Despite having been in the area numerous times for Reading Terminal Market, I’d never seen the gallery before. It’s a short, unassuming building next to a highway and an alleyway. The only branding is on its green awning, and it’s in plain, white sans-serif font: Asian Arts Initiative. It’s one of the most unpretentious art spaces I’ve ever seen. And as someone who often conflates quality with pretension, I probably I wouldn’t have entered if I wasn’t on a class trip.
We were there for the opening reception of the New Asian Futurisms exhibit, featuring works by Saks Afridi, Melissa Chen, Amir-Behan Jahanbin, JiSoo Lee, Firoz Mahmud, Leeroy New, Eva Wǒ and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (in collaboration with CounterPulse Theater). Its mission, according to the Asian Arts Initiative website, is to “inspire us to look forward to looking forward” as well as utilizing “a new futurism to create a narrative of hope.” As a cynic and an Asian American woman, I recoiled: I had to emerge from this experience not only having seen myself in the art, but also having felt hopeful about the future.
With the highest expectations, I went inside the building. Asian Arts Initiative is an accessible venue: the floor is level throughout the space, and there are non-gendered and individually isolating restrooms. Despite the place’s open-plan design, I’m equally embarrassed and proud that the first display that I decided to access was the long table of pastries next to the exhibition’s entrance. It had been such a long time since I had that kind of bread — paper-lined sponge cake found in every Chinese bakery — and so I immediately gravitated towards the food. Peeling the sponge away from the wrapper and walking through a congested aisle reminded me of the way I used to walk through Asian supermarkets as a child. Instead of Lotte snacks and Yakult, however, I was browsing video projections, latex aprons, and brass artifacts. Looking at futuristic artwork while eating familiar pastries was an inexplicably healing experience, as if it was my way of reconciling my childhood with a future. I decided I could look forward to looking forward. I still wasn’t feeling that hopeful though.
Just as I started to descend into a pit of pessimism, I discovered JiSoo Lee’s “Origin.” I lingered the longest here, staring at the traditional painting made with acrylic paint. The woman in the foreground has a high ponytail that wraps around her torso, and there’s a moon-like shadow stalking her. Korean scripture downpours over her like torrential rain. Though I couldn’t understand the scripture, I could read the Korean lettering, and it felt like a private message for only me. The woman’s gaze kept pulling me back to that spot. I stopped eating my bread as a result of my fascination. As I took a picture of her, I could see my reflection in the black canvas, and I became hyper-aware of my own body. I’m Korean American — did I look like that? Could I ever look like that?
Inspired by her performativity, I announced to my classmates that I saw something gory and I needed to see it. That gory spectacle was the collaborative, multimedia project of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and CounterPulse Theater: “Tomorrow We Inherit The Earth: The Queer Intifada.” It was chilling in the most satisfying way, like standing as close to the edge of the train platform as possible and feeling the train barrel away. Brown and Black performers inherited their power in this Muslim-centered tomorrow. With eyeliner that stretched past the actors’ temples, clothing that read “TERRORIST MONSTER,” and white overalls and horse masks sets, the spectacle was exceedingly queer, subversive, and charged. As I stood watching the performance, my initial discomfort dissipated into admiration for its bravery, and I felt hopeful for my own fearlessness.
The gallery started to get more crowded as more people trickled in. I think I studied the attendees as intently as I studied the artwork. I was sporadically glancing at the person next to me as we watched a screen side-by-side. I loved seeing the bartender wearing a leaf hat on her head like the Japanese animated character Totoro, as well as the myriad of women with shaved sides and eyebrow piercings. I felt like a child again, staring unabashedly at strangers. Looking at these individuals, I realized that at its core, New Asian Futurisms allows visitors to be hopeful in their own personal futures, not the upcoming entirety of existence.
Asians and Asian Americans are at the base of this exhibit, but it is not about ethnicity. Visitors take what they can from it. The show does not perform race: it would be remiss to try to say that these pieces define Asian American art or vice versa. I took a piece of bread, and with it, a trip back to my past that allowed me to see my Asianness being represented in my future.
Riding the SEPTA back to Swarthmore felt symbolic — I was sitting in one of the seats that faced the back of the train. I was looking at an old landscape, but I knew I was moving forward.
The exhibition is open now until December 6, 2019, Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.