In early November 2018, Caroline Ho ’22 and Emily Li ’22 were working on homework in the Timothy Dwight College buttery. Before long, the pair — one a classically trained pianist, the other a vocal performer — were seated together at the piano. They did not know each other well, but a few days after they played together, Li approached Ho with an idea: to apply for an Arts & Media Innovation Award as a songwriting duo.

Li and Ho — along with Mariko Rooks ’21, Molly Ono ’20, Annie Cheng ’20, Skyler Chin ’19 and Liyan Zhao ART ’19 — were awarded Arts & Media Innovation Awards last fall. On Friday, March 29, the award-winners’ projects were showcased at the Afro-American Cultural Center a Yale as part of Pan Asian American Heritage Month.

In collaboration, the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale and the Asian American Cultural Center awarded five $500 grants intended to encourage arts and multimedia explorations of Asian American identity. The artistic explorations funded by the grant ranged from photo projects to art installations and from short films to musical theater.

“Students have often expressed their frustration with the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in mainstream media, not feeling like they always had the means to tell their story,” said AACC Director and Assistant Dean of Yale College Joliana Yee, according the Tsai CITY website. “In launching this award program with Tsai CITY, it is my hope that our Asian American students will be empowered to use their voice to amplify the often untold and unseen lived experiences of the Asian American community.”

The grant was publicized through the Asian American Cultural Center at Yale, and winners were selected based on their applications, which included project proposals. The accessibility of the application allowed Li and Ho to follow through with their spontaneous idea — although at first, neither of them were certain of the best way to incorporate a conversation about their identities into their art.

This obstacle dissolved once the two began corresponding with the mentors provided to them as part of the Tsai CITY award. Li is a first-generation Chinese American who grew up in New Jersey, and Ho is a fourth-generation Chinese American from California. They emphasized that their mentors noted that there is not a monolithic Asian American experience. Their art, they then decided, would represent Asian American identity because it would be their creation, influenced by their own experiences.

Li, who took a gap year during high school to perform pop music in China, noted that she previously had not considered herself capable of pursuing a music career in America. The fall “Spring Arising” production by the Yale Dramatic Association and the Arts & Media Award helped change that.

“I was the only Asian American in [Spring Arising], and I didn’t really know why I was there, but then I had a moment,” Li said. “I realized that [the reason] I had never believed I could pursue music in America was because I was scared and I never had a role model who looked like me. This award was a really big deal because we were paired with professional musicians who told us about their experiences and gave us a lot of direction.”

Li and Ho’s final project, an EP, will be completed by the end of the spring semester. On April 13, they will host a concert in the Jonathan Edwards theater in order to workshop their music and make final song selections for their EP.

Two other winners Ono and Rook used the award to create their “Mixed” photo project. After reviving Yale’s part-Asian student organization, Asian-ish, the pair engaged in conversations regarding ways to increase the visibility of mixed-race students’ narratives. They decided to initiate a photo project of portraits providing representations of mixed-race students on campus.

“By reclaiming images of ourselves through photography and unabashedly displaying them in Asian American and black spaces, we challenge and redefine what it means to ‘look Asian’ and/or ‘look black,’” Rooks said. “Our personal stories and narratives give voice to the simultaneous uniqueness and universality of the mixed experience. In doing so, we rejoice in our duality and ambiguity, in our singularity and our solidarity, in our being and existence.”

“Mixed” includes two separate exhibits — one on view at the AACC from April 5 to April 7, and another to go up at the Af-Am House at an upcoming date. The full exhibit can be viewed online beginning April 25.

In her exhibit “lunchbox!” — which was on view in the Ezra Stiles Art Gallery from March 26 to 30 — Cheng used audio and visual art to explore connections between childhood, parentage, food and culture. She noted that while interviewing for the exhibit, she realized that “people connect food to roots in a deeply visceral way.”

“This show doesn’t do justice to the diversity of Asian America,” Cheng said. “Although I have featured voices from first-generation immigrants, mixed black and white Asian Americans, East, South and Southeast Asian Americans, I know there is so much more in this community. There is more work for all of us ahead in a particularly fraught political moment which demands prudence, togetherness, and reclamation of power.”

Other projects that received the award were Chin’s musical “Illegal” — which traces the immigration journeys of young people from China during the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act — and Zhao’s “Ping Pong Social Club,” a film that follows parallel storylines: one about Zhao’s father, the host of a weekly ping pong club, and another about Zhao, detailing her recent U.S. naturalization and first trip to China as a foreign national.

Rianna Turner | rianna.turner@yale.edu