LOS ANGELES — “At First Light: The Dawning of Asian Pacific America,” a multi-media exhibit celebrating the emergence of a politically defined Asian Pacific American consciousness and identity, is now on display through Oct. 20 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
This co-production of Visual Communications and JANM chronicles the transformation of the community from the outdated categorization of “Oriental” to the political identity of “Asian Pacific American” that rejected racist stereotypes, stood up for human rights, recovered lost histories, and created new cultural expressions.
John Esaki, former VC member and current JANM official, pointed out that prior to the 1970s, there wasn’t much produced by the APA community about themselves. “There were things like ‘Farewell to Manzanar,’ but that was made by Universal Studios. VC’s philosophy was that the community should do its own documentation.”
“At First Light” is the brainchild of Duane Kubo, Robert Nakamura, and Eddie Wong, three of the four founders of Visual Communications, VC staffer Abraham Ferrer reported via e-mail. “The fourth founder, Alan Ohashi, was not involved with the organizing of this exhibit but his photos figure prominently throughout.”
The exhibit draws from hundreds of thousands of photographs and more than 100 videos in VC’s collections. Formed in Los Angeles in 1970 as the first Asian Pacific American media organization in the country, VC set out to capture and cultivate the newfound unity that was Asian Pacific America. In the current climate of xenophobia and racism, VC seeks to strengthen resistance by evoking the legacy of APA activism through this display.
Highlights of ‘At First Light’
‘Video Stories from the VC Archives’: Thirty short videos tell the stories of places, like Historic Manilatown, or events, such as the first Asian American march against the Vietnam War, as documented in the VC Archives with new commentary by people who appear in these now historical images.
“I was moved by the silent Super 8mm film documenting the Jan. 17, 1970, Asian Americans for Peace March and rally through the streets of Little Tokyo, as well as the personal story of Andrea Ling Yamasaki, who as a child lived along old Chung King Road in Los Angeles Chinatown, and her stories of her family’s business across the walkway from the original Chinatown Teenpost … while Mia Frances Yamamoto’s tribute to the late activist Steven Tatsukawa adds a welcome note of levity and humor,” Ferrer added. “They all express VC’s priorities of telling accurate and honest stories about our communities through self-determined modes of creative expression.”
‘America’s Concentration Camps’: The oldest and largest artifact in the exhibition and VC’s first production is a free-standing cube sculpture by Robert Nakamura displaying what were then never-before-seen photographs of life in America’s World War II concentration camps for Japanese Americans, as well as ugly scenes of racism by the majority population against Japanese Americans. The Cube exhibit was created in 1970 for the campaign to repeal the Emergency Detention Act of 1950.
One in the pile of cubes displays a wartime Life magazine article informing readers “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese,” describing the Japanese as the ugly, disloyal and treacherous enemy, while portraying the Chinese as a friendly, trustworthy and loyal ally. Another cube shows a news article in which Gen. John DeWitt justifies the government’s ethnic cleansing campaign that resulted in the incarceration of 120,000 West Coast Japanese. “A Jap is a Jap,” DeWitt declares. “It makes no difference whether he is an American (citizen) … You can’t change him by giving him a piece of paper.”
Other images, like the Manzanar Pilgrimage, depicting the “revocation of one’s civil liberties, with images of a community’s efforts to begin reclaiming those rights through remembrance … and action, were a demonstration of VC staffers’ efforts to capture and document the long, ongoing process of recovery of identity and heritage and pursuit of enfranchisement and justice,” Ferrer exclaimed.
‘FSN 1972’: This contemporary video installation by award-winning filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura features motion picture footage embedded into the windows and doorways of a large-scale projection of a 1972 graphic drawing of First Street North, the historic heart of Little Tokyo for more than 100 years. VC’s installation embodies the current effort to preserve spaces of memory and meaning to ensure historical and cultural continuity into the future.
The installation highlights the APA movement through outtakes from “films that never saw the light of day at VC,” Ferrer noted. “Scenes from the Third World Unity Storefront to the legendary 1969 Asian American Community Picnic (“Cincip”), Senshin Buddhist temple and the seminal beginnings of Kinnara Taiko … as well from VC films including Cruisin’ J-Town … and many others, makes visible the excitement and vibrancy of an emerging movement and community consciousness.”
The museum is located at 100 North Central Ave. in Los Angeles. For more information, including museum hours and the cost of admission, visit janm.org or call (213) 625-0414.