NYC public art calls out anti-Asian racism

Riders that enter a bustling Brooklyn, New York, subway station will come across brightly colored portraits with bold phrases aimed at calling out anti-Asian racism.

The art displays are part of “I Still Believe in Our City,” a public awareness campaign featuring Asian and Pacific Islander New Yorkers, which first appeared at the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center subway station but now appears throughout New York City.

The posters, created by Brooklyn-based artist and neuroscientist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, contain messages such as, "We belong here," and, "I am not your scapegoat." They push against the idea of people of Asian descent being treated as a foreigner or being blamed for Covid-19.

Posters were created to send a message that despite the hardships and discrimination Asian American New Yorkers have faced, they are still here and fighting for a city they call home.

The posters went up last fall but have been gaining new attention and traction online with anti-Asian hate crimes having increased nearly 150 percent nationwide last year, while the general hate crime rate has decreased.

The idea for the project began on Phingbodhipakkiya's first few days as an artist-in-residence with the NYC Commission on Human Rights last August. She and a commissioner were on a walk at Prospect Park brainstorming projects to work on. Phingbodhipakkiya said she was thinking about Chinatown and how the stigma had been hurting business in the neighborhood, even before the city went into lockdown last March.

Public art series "I Still Believe in Our City" can be seen at bus stops throughout New York City. Courtesy MK Luff

She suggested creating art that would highlight the voices and issues of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Her portraits were then strategically placed where bias incidents against the community had occurred.

"It was absolutely a gut punch when I looked at the statistics and it was literally almost every single neighborhood, which is why you see the art everywhere," she said.

"It was absolutely a gut punch when I looked at the statistics and it was literally almost every single neighborhood, which is why you see the art everywhere," she said.

Phingbodhipakkiya said a wave of emotions hit her when she came across the video of Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thai American man who was shoved to the ground in January and later died from his injuries.

The artist grew up in a blended household with a Thai father and an Indonesian mother, so when she saw the video, she said she couldn't help but think that could be her dad and what would happen to him if he was targeted.

Phingbodhipakkiya also believes it's important to understand this violence doesn't come out of no where.

"There has been a long history of anti-Asian racism in this country. From laborers being labeled as 'yellow peril' to many other laws and incidents along the course of history," she said. "Whether it's barring Chinese people from coming into the country or putting Japanese Americans into internment camps, there has just been a long history of 'othering.' That shows up as microaggressions."

During the 19th century, increased anti-Chinese sentiment resulted in the singling out of Chinese Americans through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law prohibited most Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens and limited the Chinese population in the United States. During World War II, approximately 120,000 people in the U.S. that were of Japanese descent were placed in internment camps along the West Coast.

Phingbodhipakkiya said she believes the beauty of public art is that people can take from it what they see. As the art series expands into an installation in the city’s financial district and continues to include portraits of Black people as a sign of “standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement,” the artist hopes it raises awareness of the anti-Asian biases that go on in her community.

"I think anyone that passes by, whether it's an ally or an Asian American, can either acknowledge that racism against Asian Americans is real," she said. "And to say that, despite everything that we have endured, despite everything that has happened to us, we are still here and we will continue to fight for our shared future."

In New York City, if you face harassment or discrimination in housing, at work or in a public place, contact the Commission on Human Rights by filling out its online form or by calling 212-416-0197. If you are a victim of or witness a hate crime, call 911. Source: NBC