Marci Kwon, assistant professor of art history at Stanford University, and Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the university’s Cantor Arts Center, are challenging conventions of both academia and the art institution as co-directors of the Asian American Art Initiative (AAAI), which is dedicated to the study of artists of Asian descent. Together, they seek to decentralize the curatorial voice and reframe museum work as service-driven. While Alexander organizes exhibitions and works toward increasing the institution’s holdings of Asian American art at the Cantor, Kwon spearheads primary source-driven research projects, such as the open-access Martin Wong Catalogue Raisonné. Frieze assistant editor Lisa Yin Zhang spoke to Alexander and Kwon about how AAAI’s future-looking initiative takes a long view of history.
Lisa Yin Zhang: How did AAAI come to fruition?
Marci Kwon: When I arrived at Stanford in 2016, the first class I taught was one I had never experienced during my own education: a history of Asian American art. I quickly realized that the research resources I had taken for granted with canonical artists – basic documentation, the ability to see works of art in person – were not afforded to these artists because of institutional neglect. As I delved more deeply into the research, I kept on encountering community and family members of artists who didn’t know what to do with their archives and works of art. Scholars of minority artists often speak of archival silence, but I realized that archival silence in Asian American art was not a foregone conclusion, but an ongoing process. We hope the AAAI can help redress this process.
More broadly, AAAI seeks to expand and challenge limited notions of ‘Asian American’, which only surfaced in 1968, and which many of the artists featured in Aleesa’s exhibitions would not even have recognized. In certain ways, it’s artificial, an anachronism, and thus presents an opportunity to think critically about categorization. We wanted to reflect the fact that ‘Asian American’ is a term related to social imaginaries that is constantly in flux, and being reimagined with every work of art.
LYZ: Why is it important that this work takes place at a college museum?
Aleesa Pitchamarn Alexander: You need to have someone in the museum to address the same issues that Marci faced – community members with collections that require scholarship and a long-term future – who is going to advocate for acquisition and preservation. Our expanding collection is a material reflection of the relationships we are building within the community through this work. Having a connection to the archives is important, too. When the museum acquired a work from Bernice Bing’s estate, for instance, Stanford Libraries was able to acquire the artist’s archive at the same time. We can be a hub for research and diverse modes of encounter with Asian American histories. Visitors can have contact with art objects, then go to the special collections and see these artists’ papers. If you’re a student, you can take Marci’s course, too.
MK: AAAI allows us to experiment with how the theoretical discourses of Asian American studies and art history may be enacted with physical works of art, within a museum. We’re also trying to push against the art world's celebratory visibility politics and tokenization. Often, museums will collect works by minority artists at moments when it seems politically or socially relevant. They’ll be on display briefly, but then they’ll go back into storage until they’re once again ‘relevant’ to the institution. But of course, they’re always relevant to their communities. I use AAAI work and archives every year in my undergraduate and graduate teaching, so these objects are more than just a trophy for a museum collection. It shows students and viewers that history is always in the process of being constructed, so that they can better understand its exclusions and how they may be ameliorated.
LYZ: On your website, you write that you ‘seek to innovate non-hierarchical modes of conducting and presenting research’. Can you tell me more about that?
APA: We are not seeking to be the primary voices in the room. For our current exhibition at the Cantor, ‘East of the Pacific’, we commissioned the art collective For You to create original audio tours that are works of art in themselves – an effort to decentre my curatorial voice. They had my checklist and went out into the community to speak about works in the show with farmers, Japanese American chefs and Chinatown community historians. Their efforts resulted in these immersive audio experiences that offer a different way of engaging with the work.
LYZ: Why is the Bay Area in California specifically suited to an initiative of this kind?
MK: The term ‘Asian American’ originated in the Bay Area when the Asian American Political Alliance was formed at University of California Berkeley in support of the Third World Liberation Front, an anti-war, anti-colonial student strike at San Francisco State College in 1968.
Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, was head of the Central Pacific Railroad company, which built the Transcontinental Railroad. A majority of labourers on that project were from China, and the railroad was a huge driver of Chinese immigration to the West Coast. Stanford University exists because of this entanglement with Asian America: the university was quite literally built with the capital extracted from these labourers.
Before the Transcontinental Railroad, it took more than a month to get across the country. That was reduced to just a few days on the railroad. It was a key moment within the modernization of the United States and its primary technology of settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession. These histories are not discrete. They open onto other histories of migration, displacement, labour and settler colonialism.
APA: We’re also part of this larger ecosystem in the Bay Area. You have places like the Asian Art Museum, Chinese Culture Center, Kearny Street Workshop and San Jose Museum of Art and other university museums like the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. We’re not the only people at the table: we are talking to colleagues who are also genuinely invested in this material and who are Asian American themselves.
LYZ: What’s next for AAAI?
APA: We’ll be continuing to build the collection for research, teaching and presentation. This is not a finite project in which we focus on Asian American art and history for the next five years, solve all the problems and then move on. This is a long-term undertaking to train future generations of curators and art historians. We hope to fundamentally change the identity of this institution. Whoever comes after us will be presented with a wealth of material and will continue to steward this work.
MK: You can't rush this work. We want to be intentional about how we’re moving forward. We’re still absorbing the various perspectives we learned about from ‘IMU UR2’, our inaugural convening in October, which brought together artists, curators and scholars – including Chitra Ganesh, Cathy Park Hong, Christine Y. Kim, Margo Machida and Catalina Ouyang – to reimagine the histories and futures of artists of Asian descent, and which raised questions around institutionalization and what artists need that is not possible within current institutional models. There is no single history of Asian American art. These multiple, contradictory histories are always in the process of being written, and will continue to be reinvented in the future.