Museum combats hate with ‘An American Vocabulary’

Audrey Chan and Jason Chu’s “An American Vocabulary: Words to Action” is displayed on the outside of the Japanese American National Museum.

During the pandemic, the Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community experienced measurable increases in anti-Asian hate.

A report released by the California Department of Justice this year marked a 177.5% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes from 2020 to 2021 in California.

But Jason Chu was reluctant to describe the wave of anti-Asian sentiment as anything new, saying that those with ancestral remembrance know the AANHPI community has experienced other periods of increased discrimination. “What I would say is, since the pandemic, we’ve lost the illusion of past progress.”

Chu, a rapper, and Audrey Chan, a visual artist, are the creators behind the art piece “An American Vocabulary: Words to Action.” The project is part of a collaboration between the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy at the Japanese American National Museum and LA County’s Artists at Work initiative.

The prompt given to Chan and Chu was to address the uptick in discrimination against the Asian American community.

“For me, the context of anti-Asian hate is a very intimidating subject,” Chan said. “It’s very raw, it’s really personal, it’s shared as well. I found (this experience) necessary for me as a human being to have a place to process together and make something, if not positive, constructive.”

Chan said she and Chu had many collaborative discussions about how they could address the prompt while working to build solidarity in the AANHPI community.

“When Audrey and I were tasked with coming up with an artistic response to anti-Asian racism, my first thought was, ‘Let’s not accentuate the actions of those who are inflicting harm. Let’s build strength within the community,’” Chu explained.

The pair eventually settled on the concept of representing four words — ancestor, voice, persistence and care — using multilingual vocabulary cards in the multitude of languages the AANHPI community speaks. Each card has a visual component produced by Chan and a written component by Chu.

For each card, Chan chose images from AANHPI’s fight against anti-Asian hate and erasure. Examples of images include Bighat Singh Thind, the first Asian American to obtain U.S. citizenship; Queen Liliuokalani, the last Native Hawaiian monarch; and Connie Chunko, the head of AJSoCal, being arrested by LAPD at a protest on behalf of immigrant rights.

Chan said the most complex image to work on was one of the “Persistence” vocabulary cards that shows an image representing the 72 Thai garment workers rescued from a sweatshop in 1995 in El Monte. According to Chan, there were no photos of the workers, so she worked from crime scene images released after police evacuated the workers.

On the reverse side of each flashcard, there is a description of the photo and a poem written by Chu using that vocabulary word as a prompt.

“Who walked where we walk?

Who spoke what we heard?

Who lived the lives that led us to ours?

Those who went before,

Where we will one day go.”

• Jason Chu, “Ancestor” cards

Ann Burroughs, the president and CEO of JANM, said that she most appreciates the way “An American Vocabulary: Words to Action” highlights the diversity of the Asian American community and creates a shared identity.

“A shared vocabulary is such a powerful way of giving agency to the AANHPI community,” Burroughs said. “That agency is so critically important now, in this context of anti-Asian hate, and because there is such a deep need for coming together around issues of justice and healing.”

For both Chan and Chu, “An American Vocabulary: Words to Action” was a very personal project. Chan said one of her inspirations was her difficulties learning Mandarin, one of three Chinese dialects spoken in her family. Chan said she never made it past her own introductory set of flashcards.

Chu said he explored his own Asian American identity through his career as a hip-hop artist and rapper.

“Being mentored in a genre that is so explicit about racial identity, the challenges, and the strength that comes from knowing your racial identity, has driven me to use my Asian American identity in the same way that I see Black or Chicano hip-hop artists understanding Blackness or Latinx identity,” said Chu, who hopes the No. 1 thing audiences take away from looking at the vocabulary cards is that there are stories from the AANHPI community that people can draw inspiration, strength and beauty from.

To see “An American Vocabulary: Words to Action,” all one has to do is look at the outside of JANM, where enlarged versions of Chan and Chu’s flashcards are displayed on the exterior of the building. Visitors can also view a complete set of the cards inside the museum and on JANM’s website.