Group portrait of Mia staff gathered in the Welcome Center at Minneapolis Institute of Art. Thursday, February 13, 2020.

To feel seen: Why representation matters

By Natalia Choi

On the morning of the museum’s staff photo shoot, I wore my favorite bright yellow skirt. I joked with my boyfriend that it was my “yellow power” symbol, a way of drawing visibility to my Asian self so that I did not become invisible in the sea of whiteness.

Growing up Asian American in the United States, you get used to feeling forgotten or invisible. You don’t see your history, language, or culture represented in the classrooms or museums where you learn about the world, nor in the TV you watch. Your teachers can’t communicate with your parents and don’t look like you. You switch from your homemade lunches to store-bought Lunchables, and you stop speaking your native language in front of your new friends to blend in—to become invisible.

Looking back now, I cringe at the feelings of insecurity and shame my younger self suffered in the white-dominant environments where I navigated my most formative years trying to blend in. I want to tell her, “Be proud! Eat what you want! Be who you wanna be! It’s O.K. to be different!” Now, as the Family Learning Associate at Mia, this is essentially the message I try to share through public programs.

For a year now, I have had the honor and responsibility of programming Family Day, a beloved monthly program that brings about 46,000 attendees a year to the museum. I choose the theme and invite diverse artists and organizations to share their stories with the visitors. I view Family Day as a chance to fill in the gaps and bring to life what we have in the museum.

Mia has an amazing collection of more than 90,000 artworks from throughout history and the world. But there are still few opportunities for myself and other people of color to see artworks that resemble us or our lived experiences, much less have been created by people like us. Diversifying an art collection is a gradual process, so I relish the opportunity to bring diverse artists and families into the museum every month with the hope that more kids can feel “seen” and be inspired about the boundless ways of being in the world.

Feeling seen is not simply a matter of being visible—as it has become painfully clear with the current pandemic when Asians and Asian Americans feel plenty “seen” but not in a good way. To feel seen—in the deeper sense—is to be seen as a human being, as complex and full of potential as anyone else. To feel seen is to feel belonging and possibility, rather than being reduced to superficial judgements on who you are. To feel seen is to be able to position yourself within a wider web of history and community. I believe art can help us see each other in both the literal and the deeper sense, so we do not feel invisible or alone.

Performers from the Jang-mi Dance, Drum and Music group at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2019.

A Future of Resilience

One of my favorite memories from Family Day was seeing an intergenerational group of performers from the Jang-mi Dance, Drum and Music group proudly marching in their hanbok (Korean traditional dress), pounding their instruments through the galleries as they guided the audience into the auditorium. Many of the performers were Korean adoptees (as is the director of the organization) and some were as young as 6 years old. I want to create more moments like these where kids can feel proud of who they are. I want the next generation of Asian Americans and kids of all backgrounds to be braver, bolder, and kinder and not fall prey to hate and discrimination.

To create a safer future for the next generation, where everyone can feel seen, we need a healthy ecosystem of cultural, environmental, and social resources that reflect and support diverse communities in a holistic way. More and more, diverse authors, artists, and activists are paving the way for a future in which the next generation can grow up seeing themselves in the culture we create. In particular, I have been astounded by the powerful local Asian American creative community here in the Twin Cities. There are too many to name comprehensively, but to mention a few:

Incredible multi-faceted artists and writers like Bao Phi, Sun Yung Shin, Kao Kalia Yang, Saymoukda Vongsay have put into words so many truths about their lived experiences. They’ve written poems, books, and plays to uplift their communities and, of course, being ever thoughtful about our little ones, have each published children’s books –all of which I’ve purchased for Mia’s Family Center.

Intentional performing organizations such as Ananya Dance Theater, Ragamala Dance Company, Funny Asian Women’s Kollective, Theater Mu, and Monkeybear’s Harmolodics Workshop have put their bodies— or puppets—in motion for us to draw strength from our heritage, our collective imagination and presence.

Critical cultural organizations such as SEAD (Southeast Asian Diaspora) Project and Green Card Voices provide the space and tools for communities to tell their own stories, deepening a connection to self and community.

These artists and organizations are a fraction of the vibrant creative community we are blessed to have locally. They are vital to making so many communities feel seen, but often operate in more precarious circumstances with less access to resources. While institutions of all sizes are facing an uncertain financial future due to the current pandemic, our freelance artists and smaller organizations are severely impacted. Many of these organizations rely on donations and community support to continue to offer critical programs for their communities. I will continue to partner with and support our local artists and organizations as part of upcoming Family Days. And I invite those who are able to find ways to support local artists and cultural organizations to ensure there is a future for these vital resources for our communities. Whether it is donating (many mentioned organizations are currently part of the GiveMN campaign), buying a book, or attending a virtual event, our actions now can determine the vibrancy and security of our future.

How will we see each other after the pandemic? Will we be able to move past our fear and begin to see one another not just as potential virus carriers but as fellow humans? I feel an even greater urgency in making visible the resilience and beauty of marginalized communities at a time when hate crimes are on the rise and inequities are exacerbated. I want us to find strength and courage from each other and approach the unknown together, bravely and with creativity and openness.

In this vein, I have chosen “Stories of Resilience” as the theme for the upcoming virtual Family Day on May 10, with activities led by indigenous, and black artists, refugee artists, and artists of color to share their wisdom and strength with our community. In addition, in celebration of AAPI Heritage month, Mia is releasing a “Virtual Care Package” later this month that will feature a compilation of “cultural nutrients” like poems, recipes, and music, which I co-created with some brilliant local Asian American artists. I invite you to tune in, listen, and nourish yourself from these collective resources.

When we emerge from the crisis, I hope we can learn to care for one another as if our life depended on it (because it does). I hope we can commit to creating a future where everyone can feel seen and deeply cared for—a world where one can wear a yellow skirt just because.

Top image: A group photo of staff from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2020.