Artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya’s public art project at the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, New York (all images courtesy the NYC Commission on Human Rights)

One of the unfortunate side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a surge in xenophobic and racist attacks against Americans of Asian descent. New York, one of the world’s most multicultural cities, is not excluded from this trend; the city’s Commission on Human Rights reports more than 566 reports of discrimination, harassment, and bias related to the coronavirus since February. Of these, 184 targeted Asian and Asian-American people, more than seven times the number of complaints received over the same time period last year. 

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, the Publci Artist in Residence at the Human Rights Commission, addressed this concerning phenomenon with an ad takeover of the Atlantic Avenue subway station in Brooklyn. Titled “I Still Believe in Our City,” the public art installation celebrates New York’s diversity with a series of 45 panels featuring vibrantly colored portraits of Black, East Asian, and Southeast Asian residents of the city. These portraits are accompanied by anti-discriminatory messages like “I did not make you sick,” “This is our home too,” and “I am not your scapegoat.”

“I did not make you sick,” “This is our home too,” and “I am not your scapegoat.”

The eye-catching panels combine patterns of flowers that carry a symbolic meaning in Chinese culture. Some signify resilience, friendship, and solidarity, while others symbolize protection and longevity. In addition, some of the panels cite statistics on the racial discrimination against Asian-Americans, including an incident that happened at the Atlantic Avenue subways station in March, when a 26-year-old Asian-American man reported being spat on and threatened with murder for “spreading the coronavirus.”

The March incident is one of the reasons why Phingbodhipakkiya chose the Atlantic Avenue terminal as the site for her project. Another is that the station connects historically Black and Asian and Pacific Islander (API) neighborhoods like Chinatown, Koreatown, Sunset Park, Crown Heights, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. The station is also in close proximity to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where many of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests took place. Several of Phingbodhipakkiya’s panels are dedicated to expressing solidarity with the Black community’s struggle for justice and equality.

“I’ve been proud to call myself a New Yorker for the last 14 years,” Phingbodhipakkiya said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic, “but the pandemic opened up an ugly side of the city.”

“So many of my friends and people who look like me have been harassed, told to ‘go back,’ had our basic humanity denied,” the artist continued. “My goal with this series was to turn these hurts into something beautiful and powerful.”

Panels reading “Abolish brutality,” “Justice,” and “Dismantle oppression”

“Over the past seven months, New York City has experienced deep tragedy, and, for some, that tragedy has been compounded by stigma and discrimination,” Carmelyn P. Malalis, Chair and Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights, said in a press release announcing the project.

“Despite being confronted with anti-Asian bias and rhetoric, Asian and Pacific Islander [API] New Yorkers continue to fight for our city, for our neighbors, and for justice,” Malalis continued. “Amanda’s art gives us something beautiful, moving and celebratory when we need it most and it encourages API New Yorkers to remain visible and proud.”

Starting November 26, additional panels will be placed across the city, including LinkNYC kiosks and bus shelters. If you have witnessed or experienced discrimination or harassment in New York City, you can report the incident by calling 212-416-0197 or online at the commission’s website. The commission’s staff speaks over 30 languages and reports can be filed anonymously.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...