LOS ANGELES — In May 2021, amid the half-lockdown between the alpha and delta variants of COVID-19, “Racist, Sexist Boy” went viral. Recorded in a public library by the all-femme, BIPOC punk band The Linda Lindas, the song struck a nerve. “You say mean stuff,” they growl, “You close your mind to things you don’t like. You turn away from what you don’t wanna see.”
Part of what made it striking, of course, was seeing four young women of Asian and Latina descent — the oldest is 18, the youngest 12 — busting out a punk hit in a library in the midst of the pandemic. It also arrived a little more than a month after the deadly shootings in Atlanta, which left eight Asian American women dead and sparked a national conversation about anti-Asian hate.
Some 25 years prior, in 1995, Martin Wong, the father of The Linda Lindas bassist Eloise Wong, was on an Asian American punk journey of his own. Wong is co-founder of Giant Robot, the punk-infused zine-turned-magazine of Asian American culture, alongside Eric Nakamura. In 1995, they penned the influential article “Return to Manzanar,” wherein they identify the best places for skateboarding at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, one of many internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II.
At the site of a plaque recounting Manzanar’s history, they find offerings such as “candy, stuffed animals, Budweiser, Martinelli’s Apple Juice, make-up, homework, a comb,” and other sundry items. “We added a pack of ramen seasoning,” they write, “and skated in.”
The skateboard Wong took around Manzanar hangs on the wall of Oxy Arts, the public art center of Occidental College. The skateboard, copies of Giant Robot, and a music video of The Linda Lindas, alongside cardboard cutouts from the video, are some of the works in Voice a Wild Dream: Moments in Asian America Art and Activism, 1968–2022, curated by Occidental Professor of Practice Kris Kuramitsu.
If there’s a lesson in the story of the Wong family, it’s that activism can extend across generations, building over time and adapting to new contexts. While Wong the elder relied on zines to get the word out, Wong the younger could go viral on YouTube.
The show focuses on the role of artist collectives in Los Angeles and New York in particular, drawing connections between the Asian American collectives that founded magazines like Gidra (1967–74) and Bridge (1971–85) and projects like the Auntie Sewing Squad (lovingly made into the acronym ASS), which started out by making PPE in the early days of the pandemic, and the Chinatown Art Brigade, initiated in 2015 to resist gentrification in New York City’s Chinatown.
Gidra, whose bold covers hang from the ceiling at the gallery entrance, documented West Coast Asian American experiences in the heady days of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements of the time. Named after a three-headed dragon from Japanese monster movies, the magazine covered politics and society alongside art, poetry, and culture. Bridge, on the other hand, documented the East Coast scene, and was published alongside Yellow Pearl, a set of prints inspired by the album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America.
Where Voice a Wild Dream succeeds is in beautifully documenting and showcasing how the contemporary moment of Asian American activism is rooted in decades of work by media makers, artist collectives, and musicians seeking to document and express Asian American experiences in the face of oppressive structures. Indeed, one electronic work, titled “Asian American Art Activism Relationship Map, 2022,” by Yvonne Fang and Alexandra Chang, aspires to map these webs of relationships across time and space through a website and sheets of paper at the exhibition. The result is a series of clusters around major hubs, like Godzilla: Asian American Art Network and the Asian Arts Initiative. The focus on collectives is essential, as it dismantles the idea that activism is driven by individual charismatic figures — in reality, social change is possible because many hands come together, whether to make a punk magazine or a face mask or a viral video.
Where I wish the show did more was in expanding our understanding of the history of the term “Asian American.” Coined by UC Berkeley student activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka in 1968, it is being re-explored and re-evaluated in today’s context, including in relation to Americans of South, Southeast, Central, and Western Asian heritage. The exhibition takes its title from traci kato-kiriyama’s poem “Letters to Taz – on meeting (After Taz Ahmed’s ‘If Our Grandparents Could Meet’),” in which the poets imagine a meeting between their respective grandparents. Ahmed and kato-kiriyama, both artist-poet-activists based in Los Angeles, have been exchanging poems for years and have engaged in activist work connecting Japanese American experiences in the 1940s and Muslim experiences in the United States after 9/11.
This collaboration, and the two poets’ powerful exchanges, would have made a worthy section in the exhibition, as they point to larger themes connecting the history of Asian American identity, colonialism in Asia, Islamophobia, and the role of poetry in helping us explore difficult histories. Ahmed’s original poem conveys the possibilities of future exhibitions of Asian American art and activism, as she draws lines between her grandfather’s experience in Lahore and kato-kiriyama’s grandfather’s experience in California:
Maybe my grandfather's camp outside of Lahore had taken notes from the camps of Manzanar on how to make enemies of innocent citizens. Maybe war is tripped on a universal language and stifling independence is shot with the same brand of bullets.
All this said, Voice a Wild Dream is a dream of an exhibition, making present the very real media that have defined Asian American identity, while highlighting the importance of collective action in effecting social change. As one elder says in a documentary about Chinatown Art Brigade’s work, “A single flower doesn’t make it Spring. Only when all of the flowers bloom is it Spring.”
Voice a Wild Dream: Moments in Asian American Art and Activism, 1968-2022 continues at Oxy Arts (4757 York Boulevard, Eagle Rock, Los Angeles) through November 18. The exhibition was curated by Kris Kuramitsu.
On November 17, former Hyperallergic contributor Ryan Lee Wong will be in intergenerational dialogue with poet Christopher Soto and Wong’s mother, activist and community organizer Jai Lee Wong, organized by GYOPO and Stop DiscriminAsian.
Disclosure: Asian American arts activism is a small world, and it’s inevitable that groups overlap. I serve on the board of Yao Collaborative, which works with some of the organizations in the exhibition.