At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America

On May 25, we are opening At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America,a multimedia exhibition that explores and celebrates the emergence of a politically defined Asian Pacific American consciousness and identity. A co-production of Visual Communications (VC) and JANM, At First Light chronicles the transformation of the un-American categorization of “Oriental” to the political identity of “Asian Pacific American” that rejected racist stereotypes, stood up for human rights, recovered lost histories, and created new cultural expressions. The exhibition draws from the collection of VC, the first Asian Pacific American media organization in the country, which formed in Los Angeles in 1970 to capture and cultivate the newfound unity that was Asian Pacific America.

Scholar, author, producer, and JANM Chief Curator Karen Ishizuka, part of the curatorial team who helped put At First Light together, says that selecting from thousands of photographs, hundreds of films, and a vast array of educational materials produced during the first 20 years of VC’s existence was the most challenging part of creating this exhibition. Ultimately, there are 30 short videos telling the stories of places, like Historic Manilatown, and events, such as the first Asian American march against the Vietnam War.

The largest artifact in the exhibition is a free-standing cube sculpture created by VC Founding Director Robert A. Nakamura in 1970.  Featuring then never-before-seen photographs of America’s World War II concentrations camps, the sculpture was conceived to promote awareness for the repeal of the Emergency Detention Act of 1950, which granted the government the power to preventatively detain people during an emergency. Wanting to start an Asian Pacific American media organization, Nakamura called it a production of Visual Communications.

Ishizuka also says that she is most looking forward to displaying a new video installation entitled FSN 1972, which repurposes early VC productions. Onto the windows and doorways of a 1972 graphic of East First Street in Little Tokyo, filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura inserted motion picture footage from VC films to invoke the current issue of preserving Little Tokyo and the Save First Street North campaign.

The resiliency and resistance embodied in At First Light serve as a reminder—as well as a call to action—of what can be accomplished when people unite as a community with commitment. Ishizuka says she hopes visitors learn about how VC has used media as a tool for self-empowerment and community building and that there has been a long history of community activism that must be continued.

To commemorate the opening day of the exhibition on May 25 at 2:00 p.m. JANM will host VC co-founders and exhibition curators Duane Kubo, Robert Nakamura, and Eddie Wong in a panel discussion about the history of VC and the creation of this show. They will be joined by Karen Ishizuka, who will moderate the discussion, helping to place VC’s history as the first Asian Pacific American media organization in the country within the context of today’s changing world. RSVP here.

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