03 Dec Anida Yoeu Ali & Shin Yu Pai of Artist disTrust: They Said “It’s Not the Time” for Movement Work
Anida Yoeu Ali (AYA): The most painful part of the fight against AT was being questioned around the validity of our deliberation. I was asked to participate as part of the jury, but the weight of my professionalism and the expertise I brought to the table was never taken seriously. It felt like a diversity selection because I checked off a lot of boxes for them. They checked off that I represented Tacoma. That I’m an AAPI woman and that I’m a mid-career performance artist. When they decided to overhaul our decision without giving due respect to holding any initial conversations with us…well…that communicated a lack of respect for everything that I am as a professional artist with an international reputation.
Shin Yu Pai (SP): You were scapegoated for the failure of process. As an AAPI woman, I felt the weight of that responsibility. It was also very personally painful to hear one of the finalist’s reaction to being verbally attacked, behind her back, by the program officer, who fabricated a story about her planned use of the funds. It was very emotionally unsettling. It was a coincidence that both artists which we recommended for awards have strong ties to Asia. I have no doubt that they have been here long enough to experience racism, tokenism, and bias. But to some degree, they may also experience an identity that lives outside of these indignities. They remain women who grew up outside of the U.S. who have a larger global context and perspective. With the events that transpired, I felt like I was seeing a dark reminder of difference. Watching things unfold, there was a feeling to me of the gross suspicion and animosity that exists towards Asian women. We were each being reminded of how we weren’t good enough, or how easy it is to silence us. That lies and fantasy could be projected onto us.
AYA: Part of our strategy with Artist disTrust included having lots of private conversations with people we felt were stakeholders in the arts community. There was a moment when the both of us reached out to an elder in our community who told us “it’s not our time” to make this moment about movement work. She did not see what we saw as a racialized incident. The person told us not to make this about a racist Asian element. That was really painful. And I was told that by others I had confided in. Apparently because the current political moment (with national uprisings including Seattle’s own CHAZ occupation) centered Black Lives and other cultural uprisings centering BIPOC folks, some people felt it was not the time to specifically highlight Asians – a kind of exclusion of Asians from BIPOC struggles. These were smart people who are fighters, who have a history of engaging in this capacity, who said these words to us. There’s a fear – that if we do this; if we center anti-Asian bias, then we center ourselves when the spotlight should be on BIPOC struggles more generally. But it’s such problematic thinking. Because the spotlight isn’t narrowly focused; it can be bigger. First, there’s a false belief that Asian folks can’t be BIPOC. Then there’s a false belief that only one oppressed peoples can take the spotlight at a time. Finally, why wasn’t it automatically clear that the injustice we were speaking out on absolutely aligned with BIPOC issues, and especially with other call outs against museums and cultural institutions dealing with these exact racist and white supremacist policies?
And then the kicker is that in the middle of the whole campaign, some people saw us as the elders! There were people who we thought were our peers and who were slightly younger than us, who felt our activism now gave us elder status.
SP: Early on as we gathered signatures and support for the campaign, we were contacted by a community leader who warned us that one of the signatories of the letter had been accused of sexual violence and harassment. As the campaign continued, we were asked by this younger community leader to convene a support group for sexual assault survivors because we were all AAPI and something should be done. This community leader called us “elders.”
I think of the AAPI elders in this town as people like Marcia Iwasaki, Mayumi Tsutakawa, Kathy Hsieh — public-facing professionals with much longer professional careers, who have worked specifically in public service and have the voices and platforms to have the authority to be heard when they speak. Women in positions of public power. I felt very angry about being put in that position. To be clear – this is not about the vanity or perception of being called “old”, i.e. elder. This was about being asked by a young AAPI public servant who was in a position of power, that I do not have, to do something about something I literally knew nothing about. I was already deeply consumed in fighting one battle that I could not win alone. And in the midst of this, to be called upon by another AAPI community member to support survivors and to do something about that situation felt particularly overwhelming and misdirected. It presumed that I did not have my own complicated history to a particular kind of violence and trauma, or that I could maintain sufficient neutrality to hold space for others, putting aside my own needs for self-care and necessary boundaries.
