The bi-costal creative using art to build, organize, and grow community
hometown: Bay Area, CA
current location: Washington D.C. & Los Angeles
personal mission: use art and collaboration to help us critically understand ourselves and our world
big questions: What sustains community? What helps community grow? And what are the things that keep community from reaching its full potential?
What made you want to go into a community approach with your art?
The vast majority of the work I do is centered around community organizing. When I started making art, it was a solitary process. Even though it wasn’t community organizing that inspired me to go into art, it was definitely art that inspired me to go into community organizing.
Going into my adulthood, my art was taking me in a lot of different places but it was still about me. I felt there was something more I could talk about than just myself and my own self-expression.
It was finding a poetry community and recognizing my creative process was richer when it was in concert with other people. And from there, finding a community and then thinking deeply about the questions we ask ourselves about contributing to our communities.
How does your current colonization research align with your work at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center?
My international travel began when I started working at the Smithsonian. And it was these two things: one was working at the Smithsonian, which is this place that’s supposed to depict the national story of the United States, and then traveling to all these countries that have been deeply affected by American intervention, whether through military or culture. It’s important to recognize the Smithsonian’s collection was founded on objects taken from the Wilkes Expedition, the big campaign to put America on the world stage.
When I think about colonialism and how it affects the way I live my life and the people I care about live their lives, it’s actually deeply connected with the work we do at the Smithsonian.
I think about what it means to work at a place where a lot of American colonialism, at least symbolically began. But at the same time how to really critically investigate it, challenge it, and how to think about ways to claim our own narratives within the context.
How did the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Elevator Pitch exhibition come about?
I worked with Christine Sun Kim, New Orleans AirLift, and the sound artist, Rick Snow, to put together a sculpture that makes sound to resonate, not only with hearing communities, but also Deaf communities. We talked to different people in the Deaf community and got an understanding of how sound plays a role in their lives. This sculpture is meant to help people in hearing communities understand that sound exists beyond hearing.
The sculpture takes the form of an elevator — Christine has this childhood memory of going to elevators with friends and shouting at the top of her lungs so they could feel each other’s vibrations. The elevator pitch has a series of buttons with recorded shouts of people from the South East Louisiana Deaf community. When you push the button, a big shout emits and rattles the walls and the floor. It simulates an exaggerated version of the theme.
Working with a bunch of artists has exposed me to a bunch of mediums and approaches; it’s also exposed me to different states of being I otherwise would feel like I couldn’t relate to.
How is it being a curator and an artist?
There’s a lot of similarities between curating and being an artist. It’s still deeply creative but when it comes to curating art there is no way to do it alone. I like the fact that collaboration is baked into the state of being an art based and community based curator. What I enjoy about being a curator that I wasn’t able to enjoy as an artist is the fact that as a curator I get to work with artists and culture bearers from so many different practices and walks of life, that are way beyond my own talent or practice. It’s really that human interaction towards making something that I really enjoy about the creative process.
Why is it important to create your own narrative?
It’s important to recognize our stories are deeply affected by everyone else — it’s also deeply affected by what we expose ourselves to. The internet has given us an amazing window into many different threads that can influence our ways of thinking, but at the same time it’s also created a scenario in which it’s very easy for a single narrative to drive public opinion. We have this opportunity to either all think alike, or to embrace the diverse ways our minds can interpret the world.
Understanding your narrative means doing research beyond the bits of information or opinions that immediately come your way and constantly challenging your belief systems.
For me growing up within communities of activism and art I had assumed because I’m in progressive and artistic circles, by default I think differently from everybody else. But in actuality there are even threads many artists and activists end up subscribing to, and it’s important to challenge those as well.
What are you working on next?
I recently released a book called the Color Curtain Project with a group of collaborators and artists based in Washington D.C. and New York. It came out of this idea of wanting to think about Afro-Asian dynamics beyond the kinds of narratives people our age grew up with. Growing up in California, I was always around many different groups of people of color but around the time I started thinking critically about race, was also around the time of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising. That moment and all its political, social, and media responses colored my understanding of Afro-Asian conflict and solidarity.
The Color Curtain Project is initially based on the 1955 Bandung Conference that brought together leaders from Asian and African countries that recently claimed independence — the goal was to come up with new methodologies for existing in a global society that didn’t rely on the tenants of colonization. Even though some people feel like the conference failed because it didn’t continue much further after that, there’s still effects of that conference that range from different nuclear policies to other kinds of country relationships that have developed.
Adriel Luis is part of enso’s Shared Mission Network: a community of cross-disciplinary leaders, experts and makers who collaborate to generate impactful solutions for the world. See enso.co/network
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