Each May, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is celebrated in the United States, recognizing the many contributions the peoples of Asia and the Pacific Islands have made to the richness of our cultural, historical, and social fabric. Art and artistic traditions from Asia and the Pacific deserve particular attention given how these cultures have left an indelible mark on our shared human experience, both then and now.
Although we can’t explore the full depths of Asian American and Pacific Islander history and culture in this journal alone, we invite you to join us as we explore the origins of AAPI Heritage Month, how Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue to impact and influence art and culture, and browse resources to help better put AAPI history into its proper context. Whether you're celebrating for the first time, or have been part of the community many times over, we look forward to you joining this moment of celebration and learning.
The History of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
Commemorating Asian and Pacific Islander heritage began in the latter part of the 20th century, as peoples from that part of the world became more visibly present in a number of countries. In the United States, May was selected to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander heritage because of two important historical developments: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, primarily built using Chinese labor.
While the first Asians in the Americas were believed to have arrived in the late 16th century, Asians and Pacific Islanders have since contributed immensely to the history of the United States. From Larry Itliong and the Filipino farm workers of the Delano grape strike, to the Japanese soldiers of World War II fighting in the most decorated 442nd Infantry Regiment, to the Indians who've fought for equal citizenship rights and the many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have made inroads into politics, sports, business, and the arts, it became clear that there needed to be a time to commemorate their impact.
The push to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander heritage in the United States only began in 1977, after the country’s bicentennial celebrations. First celebrated as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week in 1979, where the first ten days of May was designated as a period of celebration for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States, AAPI Heritage Month in its current form was celebrated for the first time in 1991.
In addition to the United States, Canada started its own celebration of Asian heritage and the contributions of Asian Canadians in the 1990s, and Canada's Asian Heritage Month was officially designated in May 2002. In the United Kingdom, South Asian Heritage Month was first celebrated in July 2019, recognizing the deep cultural ties that link the UK and South Asia, while in New Zealand, a country with large numbers of Pacific Islanders, there are language weeks for these groups throughout the year, including for Maori, Samoan, the Cook Islands and Tongan, celebrating the heritage of those peoples and their contributions to the formation of modern New Zealand.
Celebrating Art in the AAPI Community
Art in all its forms is a central element of Asian American and Pacific Islander culture, and we connected with a number of organizations their thoughts on how art is a source of joy, strength and inspiration for AAPI communities throughout the United States.
“This year has borne witness to a historical moment where many people across different communities came together under movements like #StopAAPIHate. I hope to see this unity continue, through art, hashtags, and moreover the voices and minds of every person,” notes Sophia Lai, who chairs Asian Sisters Participating in Reaching Excellence (ASPIRE), a group dedicated to building a community of Asian American women leaders. She says that art can be misused or weaponized, or, it can inspire and heal, and that she hopes these lead us into a more connected, yet authentic, world. “These trends uplift those who have been afraid to speak out, that they recognize their strengths and value, intrinsic to themselves instead of what others tell them.”
Andy Lowe, Director of Production at East West Players, the first Asian American theater group in the United States, emphasizes meanwhile the value of narrative. “Narrative has been the number one weapon leveraged against Asian Americans throughout American History... Narratives that divide us and pit us against other communities, narratives that affect perception, disempower, and other us.” Remarking further on how narratives matter, he drives the point that narrative is “the difference between monolithic indistinguishable horde, and a human life. The more we are able to own our own narrative the more we will feel REAL effects of inclusion. Stories provide inspiration, role models, catharsis, share empathy, and generate confidence in how we take ownership of our place in this society.”
Creators, Exhibits, Collections, and More
The Internet has aided in spreading further awareness of art by Asians and Pacific Islanders, and this is evident in the many projects, exhibits, and initiatives that use art as a means of expressing the many hopes and dreams of artists from various AAPI communities.
A selection of traditional art made by young Asian Americans, giving a glimpse into how they express themselves during these unprecedented times.
Astria Suparak imagines and analyzes through a variety of mediums over 40 years of American science fiction cinema, and how the medium has visualized a future of the world that leans heavily on Asian cultural themes but without Asians being physically present.
A photo essay from The New York Times on how Asians and Asian Americans express love in various ways, including through food, photography and visual art.
The Smithsonian has curated for online consumption several pieces of art from prominent Asian and Asian American artists, drawing on a variety of mediums.
This San Francisco-based museum has extensive physical holdings with art from both ancient and modern Asian traditions, many of which are showcased on their website.
