6 June 2024

“I was born in the United States, so my birthright as an American is that I am respected like every other American. So, when I see my rights being trampled on, when I see other communities being marginalised, it feels like a responsibility for me to speak up and to raise awareness for these social issues that are impacting not only myself but community members I care deeply about.”

Standing up for Asian-Americans

Meet Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, a neuroscientist-turned-multidisciplinary artist, who is best known for her activism through her public art campaign “I Still Believe in Our City”, which were displayed on buildings, subway stations, bus shelters, and digital screens, reaching millions of people across New York City and around the world.

The aim of her campaign was to expose and denounce the bigotry, discrimination, and violence against Asian-Americans, which intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people carried the misbelief that Asians, especially Chinese, were the ones who spread the disease. Amanda felt the impact when she visited Chinatown, which was shockingly quiet during the early days of the outbreak.

“Chinatown in Manhattan is typically bustling. It is a place that is so full of life, culture and love,” she explains. “So it was shocking and I just had this deep sense of foreboding that it would be a very difficult time for Asian-Americans going forward, because of the deep prejudices against Asian people.”

Born to a Thai father and an Indonesian mother, Amanda has often felt “othered” due to her race, despite being born and raised in the United States. A long list of moments that she recalled proves that Asian-Americans are the subject of mistreatment and prejudice up until today, stemming from the negative bias that they will always be seen as a perpetual foreigner.

“I continued to hear about friends on the subway being spat at, or punched, or verbally abused,” she said. “I got on the subway one day and the man next to me looked at me and said “Ew! Gross” and ran down to the other end of the carriage. I came out of the tailor one day, just living my life, and a woman got in my face and said, “Go back to where you came from, you overseas prostitute”. My parents were in the grocery store and somebody yelled at them “Go back to where you came from”.

Such negative experiences made her feel that she’s being called into activism, to speak up for Asian-Americans and other marginalised communities.

This has eventually turned into colourful art posters, featuring portraits of Asian-Americans, accompanied by powerful taglines, such as “I’m not your scapegoat”, “I did not make you sick” and “This is our home too”. These messages were also translated into several Asian languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog.

Courtesy: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya (via alonglastname.com)

Overcoming racism (and stereotypes)

Even with a diverse population and many civil rights movements, Amanda believes that the United States is nowhere near “ending” racism, as she explains, it remains a daily fight for people of colour to demand equality and respect. A number of hate crimes and acts of police brutality in recent years, which have led to nationwide protests such as “Stop Asian Hate” and “Black Lives Matter”, prove that Americans are still in the battle for racial equality.

At the same time, Amanda also feels that Asian-Americans, including other marginalised groups, have not been given enough space to share their own narratives and their stories that capture the diversity of the community to the public.

“Marginalised communities still bear the brunt of racism and I think it’s a continual battle every day to stand up for our rights, to raise awareness of these issues that impact our communities everywhere across the United States.”

Amanda also feels that negative stereotyping of Asian-Americans has impacted their communities as a whole, as a result of being perceived as a threat. This, she believes, is among the main reasons why people find it easy to scapegoat Asian-Americans for things that cause damage to society, such as the spread of COVID-19.

“If you’re seen as a perpetual foreigner, if you’re always seen as ‘other’, then you’re always seen as something to be afraid of, and most folks don’t take the time to do deep research to understand the historical context of this bias and racism.”

In fact, being described as a perpetual foreigner is among the most common stereotypes of Asian-Americans that persist. Asian women, in particular, are often stereotyped as meek, submissive and objects of desire, who are just silent and there to please, which is rooted in a long history of Asian women being treated as “comfort women” by the GIs. Asian men are also stereotyped as either weak or effeminate.

“It’s so puzzling for many Asian-American women, who just look at our families and say ‘I can’t imagine anyone even thinking of our moms and our grandmas and our aunties as being submissive’. They are the most fierce advocates and matriarchs out there! We come from this long lineage, but yet, we live under a system that imposes these narrow stereotypes upon us and it’s still on us to challenge them.”

Despite the underlying prejudice, the multidisciplinary artist does see progress in terms of Asian representation in American mass media. Particularly in Hollywood films, such as Joy Ride, where more Asian women are portrayed in a positive light, depicting them as bold, fun and very liberated in various ways.

To reflect their true colours, Amanda portrayed Asian-Americans in her public art campaigns as strong individuals who are not afraid to stand up for themselves, to break the negative bias and racial stereotypes against them.

“I feel like my art has challenged that notion of Asian-American women being meek and submissive. It’s like every single figure I’ve depicted is bold, defiant and it says in her eyes that they’re not going to take this laying down.”

Courtesy: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya (via alonglastname.com)

Promoting a sense of belonging

Her artwork not only focuses on social issues. In fact, her philosophy when creating art is for people to find joy and a sense of belonging in the face of grief and injustice in society.

This is heavily inspired by her studies on aging populations, back when she was a neuroscientist, when she learned that those who age gracefully are those who have a strong sense of belonging; whether it’s their family, their culture, their community or anything that makes them feel safe.

“It seemed that those who had strong social bonds were the individuals who were faring the best. So that made me think really deeply about how community is so crucial for our mental and physical well-being.”

Therefore, most of her art campaigns, including murals and art installations, promote the heritage of Asian-Americans, to promote a sense of belonging and fostering social bonds among communities. 

“When we think about social movements, fighting for human rights or fighting for respect, we can’t be fighting all the time. We need communities and we need movements to be sustained, which means we need to carve out that space of safety, to remember the things that keep us whole, the things that are deeply important to us, those moments of joy, those moments of being together and being really seen, respected and having dignity.”

At the moment, Amanda is working on her new art project, “Time Owes Us Remembrance”, for which she visited over 40 textile communities across Thailand to learn about the heritage of hand-woven textiles by groups of elderly women in rural areas.

“Weaving “Pah Thai” (Thai fabrics) is so time consuming, intricate and complex. It was so beautiful to see how these “Mae-Mae” (grandmothers and aunties) share the labour and how everyone’s contribution was respected, honoured and essential to creating even just one piece of cloth.”

From there, the American born Thai-Indonesian artist will create a new art installation, which will be displayed at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre (BACC) in January 2024. This will be part of the public diplomacy initiative “Weaving Our Stories”, supported by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok.

“So, my public artwork, that will be unveiled early next year, will support this kind of Thai-American diplomatic celebration, but it will also uplift the communities that I visited, will archive and share their stories and will focus very deeply on how process is essential for building resilient communities.”

Courtesy: Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

We are all powerful

When asked, however, if she has succeeded as a multidisciplinary artist, Amanda feels that, in terms of raising social issues that aren’t being talked about and honouring ethnic communities and individuals through her art, she has succeeded. Among her memorable moments was when she saw young Asian girls putting up her posters at school when they experienced racial bullying, which she found deeply moving.

“It moves me so deeply because I hope that my art is a portal for self-discovery for them, for them to know that they belong to a long legacy of Asian-American women fighting for justice and equity in our society.”

Therefore, she hopes that her art can become a portal that people, from different walks of life, can see themselves being reflected in and eventually feel empowered to take action on social issues to protect and uplift their communities.

Amanda also strongly believes that everyone has the power in themselves to provoke positive changes.

“I think we are all powerful. We have that power that lives inside of us and we have the power to create extraordinary change in this world.”

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World

More of Amanda’s work can be found here.