Throughout our experiences, I felt that instead of having healthy mirrors, I was often directed towards self-erasure and self-gaslighting. I learned who my friends are. As a community member, I’ve supported many fundraisers, campaigns, initiatives, and projects by my community. There were individuals who did not sign the letter, despite knowing the full details and context of what happened. There were people who defended the professional reputation of the AT staff member who caused the uproar. There were people who were caught up in their own busyness and couldn’t be bothered to add their name. I was disappointed in this inaction and single-issue activists.
AYA: Yet the most rewarding part of the fight was not fighting it alone. I moved to Tacoma in 2016 and didn’t know my exact place in this community. Through this process, I felt renewed with a sense that I am meant to be here. I do have colleagues. I do have friends. And I do have random strangers who will pick up the fight. I am part of something here. I definitely couldn’t have done this alone. It would not have been healthy. I didn’t have the mind-space during the pandemic and lockdown. There had to be a few people helping to pull the campaign together and leveraging the rest of the community to come on board. It’s given me a stronger sense of the community that we’re trying to cultivate in the Pacific Northwest.
SP: It was very important for me to fight this battle in solidarity with and for Asian women. Years ago, I knew you in Chicago, when I was a grad student in art school and you were a slam poet doing work in the local community. My professor at the Art Institute of Chicago introduced us and sowed seeds of competition and animosity between us through telling a lie. You didn’t remember knowing me in Chicago, but I carried a false narrative about who you were for two decades. Working together was a way to clear those misunderstandings and misperceptions and to come together as Asian women and artists to advocate for ourselves and for other AAPI artists. We refused to accept what was unacceptable. We insisted on our integrity and being seen.
AYA: The lies that were told throughout the process were so insidious. The whole thing speaks to much larger issues around race and gender. And how systemic and prevalent these issues are, and it makes me think about how many of them go unnoticed and unchallenged. When we finally figured out what had been communicated from the program director to the board – it was a relief to learn because it was a lie; a blatant big lie. Knowing this, we could easily debunk it as disinformation. An element throughout this whole thing was not being able to fully say or say loudly enough to be heard that there was something racialized and gendered around being an Asian American woman in this process. No one wanted to acknowledge it. There was no space for this mirror or truth to be shone. It’s reflective of the model minority myth and how this image of Asians continues to operate and damage so many of us. In this contemporary moment, we are still beholden to ideas rooted in this myth, an orientalism; how we are immediately othered causing this damage to reputation. The AT folks that held power in this situation did not feel that we would speak up or speak out. It didn’t cross their minds that we’d be so enraged by this, or so emboldened by our truth to do something. They had no idea that we’d be able to topple the institution. But this is what happens when you operate in this insidious manner.
At some point, the deliberation in the jury room got heated. The truth is most juries get heated. I was standing up for artists I believed in and for my own opinions. I don’t think I was saying it in an aggressive way. But even if I was, it didn’t matter. Stereotypes operated to undermine our very existence and humanity. Somehow and at some moment, I believe stereotypes operated that allowed someone to react by saying they were bullied by us. At some point, the image of this passive docile smart Asian American woman transformed into a troublesome dragon lady that was just going to claw someone’s eyes out. That’s how it operated in the jury room, as witnessed by the program director and the fifth juror that Karen’ed the situation.
SP: AAPI women are perceived as model minorities. We are token POC. The term BIPOC doesn’t even include us. Our presence allows organizations to tick off the racial diversity box, but we are often seen as white-adjacent and white-allied. When I lived in the South, this was never more apparent. Being Asian in a binary world of black and white, people do not perceive that the AAPI experience exists on its own outside of that. When AAPI women are outspoken, we are seen as dragon ladies, tiger mothers – negative stereotypes devoid of vulnerability and the strength that is inherent to feminine wisdom. We are not permitted to be whole or human; just caricatures of what culture and patriarchy projects onto us. In this way, it is very hard to be seen for who we are, for our own legacies and histories of trauma. It troubled me that it seemed unacceptable to AT staff and board that AAPI women jurors recommend AAPI women for awards.