Eleven Asian American illustrators were asked by The New York Times to share their experiences with finding their identity by drawing self-portraits.
Ask Me Anything with @nak
On Thursday, May 27th at 12:00 PM Pacific time, we hosted an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session with @nak, a Filipina American professional artist from Atlanta, Georgia.
A self-taught artist and a deviant since age 16, @nak has created art for a number of private clients, and is also a storyboard artist for an Atlanta-based filmmaker. Her journey towards embracing her heritage connects directly with her artistry and advocacy, which is reflected in the various themes her work embodies. This passion for social justice, environmental awareness, and mental health is rooted in the intention to leave behind a better world with less hate and more kindness for her niece, nephews, and their generation. She's proud to inspire the community by representing more types of people and lots of imagination in her work.
Deviants asked thought-provoking and insightful questions in the comments section about @nak’s experiences as an Asian American artist, as well as how her culture and identity has influenced her art. Here are some of your responses!
Yes. Many times actually. Since my heritage is mixed (Spanish and Filipino) ppl actually called me the wrong ethnicity while I was being teased. It was really heartbreaking.
I have actually struggled with my identity for as long as I can remember because it's hard to embrace your identity when everyone is trying to tell you to be everything but who you really are. As I've gotten older I have learned to heal and through experience have found out how beautiful it is that I am a Filipino.
Explore different ways and people to be inspired by. There are many kinds of artists out there in the Filipino culture. It's an awesome feeling taking what inspires you and turning it into your own special brand of work. It's an even more awesome feeling having your work inspire someone else to celebrate their heritage through their art. Participating in this cycle is a surreal and unique feeling I encourage all AAPI artists to consider!
Do you have any words of advice for new artists who share the hope to help make the world a better place? – @KZK82
Learn how to be kind to yourself first in any small measure and let go of all the pain and unkindness others gave to you. Use that hurt as a weapon against hate.
I wish people would understand that people need help..it doesn't make them weak or our enemies. Being kind is not a weakness--it's the most beautiful thing I have seen humans do. Life is brief...let go of hate and hurt as often and as much as you can.
Feel free to look for the featured comments in the comments section to read all the questions you asked @nak during her AMA!
Resources for Continued Education
The following resources are a starting point for continued education relating to AAPI Heritage Month, both general and art-related. Delve into the information here and around the internet regarding Asian and Pacific American history, and if you have additional resources or interesting references you’d like to share, include them in a comment on the journal!
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month The Library of Congress and a number of other government agencies and museums jointly host an official website for AAPI Heritage Month, pointing to a selection of their online and offline collections and resources on Asian American and Pacific Islander history and culture.
Asia Society The non-profit Asia Society, which operates in the United States and in 13 countries around Asia, regularly hosts art and culture-themed events throughout the year, many of which are available on their website.
Asian Cultural Council The Asian Cultural Council organizes cultural exchanges and other programs that help further understanding between the cultures of Asia and the United States. In addition to these programs, the ACC also has several fellowships and grants available for Asian creatives to advance their craft and to further cross-cultural ties.
PBS Specials: Asian Pacific American Heritage Month The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is making available throughout the month of May a special collection of videos and other content that explores the history, culture and traditions of the various AAPI communities living in the United States.
Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center The Smithsonian Institution’s migratory museum for Asian and Pacific American history and culture hosts exhibits and resources featuring Asian American history, amplifying Asian and Pacific Islander voices, and educating people about the intersections of Asian and Pacific Islander history and culture to contemporary socio-political issues and developments both online and in communities throughout the United States.
UC Berkeley’s South Asian Art Initiative The University of California, Berkeley’s Institute for South Asia Studies hosts an initiative for promoting South Asian art and artists, where it organizes regular events throughout the year, including exhibitions and conversations with prominent South Asian and South Asian American artists.
Answer these questions in a comment on this journal to receive an AAPI Heritage Month badge for your Profile, which features animals common to the various cultures of Asia and the Pacific Islands. This shared mythology can cross borders and bridge cultural divides, especially for members of the AAPI diaspora, and help find meaning and comfort in origins.
Which Asian or Pacific Islander artists do you follow?
How is Asian and Pacific Islander heritage celebrated in your area?
Is there an Asian or Pacific Islander figure or story from your community or country that more people should know about?
You're also encouraged to ask @nak questions about her experiences as an Asian American artist, as well as how her culture and identity have influenced her art!
Please note: DeviantArt staff may remove a badge if a deviant's comment or contribution doesn't demonstrate the spirit of AAPI Heritage Month.