In September 2021, the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy at the Japanese American National Museum (NCPD@JANM) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA) invited artists to apply for the Artists At Work (AAW) initiative.
Born out of the coronavirus pandemic and inspired by the Works Progress Administration, the AAW initiative employs artists in U.S. cities and regions to create original public-facing art and connect them to cultural institutions. The initiative also ties the artists and cultural institutions to social justice, economic, health, housing, and immigration issues in their local communities.
In December 2021, NCPD@JANM and Advancing Justice-LA selected Audrey Chan and Jason Chu as the 2022 recipients of this initiative. Chan is an illustrator and educator. Chu is a rapper and spoken word poet. Together they will create new artwork focusing on anti-Asian hate and racism.
Chan’s work blends visual and public art with film and research to challenge dominant historical narratives. Growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, she identified as an artist from a young age.
“My art is about picturing the possibilities of what the world could look and feel like if the lived experiences, desires, and struggles of historically marginalized communities were centered in the stories of America’s past, present, and future,” said Chan.
A Delaware native, Chu’s music and poetry stem from exposure to hip hop at an early age.
“I grew up with hip hop. It’s what made me Asian American. The community, the culture, the racial consciousness. I was surrounded by people who were using this art to hold a heritage. It’s a venue for having conversations that I wanted to have and to hear,” Chu said.
Chu earned his bachelor’s in Philosophy at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He earned his master’s from Fuller’s Center for Asian American Theology and Ministry in Pasadena, California. His music and poetry are influenced by the work of Ms. Lauryn Hill, Wu-Tang Clan, Lupe Fiasco, and Kanye West. His three biggest influences are Kendrick Lamar, Bono, and Ai Wei Wei.
“All of them are speaking of hope and healing in a broken world. They show what art can be for people,” he said.
Chan’s art is inspired by the work of Maya Lin, Adrian Piper, and Kerry James Marshall and her own family history. Chan earned her bachelor’s in Studio Art and Political Science at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. She earned her master’s from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, California. As she developed her craft, her work also became inspired by political and social issues of the early 2000s.
“In the year prior [to graduate school], I had worked on a grassroots campaign to persuade voters in swing districts of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to vote for John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. The invasion of Iraq was underway and I wanted to understand if and how art could be a political medium to mobilize for social justice and to give voice to frustration with the status quo.”
At CalArts, she connected with artists who were a part of the Feminist Art Movement through a campus-wide class project on the legacy of the university’s Feminist Art Program.
“I appreciated that Southern California was a place where artists could be unabashedly political, conceptual, and experimental,” she said.
When Chu moved to Los Angeles ten years ago, he sought a very specific movement.
“I moved here to Los Angeles to identify as an Asian American rapper and poet. I was seeking out a pan-ethnic community, and that’s a strength of the West Coast. The strength of the East Coast is that there is a strong understanding of racialization. Not only in urban areas, but in small-town America too. I like to say that Asian America means all Asian Americans,” he said.
Chu was inspired to apply to this initiative after a friend tagged him on JANM’s Instagram post.
“My friend, a Cuban American choreographer, tagged me and said ‘Jason this sounds like you.’ This fellowship embodies everything I strive to do because it builds a communal consciousness.”
For Chan, there were many different aspects of the initiative that spoke to her.
“The AAW initiative was an opportunity to partner with NCPD@JANM and Advancing Justice-LA, two inspiring organizations that have been on the frontlines of defending democracy and centering the needs and cultural specificities of AAPI communities. By working together, we’re finding ways to merge art and advocacy to move the needle forward in representing the diversity of AAPI communities and building the solidarities that are essential to survive and thrive in the face of racist hatred and hostility. I also deeply appreciate that the fellowship recognizes art as a form of essential cultural labor and gives new life to the legacy of the Works Progress Administration,” she said.
Chan and Chu plan to create a new artwork that engages multiple generations, represents Southern California Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and stands alongside other communities fighting against injustice, hate, and violence.
“We’re working on building a collective visual and textual vocabulary for this moment that can be translated into multiple languages and that can be activated through installations, events, and public participation. By making the project bilingual, we hope to provide another resource for intergenerational communication, but also to serve as a reminder that there is so much to learn about and from each other,” said Chan.