The Asian Arts Initiative was formed in 1993 as a way to address racial tensions between Philadelphia’s Asian-American and African-American communities. Twenty years later, the organization continues to combine its community-outreach mission with support for art that addresses cultural identity. With “Participate,” a new exhibition opening this weekend, AAI takes the opportunity to look back at the last two decades of its own history and its impact on the Asian-American experience.
“We’ve been fortunate to be able to simultaneously focus on the telling of stories of Asian-Americans and also find ways to broker dialogue, connections and relationships among community members of different racial backgrounds,” says AAI executive director Gayle Isa.
Originally housed at the Painted Bride Art Center, AAI has now settled on Vine Street in Chinatown North (after its longtime home was demolished to make way for the expansion of the Philadelphia Convention Center in 2008). It has since included the immediate neighborhood as a primary focus; last year it hosted the “Pearl Street Block Party,” a festival intended to encourage the clean-up and transformation of the trash-strewn alleyway behind its building.
“Participate” is a three-part exhibition. AAI issued an open call to a variety of artists asking, “’How would you define the Asian-American experience?’” Isa says. “I feel like it’s a very common question for Asian-Americans who are grappling with our identity. So there’s going to be 20 different artists with a range of perspectives in response to that broad question of what being Asian-American means.”
The second piece of the show is a visual timeline recounting the organization’s history, with staff, volunteers and visitors asked to contribute personal artifacts representing their memories of AAI. “We hope that part will continue to grow and evolve over the course of the exhibition,” Isa says. “Hopefully it’s a way for people to contribute to the telling of our history as an organization and of our involvement with the community.”
That community involvement is at the core of the third piece of the exhibition, which features a series of curated public programs based around the concept of “welcome.” It emphasizes the AAI’s day-to-day experience with locals and visitors, and is key to what Isa sees as its future. “We hope to preserve and promote interaction and vibrancy in the community and be a hub for and reflection of the kind of diversity that we want to see in our neighborhood.”
Participate: Asian Arts Initiative’s 20th Anniversary Exhibition
Feb. 7-May 23
Asian Arts Initiative
1219 Vine St.