A Brave Space for Brave Art

At Asian Arts Initiative, artists can be community activists without losing sight of their craft, says director Anne Ishii.

three people installing a mural on the side of a brick buildingKhari Johnson-Ricks installing his mural at the Attic Youth Center for "Unity at the Initiative," March 2021. Photo: Bianca Chun. Courtesy AAI.

How can the arts unify racially divided communities? Finding answers to that question was central to the founding mission of Asian Arts Initiative (AAI), a multidisciplinary arts center in Philadelphia that supports Asian American creatives and cultivates meaningful ways for them to connect with local communities through gallery exhibitions, performances, workshops, and other programming with a social purpose.   

Founded by Gayle Isa in 1993 in response to increased racial tension following the Rodney King verdict, AAI remains committed to diverse coalition building with artists and the larger BIPOC and LGBTQ communities. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic, racial, and social fallout have made AAI and its presence as a creative and community hub more relevant than ever, says Anne Ishii, the organization’s director since 2018. We spoke with Ishii about the impact of the past year on the organization and the communities it serves, and how AAI is making a “brave space for brave art.”  

How have the events of the past year affected the organization?   
Like every other culturally specific, place-based arts organization, AAI is trying to learn from all that has happened. We’ve never fit into the typical curatorial model of having years to plan programming, but we’re realizing that maybe we don’t have to. As a smaller organization, we can get closer to the work faster. Big museums have lost time and postponed exhibitions. They’ve also had to figure out how to do social justice work that is so critical now. We lost some time too, but because what we do is already at the intersection of social justice, equity, and art, anyone we work with has a story that’s relevant to the moment.  

2021-02-03-e-lee-anne-ishii-philadelphia-asian-arts-initiative-moor-mother-768x512_blog.jpgAnne Ishii, director of the Asian Arts Initiative, holds a poster designed by Philadelphia poet and musician Moor Mother for the recent "Unity at the Initiative" exhibition. Photo: Emma Lee/WHYY

AAI is both a creative platform and an advocacy organization. How does it balance those roles?  
I think place-based arts organizations especially struggle with this question of relevance and urgency versus craft and artistic quality. But those things are not diametrically opposed. Going into the next year, we’re trying to be more forgiving to ourselves and be as relevant and as urgent as we can, while also understanding that we are still art practitioners, and the social issues that have risen to the foreground every single day of the last year can be examined through a creative lens. 

Those issues—the pandemic, racial discrimination, instances of anti-Asian violence—are significant. Have these urgent pressures reduced the capacity for artmaking and creativity?  
The threats and violence are very real. We are in danger. That’s why we’re all organizing and why we’re all being activists, right? But those are additional responsibilities in an artist’s already full deck. To be on the front lines and come to the studio exhausted is not fair to the rest of our work. But the best thing an artist can do right now is create brave art. But it’s hard to do that if you don’t feel safe.  

Brave art—can we unpack what that means? 
I use “brave” in the same spirit that traditional museums use the words bold, experimental, and excellent. I think people of color are unfairly demerited for telling stories that are too close to their identities. But it is precisely because of this context that their art matters so much, not despite. If you’re a brave artist of color, you’re working on your craft and centering your practice, but the rubric is not the standard “is this good?” but rather, does this art feel authentic? Is it provocative? Does it invite an overlooked perspective? 

display of posters, flyers, prints, and drawingsA detail of Jeffrey Cheung’s installation for "Unity at the Initiative," a multi-site exhibition celebrating the work Queer and Trans artists of color in Philadelphia. Photo: Zsa Zsa Dali. Courtesy AAI.

How is AAI creating the conditions to make brave art possible? 
Right now, we want to make sure that artists feel like they have a protected pathway and the resources to make great art. This is a small organization, but we own the building. We’re here to stay. That my predecessor, Gayle was able to create a permanent space for Asian American artists in a city not then known for its Asian American arts is an incredible legacy. I feel very freed that I did not inherit an organization that needs to survive. Now we can experiment.  

What form will this experimentation take? Can you share details about AAI’s upcoming programming? 
Upcoming programming is centered around care: What does a community look like when it prioritizes care? Why do caregiving and caretaking mean the same thing? How do we give care and take care of ourselves? One of our thought partners is the Seattle-based writer Angela Garbes. She’s working on a book about caregiving and wrote an article for New York magazine about how the sublimation of women working as unpaid caregivers has done permanent damage to the labor force.  AAI will be showcasing community groups, such as free libraries, who will take over the gallery space with different activities that will be created for and by people of color in Philadelphia.  

These creative solutions are part of the work of artists—is that work valued?  
I worry when I hear artists say, “I also need to be doing something that’s socially essential.” Really it should be “what I’m doing is socially essential.” People talk about radically reimagining the world but that’s not possible without a creative community.