AYA: That should have never been in question. Why was this never leveraged when white men picked only white men, for decades to win awards? This is where it gets twisted. So when the winners happened to be Asian, it was assumed we were biased automatically? There are over 3 billion people who are Asians. So I have a bias in favor of half the world’s population? If there’s an Asian in the mix, it’s my kin? My skin? We were constantly othered in this process. Good enough to be selected as jurors but not good enough to make the deliberations. Once the subject, such as us, decides to speak and make what each of us thought were fair and thoughtful, consensus driven choices there was suddenly an air of suspicion, mainly pushed forth by the program director and I suspect the ED and board believed it. It’s a false assumption deeply rooted in racist ideology. I didn’t go into this room thinking I was only going to vote for AAPIs or AAPI women and plus, the two of us were not the only people in the room with a say. There were three other jurors who narrowed down the applicants and who helped to select the finalists. And in fact, because I’m so hyper aware of the biases that could be placed upon me, I was even harder on my fellow AAPIs. Folks don’t realize that the Asians didn’t get a free pass.
SP: Asian people are not seen by whites or POC as being people of color, or being underrepresented, or as being deserving of opportunity. In this way, Asians are easy to dismiss. We seem to enjoy the privileges of having been at the table, but we don’t deserve to eat. We’re subjugated to making the meal in the kitchen, which was caught by slave labor on Asian fishing boats. We get to look into the spaces where decisions are made, but we aren’t allowed to participate. That would make us fully human and then it would be impossible to infantilize us as women. Why is it so difficult for racial critiques made by Asians about racism and misogyny hard to hear?
AYA: Because apparently, it’s never our time. That’s what needs to be noted in this particular situation. It is never the time, under white supremacy, for Asians to ever speak up. We are supposed to accept that this is how things work and that we should be grateful for what is given. Because we haven’t suffered enough. In the Oppression Olympics, it’s believed that we haven’t suffered enough. It erases entire histories that are in alignment with and have experienced racial prejudice and oppression. If not now, then when? In this moment, so much is being centered, and rightfully so, on BIPOC, but there is still an exclusion of Asians. There is a questioning of whether AAPIs are even considered POC. There are so many conversations that have to happen laterally in our own communities to own the ways in which we are part of the movement.
SP: Asian women are expected to be quiet, obedient, calm, and accommodating. We are not expected to rock the boat, to have strong opinions, or to have a feminist critique. Neo Nazis and the far right embrace AAPI women like Tila Tequila because we’re “cute” and we’re not white feminists. There are double and triple binds that prevent us from being seen or heard – and it starts with how we look, the bodies that we inhabit. The perception of foreignness and therefore, eternal outsiders. These experiences make me hesitate to be vulnerable in my work.
AYA: A lot of my performance work uses vulnerability. I use it to provoke. I’m always willing to go there. But in an activist context — that’s a hard one — you are supposed to remove emotionality as part of objective professionalism when you are on a jury, or writing a grant. When you are working through the other parts of being part of the arts industry, if you show your emotionality – for people of color it will always blow up in your face. This is where biases come into play and shape and flatten us, yet again. Then we are seen in a multitude of ways — as the fragile lotus blossom to the fire-breathing dragon lady. As women of color, we are all keenly aware of the ways in which our emotionality is not allowed as part of our experience. Vulnerability is used against us to make it about not being professional enough.
SP: You have said that standing up against Artist Trust could have lasting impacts on your ability to apply for funding in this region and to build relationships with creative collaborators and the local community. What made you speak out? What was at stake for you?
AYA: It’s very rare for a jury to be dismissed in the manner that we were. Having been on as many panels as I have, it meant it was pretty grave – whatever caused that overhaul. I had the truth on my side. It needed to come out. It was wrong. There are few moments in one’s life when you feel so strongly about something that affects the lives of other people. For me it was about justice, putting my truth out there. And in doing so, my reputation is going to be stronger as a result. The easier route would have been to nod our heads and to say “thank you” or “oh well, at least we tried.” No way. Not for the measly amount of money they paid us and the endless hours that we gave them. There was no other option because they were wrong and unjust. It was a top-down power play and unacceptable.
