A billboard intended to show solidarity with the AAPI community stirs a lot of controversies given its depiction of Asian American women, Denverite reports.
On one side of the billboard, in big blue letters, are the words “Stand For Asians.” On the other side of the billboard are two different scenes of Asian women. One Asian woman is treating a customer as a massage parlor worker, the other Asian woman is treating a customer as a nail salon employee.
The depiction of these Asian women upset many different people, including Juntae TeeJay Hwang, an artist and educator. Although the depiction of the women upset him, Hwang also pointed out the absence of humanity in the drawn women.
“They’re not looking at the people. They’re literally serving people. They have no sense of agency, they have no sense of voice,” Hwang told Denverite. “How is that giving us empowerment?”
The choice of wording for the billboard also upset Hwang.
“Why not stand with Asians? Why stand for Asians?” Hwang told Denverite. “It almost feels like it’s an animal rights campaign. They don’t have a voice. They cannot stand up for themselves, so stand for them. It lacks so much power and agency.”
Hwang presented the billboard to his students at Metropolitan State University. He states that students from underrepresented groups, not just the AAPI community, became visibly upset at the depiction.
Writer and educator Theresa Rozul Knowles mentioned that the billboard went up shortly after the Atlanta Spa shootings where six of the eight victims were women of Asian descent.
“You did a billboard of the crime scene,” Knowles told Denverite. “That could have an opportunity to show those women, instead of the roles that they had no other options but to get when they were doing their best to have the American dream.”
People on social media also expressed negative emotions towards the billboard. The billboard’s artist, Maia Ruth Lee, requested that the billboard be taken down after the backlash. However, Orange Barrel Media, the company that owns the space where it is displayed, already took it down.
According to Denverite, Lee took inspiration from her old 2016 project “Women at Work” for the billboard. Lee created “Women at Work” to highlight the diverse roles that women might fill such as a chef, judge or architect. She states that her work aimed to legitimize jobs that often get belittled or marginalized in the context of class, such as nail technicians or massage parlor workers.
“I wanted to pair the image with the text ‘Stand for Asians’ in honor of the women who had been murdered,” Lee told Denverite. “But also to shine light specifically onto the women in this vulnerable environment who are invisible in our society, who are neglected by our government. I wanted to represent their images to be loud and proud.”
Despite the billboard being taken down and Lee stating her intentions behind the billboard, it is still at the forefront of the Denver community and the AAPI community across the nation. According to Denverite, Hwang stated that local communities express concern over For Freedoms, the company that commissioned the billboard. Hwang said that For Freedoms has not made a public statement about the billboard and seemed unwilling to change the vetting process to prevent a situation like this from happening again.
“Just because the billboard is down, that doesn’t mean that it’s gone,” Hwang told Denverite. “It’s so irresponsible for you to leave all the pain and suffering and for us to try to bring the community together.”
Denverite reports that For Freedoms will not tell artists what they can or cannot depict. Additionally, For Freedoms will not tell audiences how to interpret art.
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