May 9, 2009

API* Heritage Post #9: Asian American Arts and the Movement

This year, in an actual attempt to really observe API* Heritage Month, I'm trying to put up a post a day about what that means to me. Click the tag for API* Heritage to get the whole series.

My post about "The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism" a few days back didn't really get into the authors' discussion of Asian American arts in the movement. I thought some of their reflections on cultural work and the movement were quite good, actually.

One section in the book, labeled Art and Culture: The Making of Asian America discusses how cultural work gave a popular to some of the ideologies behind the early AA Movement mobilization such as self-determination, the "common person's role in making history," and other specific historic references. There was a point, which is also well-documented in Tad Nakamura's touching portrait of the life of Chris Iijima in A Song for Ourselves, when artists and cultural workers had to decide between representing and exploring collective personal histories of our people, and moving into work that looked inward (best captured in a quote in the book on page

I've had a long love affair with Asian American cultural work. Artists and cultural workers who are deliberate and thoughtful about their histories, our collective inheritances, and what world it is in which they live have been able to create powerful, lasting work that is not just propaganda on the stage, page, or track, but actually brings to light an experience, no matter how personal or individual it may seem, that comprises another patch in the quilt of Asian America.

Cultural workers can create spaces for community members to engage with questions of identity, belonging, community, and in/justice in ways that a speech, a manifesto, or a rally can never do. And by re/appropriating traditional cultural forms, from sampling filmi songs to using korean drumming at a rally for racial justice, Asian American cultural workers are able to bring together elements of the familiar and the new to many generations of community members at the same time. This is both a personal observation and something that the authors of Snake Dance brought up as well.

But it's when folks are lazy about "political work" that I get annoyed. While I like some overtly political/ideologically driven work, I think the worst example of rants masquerading as cultural work come in the spoken word arena - where there is often nothing artful about the framing of a piece that just seems hollow, angry, and gimmicky. Regular readers know how much I like some of the Fil-Am emcees who have been writing and living incredible work in the past 10 years - Geo, Bam, Kiwi, Koba, and the list goes on. I think the Two Tongues crew were really powerful because they were able to really write and not lose creativity while being clear about what they wanted to get across.

This post was actually the lead up to a show I just got to see at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but I'll leave that for tomorrow's post at this point. Stay tuned!

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