryl. “The Asian American Movement.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. 09. Oxford University Press. Date of access 31 August 2021. https://oxfordre.com/americanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-21
Yau, John. “The White Melting Pot.” Hyperallergic, 27 June 2020. https://hyperallergic.com/571795/jiha-moon-stephanie-h-shih-ceramics/