Asian American Women Artist's Association
by Karin Higa
Several months ago, Flo Oy Wong invited me to attend a meeting of the Asian American Women Artists Association. I was excited by the prospect of participating in earnest discussion (and partaking of good home-made food) with a group that I had heard so much about. Since its founding in 1989, news of AAWAA's activities filtered into most discussions about Asian American arts activism. When I was involved in the beginnings of a group called Godzilla in New York - now nearly six years ago - bits of information about interesting Asian American women artists in Northern California who were meeting, strategizing, and supporting one another reached our ears as we were making our own plans in Brooklyn. A year or so later, on a visit to New York City, Betty Kano brought with her carousels of 35mm slides. On a cold winter's night, Betty shared the work of AAWAA members to a growing group of Godzilla-ites who had gathered in a cavernous space at a community college in lower Manhattan, the homes and studios of Godzilla artists becoming too small to accommodate the massive number of interested people.
When I moved to Los Angeles in early 1992, I heard even more about the supportive and exciting environment of AAWAA from people in other fields - like Asian American historian Valerie Matsumoto. Valerie told me about the camaraderie and commitment of the women in the group and shared her enthusiasm for the simultaneously fun and stimulating meetings. On another front, as I began to conduct research for an exhibition of art from the internment camps, I noticed that AAWAA took their mission of supporting Asian American women artists seriously and broadly, reaching out to women artists of an earlier generation like Hisako Hibi, an important painter of internment camp life. AAWAA recognized Hibi's continued aesthetic explorations, and saw in her a model of personal integrity and commitment to art that was crucial to support.
AAWAA's forays into exhibitions should not go without remark. They reflect both a commitment to the art itself, as well as administrative and organizational savvy. I remember the amazement at seeing an AAWAA exhibition held at the SOMAR gallery in 1993. It was obviously a tremendous undertaking, with countless visual artists and a live performance component. As a curator, I realized how difficult it was to organize something on such a large scale. But what really impressed me was that the art spoke of a greater spirit - a "heart" - that was as compelling as the diversity of its individual visions.
I chart my interactions with AAWAA not to emphasize my own peripheral link to the group. Rather, I do so to suggest the power, reach, and vitality of groups such as AAWAA, and how the existence of the collective can help so many others, sometimes without ever realizing it. The new slide packet represents another step in AAWAA's reach. After spending years supporting Asian American women in the group, AAWAA has turned its focus to education and outreach. The availability of the slide packet now contradicts the oft invoked excuse that there are no resources to help learn about Asian American women artists. From the Ancient Tagalog of Terry Acebo Davis, to Vanessa Ng's China Doll, with Bernice Bing's painted abstractions and Diane Tani's photographic manipulations as signposts along the way, the AAWAA slide packet surprises its user by the diversity and excitement of the many images. Thirty-two women*, from a range of Asian ethnicities, are included. Each image represents a single artist's vision; collectively they proclaim the presence of Asian American Women.
*Editor's Note: a selection of nine Asian American artists from the AAWAA slide project is featured in Women Artists of the American West.