The Asian Arts Initiative building at 12th and Vine in Philadelphia now has an indoor skate park.
The small, temporary collection of prefabricated ramps is part of “Unity at the Initiative,” an exhibition and community engagement collaboration by AAI and Jeffrey Cheung, an Oakland, California-based artist and skateboarder, open until May.
The walls of the skate room are wheat-pasted with original posters by Philadelphia artists of color who identify as queer and/or trans such as Moor Mother, Golden Collier, and Soliel Summer. The windows facing Vine Street are outfitted with several large video monitors screening original video art on a loop, which can be seen from the sidewalk. The building’s back room, facing the Pearl Street alley behind 1219 Vine, is a recreation of Cheung’s printmaking studio in Oakland, called Unity, densely arranged with posters of naked, intertwined figures coarsely drawn in Cheung’s signature style, flyers for queer skateboarding events, and protest signs with slogans like “Trans rights are human rights” and “QUEER TRANS POWER UNITY.” Visitors can view this “capsule” of printed ephemera through a window, without entering the building.
Limited numbers of visitors can enter the building, if they wish, to get close to the art. Skateboarders must make an appointment in advance to use the indoor skate park.
The exhibition has another participatory element: The public is invited to thumbtack or wheat-paste their own printed material to the walls in both the skate room and the print workshop capsule.
Cheung uses art and skateboarding to build community among trans and queer youth, organizing queer skateboarding events and maintaining a printmaking space where they can get their hands on art-making equipment.
AAI’s executive director Anne Ishii started working with Cheung in 2018 to organize a show that was supposed to be mostly about his paintings. Starting from the “active” in activism, Ishii’s team was working up an exhibition about how kinetic energy can be shown in visual art.
Around the time of the planned summer Olympics in Tokyo, Cheung would visit Philadelphia to host some of his queer skate days, where youth can get together to skate and socialize in a safe and judgment-free environment.
“It was really going to be a pretty traditional show, showcasing his skateboarding activism,” said Ishii. “The timing would be funny, right? A skate event with queer kids during the Olympics.”
But there is nothing funny about a pandemic. The global COVID-19 crisis changed AAI’s plans. Cheung’s paintings are no longer at the core of “Unity at the Initiative.” Instead, the exhibition has become a collective showcase featuring more than 25 artists from the Philadelphia region, in ways that actively engage their audience.
“I would love for us to do a traditional showcase of his paintings. I think that’s still on the table,” said Ishii. “We asked Jeff, ‘Do you want to postpone this show?’ He said it’s more important to engage artists right now so they have something to do.”
Thirty Philadelphia-based queer and trans artists of color are participating in “Unity,” including drag performer Icon Ebony Fierce, performer Wit López, painter Khari Johnson-Ricks, hip-hop artist Dwight Dunston, screen printer Felicia Blow, visual artist Marira Nakhoda, dancer Vitche-Boul Ra, choreographer Shanel Edwards, painter/sculptor Jeremiah Jordan, and poet/visual artist Malachi Lily. All of the artists were paid to contribute.
More artists are included in the take-home element of “Unity”: a care package. People can sign up to receive a box of art, including printed cards, posters, vinyl stickers, silkscreened handkerchiefs, a digital playlist of music, and handmade packets of heirloom seeds and herbal teas.
“When programming had to shift [away from in-person events], Anne brought up the idea of a care package, referencing this object that distributes aid and support in times of need,” said Connie Yu of the queer Asian art collective FORTUNE, one of AAI’s partners in this exhibition.
“It was Anne’s idea in the spring. The care package then was more like soap and sanitizer, things for general wellness,” said Yu. “When it became more of a community-oriented project involving small objects and made works, we got excited.”
FORTUNE started in 2019 as a print zine of writings and visual art by queer Asian artists, packaged to resemble a fortune cookie. Since then, it evolved into an events-based project, creating art spaces where queer Asian Americans can gather and build community together. Since the pandemic, FORTUNE has not been able to do that.
The care package is designed to connect people through the tactile experience of receiving something handmade in the mail.
“We feel like it’s an important way to continue to support our community when we can’t be together in person,” said Andrienne “Andra” Palchick, a co-founding member of FORTUNE. “To practice collective care even when we’re apart.”
Although anybody can experience “Unity at the Initiative,” much of the project is design to engage an audience of specifically queer people of color. Ishii said there are political efforts and social services in place that recognize queer people of color, but few places they can go to feel like a community.
“[Cheung] isn’t using skateboarding as an industry to promulgate queer rights. He is making sure his people get to experience it,” she said. “He’s shared it with so many young queer people, and it’s such an important part of his skating culture, to ride in teams and invite as many people along the way. Which is queer culture, to be inclusive and encourage people to come together.”
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