A former souvenir shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood has been transformed into a community-oriented tribute. Archive as Memorial: Documenting A/P/A Voices During COVID-19, up through March 25 at the Storefront for Ideas (SFI), is a space for local residents and other New Yorkers to reflect on the many experiences of Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people since the start of lockdowns in early 2020. Artist Tomie Arai and Diane Wong, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, worked with the nonprofit organization Immigrant Social Services to house the exhibition at SFI, which repurposes an empty storefront at 127 Walker to house events, projects, and more.
Through art installations, oral histories, documents, and personal objects, Archive as Memorial touches on themes including mutual aid, community care, the movement for Black Lives, and anti-Asian violence. Arai and Wong thought of the exhibition as an opportunity to show the community selections from the A/P/A Voices: A COVID-19 Public Memory Project, which brought together AAPI cultural workers, oral historians, educators, and activists to document the pandemic’s impact on Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities in New York and across the US from 2020 through 2022.
“Especially at the start of the new year, we have to think about what it means to remember and honor that loss as well as to move forward,” Arai told Hyperallergic.
A/P/A Voices began with an April 2020 message from core committee member and cultural organizer Lena Sze not long after lockdowns started. “We got an email from Lena checking in on everyone,” Wong said. “Wondering if there was a way to collectively process together, to make time to be together in a way that didn’t feel exhausting.”
As infection rates and death tolls surged in New York City, Sze proposed documenting the moment. “I myself have had a hard time imagining a future where we could build/imagine what life is like post-covid …” Sze wrote in her email. “That will come, though, and although many of us are still in shock/anxiety/not in a palace to think about this, taking stock is probably something we would have wished for, so I wonder how to do that.”
From there, volunteers digitally collected oral histories from Asian immigrant service providers, first responders, street vendor advocates, sex workers, nail salon technicians, artists, educators, activists, and other AAPI individuals. Selected Zoom-recorded interviews are scattered throughout the newly opened exhibition and projected on a loop in a listening room where visitors can jot down their own reflections. Early on the A/P/A Institute at New York University (NYU) offered to be the project’s institutional home.
The collection, housed at the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, was later expanded to include physical and digital artifacts, such as art installations, zines, posters, and photographs of murals. These tangible traces of life, hope, and challenges, some on view in the exhibition, largely come from various AAPI community organizations around the country.
A selection of digital pieces from an art contest presented by the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative and the Vietnamese American Roundtable, on the theme “Strength, Safety, Solidarity,” shows artists responding to the nail salon worker movement. “Mani-curing the Hate” by Hoal-An Melody Huynh depicts a minimalist hand painting nails with the words “Stop Asian Hate” written on the index, middle, and ring fingers. The piece honors nail technicians who silently work each day, breathing in harmful toxins and washing their clients’ hands and feet.
An abolition bookshelf curated by the Asian American Feminist Collective, a grassroots racial and gender justice group, features titles including All About Love by bell hooks, Missing Daddy by Mariame Kaba, and Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment by Patricia Hill Collins. The bookshelf purposely shares a wall with the “40-story mega jail” being built in Chinatown.
In the front of the gallery, a wooden altar reads “Rest in Power Christina Yuna Lee.” It contains a photograph of a shrine created by The WOW Project, an NYC Chinatown-based community initiative, in honor of Lee, who was stabbed to death in February 2022 after being followed into her Chinatown apartment.
At the January 19 opening of the exhibition, Yin Q, a core member of the Asian and migrant massage parlor workers’ advocacy organization Red Canary Song, reflected on the impact of the show. Seeing their memorial to the 2021 Atlanta spa shooting, testimonies, and the trailer for their forthcoming documentary on massage workers’ art come together with the rest of the collection was inspiring. “I feel like art is such an incredible source for us all to come together to heal and grieve, and also to celebrate one another,” Q said.
Laura Chen-Schultz, deputy director at the A/P/A Institute, told Hyperallergic that they hope to hold a panel before the end of the exhibition and make Archive as Memorial accessible online as well as host group tours and class visits.