As you walk along the desolate stretch of Vine Street just east of Broad, Asian Arts Initiative’s three-story headquarters is by far the most inviting building in sight. Greeting you the moment you enter is self-taught street artist Jeff Cylkowski’s vibrant, trippy mural, which covers every inch of wall space along the corridor. Turn to your left, and you’ve stumbled onto what appears to be a beach in Southeast Asia, littered with all sorts of beautiful curiosities—black-and-white family photographs, an old suitcase, the jaw of a mysterious sea creature—with a layer of sand blanketing the concrete floor.
In reality, this is AAI’s gallery space, and these curiosities are just a few of the many multimedia elements of their current exhibition, Illuminate Me, a collaboration between the Philly-based artist collective Las Gallas, local musician Alex Shaw and members of the city’s growing Latino and Asian-American communities.
Last spring, Shaw and the Las Gallas artists—Julia Lopez, Magda Martinez and Michelle Ortiz—held a series of community workshops in which participants shared their personal stories of immigration and migration through a variety of art-making activities. These stories can now be seen captured and illuminated on the sides of lanterns, strung from the gallery’s ceiling amidst several original two-and three-dimensional pieces from the collective. On the other end of the gallery, hallowed out gourds containing tiny speakers create an oral-history soundscape.
“It invites viewers to look at Chinatown as a neighborhood literally through a different lens,” says AAI Executive Director Gayle Isa.
Illuminate Me is actually the kick-off of the center’s Neighborhood Spotlight Series, which will be bringing exhibits to unusual places throughout Asian-American communities in both Chinatown and South Philly. Carried out by AAI’s new Social Practice Lab and its seven artists-in-residence, the series will continue over the course of the next year, just as the organization celebrates its 20th anniversary.
Much of AAI’s success can be attributed to the acquisition and expansion of their multi-tenant arts facility.
While AAI occupies the entire first floor, the second floor is a labyrinth of office and studio spaces, including that of Art in Motion Latin dance studio and EgoPo Classic Theater. Helping guide you down the dark hallways are the quirky collaged light-boxes that are part of local photographer and current AAI artist-in-residence Colette Fu’s “Photo Binge” series. Make a few turns, and you’ve hit yet another gallery space with even more cool artwork on display—a provocative mixed-media group show titled Shut Your Trap!!
“We have been really excited and committed to serving as an anchor for what we hope can be positive development in this neighborhood,” Isa says. At the same time, with developers and young urbanites now flocking to the area, she adds that there’s “an increased need and desire to kind of claim this neighborhood as part of Chinatown as well.”
As for what AAI has in store leading up to their big milestone, next month, they’ll hold the annual Artist Exchange festival, featuring original and multi-disciplinary work from performers all over the country (Dec. 6-7). The following week, the center will host the annual National Performance Network/Visual Artists Network Meeting, with a corresponding exhibit showcasing the works of two local and two national artists who are part of the Visual Artists Network (Dec. 13-17).
Let’s just hope they can clear out all the sand by then.
Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St. 215.557.0455. asianartsinitiative.org
In Memoriam: Amiri Baraka