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Regional Interests

Asian American Artists Light Up Buildings With Guerilla Messages of Solidarity

A new project led by Bay Area artist Christy Chan is turning beams of light into monumental statements of strength and resistance. Dear America, launched in late May, projects the work of Asian American artists onto high-rise buildings throughout the region, with messages in English and eight different Asian languages. It’s a direct answer to the national increase in anti-Asian hate incidents and violence, and a way of asserting and bestowing a sense of belonging—whether officially sanctioned or not.

“Asian Americans have been in the U.S. since the 1800s,” Chan says in a press release about the project. “In sharp contrast to the false notion that Asian Americans are a people whose belonging in America must be granted to them by non-Asian Americans, this project is about Asian Americans unapologetically taking up space, celebrating each other’s presence, and not asking permission to do so.”

In 2019, Chan created the video projection Inside Out, a public art piece funded by the city of Richmond that was censored by the city’s arts and culture commission. Chan spent months collecting phrases from Richmond residents for inclusion in the artwork, but the city barred the display of submissions critical of then-President Trump and his administration’s policies. In protest of the decision, Chan included those phrases anyway, with conspicuous red bars across the words.

Dear America has no such limitations. The highly mobile project, supported by community donations and partnerships with the Mills College Art Museum and the organization Stand With Asian Americans, creates images anywhere between four and 15 stories tall. Dear America made its first appearance outside the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum in San Francisco. So far, 17 different artworks have been featured in the project, created by artists Cathy Lu, Christine Wong Yap, Christy Chan, Jenifer K Wofford, Mel Chin and For Freedoms, and Related Tactics. More are to come.

Cathy Lu’s “We Are One Family” for ‘Dear America,’ 2021. (Elena Buenrostro)

On July 2, the message “Dear America, Fix Your Racism” will light up the Downtown Oakland and Lake Merritt areas. For Chan, it’s important to link this project not just to recent events, but to the unfulfilled promises of American independence. “This violence didn’t begin with Trump,” she says. “It began centuries ago and has been preserved by passive attitudes about the long-running, broad effects of white supremacy culture.”

Additional projections are scheduled for July 15 in downtown San Francisco; July 18 at California and Taylor Streets (a sanctioned partnership with Grace Cathedral); July 25 in downtown San Jose; and Aug. 12 at the Montalvo Art Center. Exact addresses for each night’s display can be found by answering questions about Asian American history posed on the Dear America Instagram account.

Even if viewed without knowledge of its ongoing context, Dear America’s urgent and renegade attitude shines through, slyly coopting previously apolitical buildings into its cause. “We all have the power to speak against inequality,” Chan says, “right here in our backyard.”

Copyright 2021 KQED