SP: I think a lot about leadership as being inseparable from who I am. It is holistic and cannot be separated or compartmentalized as just another skill to be deployed. We are each of us all leaders at every time. I lead when I mother my son. I lead when I collaborate with my partner. What does leadership mean to you personally — and how does that express itself in your life?
AYA: I’ve been a leader all my life. I have created many spaces and organizations especially when they didn’t already exist. Particularly for women. AAPI women. I create those spaces so that there’s a place where those stories, marginalized voices, can go. This has been my life’s work, in Chicago and internationally. Leadership is a natural extension of myself because I am keenly aware of my privilege as someone who has been educated and politicized. Do you know that famous quote about, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it”? Leadership is having the courage to simply stand up for voices, stories, and people that don’t have the ability to do so.
SP: Standing up for what’s right and helping others who may not have the privilege of voice, by clearing a path so that they can be heard and seen. Leadership is inclusive and considers the human aspects and impacts of words and actions. Leadership means being your best self, and using that best self to engage with others, so that their own best selves can rise to the fore. Leadership is not “interpreting policy” – it’s evaluating and assessing what is and isn’t working and then burning down policy to reinvent in a co-creative context what is relevant and what will endure. It’s going the extra mile to do better, listen more deeply, and to be responsive to others, even as that means evolving and changing in one’s own behaviors and patterns of what’s not efficient or useful or equitable. Changes have been made to AT’s leadership structure, and there is talk of the organization adopting a more equitable shared leadership model. Now that we’re on the other side of things, do you feel a sense of closure?
AYA: Getting paid by Artist Trust for the hundreds of hours of work we did will give me closure. But as you know, they haven’t properly compensated any of the campaign co-leaders. It’s going to take time. They’ve lost my trust. I won’t be doing anything with them for some time. Not even applying to their grants. If they truly are going to reflect any kind of change, they need to constantly communicate and be transparent to their constituents. It should include the artists that brought up these charges and brought the fight. Just because we aren’t raging anymore doesn’t mean we should be dismissed from the conversation.
SP: Is there anything that you’d like to say to the current staff, former staff, current board, or community that has not been covered by other conversations with the media?
AYA: When we took up this fight, we thought it was only going to be about the deliberations and the awards. We unraveled a history of a toxic work environment that so many people were afraid to speak about the stories. A lot of it centered on sexual misconduct and harassment, which are very difficult to talk about. The former staff were very brave in coming forward, and they are part of what brought about much needed change to the organization. As much as we led the fight, we could not have done it without them or anyone of the people that spoke to us confidentially. For every piece of evidence that we stumbled upon that had a name attached to it, there were so many more that could not come forward with their names. I will remember those stories and their truths forever. Their work is not done until those narratives are honored.
SP: The former staff were tremendously courageous – in coming forward with their stories and participating in institutional investigations. I want to say to them that they are already living their bright futures and to remind them that when they were faced with the opportunity to lead, that they stepped up and led. There are repercussions to reputation and professional prospects, but you will be remembered for being on the side of truth. As we emerge from this long battle, what’s next for you, Anida? Do you have plans to take down more institutions?
AYA: White supremacy! With the pandemic and everything – people have heard me say that I’m going internal for a while. It’s been a brutal year for me and my family. As someone who usually embraces the spotlight — it has been exhausting. We’re under a global pandemic. We’re dealing with a fascist government and an explosion of uprisings that are trying to bring about racial justice. All of this has been completely exhausting. I need to rest and be with my family, regroup my thoughts, and find healing. I’m going through my second Saturn returns. It’s a moment where the universe is screaming at me to go inside. Let others pick up the fight.
SP: I’m arming others with knowledge. I’m working with Tualatin Valley Creates as a faculty member in their arts incubator program to develop, mentor, and train POC artists and will also be doing a series of talks on professional practice for Vermont College of Fine Arts in Spring 2021. Artist Trust has released an RFP for a consultant to audit their institutional workings. I don’t have any plans to apply for their grants, but I’m thinking about applying for that RFP.