Tenzin Jorden, Contributing Photographer

The outside wall of the Asian American Cultural Center building once stood blank, looming over an equally empty parking lot. On Thursday, Nov. 18, that changed for good, with a vibrant mural celebrating advocacy, culture and the power of community.

The AACC is one of four cultural centers at Yale which serve as community bases for students of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Founded in 1981 as a result of lobbying by the Asian American Student Alliance to establish a campus space for the Asian community, the AACC celebrated its 40th anniversary with a new mural titled “Finding Home.” The mural was unveiled at the AACC’s 40th Birthday Bash, which took place on Nov. 18.

According to Joliana Yee, director of the AACC and assistant dean of Yale College, “art by and for a community can be a source of healing, which is needed now more than ever after having experienced so much collective and individual loss these past two years during the viral and racial pandemics.”

(Tenzin Jorden, Contributing Photographer)

The mural installation process was inspired by the murals adorning both sides of the La Casa Cultural de Julia de Burgos building. The AACC community wanted a visible marker on their building to represent the significance of the space.

In September 2021, artist Lauren YoungSmith’s proposal was selected by the mural’s advisory committee, which consisted of students, alumni, staff and faculty involved with the AACC. YoungSmith is a Los Angeles-based urban artist who paints murals, teaches workshops and exhibits in galleries worldwide. They have more than eight years of mural-making experience and have painted murals all over the world, from Macau to Peru. YoungSmith underwent rounds of community feedback sessions regarding the mural, and then started a three-week artist residency at the AACC in November 2021.

To gather inspiration for the mural, YoungSmith read through the history of the AACC and listened to the oral histories compiled in the cultural center’s online web museum.

“I then sat down to the extremely difficult task of trying to distill what I understood about the legacy, past and future hopes of the space into a visual composition that would communicate movement, dynamism and many Easter eggs that spoke to the Asian American diasporic experience,” YoungSmith said.

The mural features two young nongender-specific Asian characters striding forward and carrying backpacks. One of the characters has a megaphone and a backpack that holds tomes referencing AAPI history and the Black Panther movement. Ginkgo leaves and seeds spill out from the megaphone — in Asian culture, the ginkgo tree is a symbol of resilience and longevity as it can live for thousands of years.

The ginkgo also signifies a period of balance. The leaves on the mural are red and yellow, mirroring the fall colors visible on several ginkgo trees in New Haven.

“It’s cool to see all the different aspects of our identities that make us who we are represented out in the open,” Karley Yung ’25 said.

YoungSmith noted that their style echoes the fashion of the 1960s and ’70s, a time period marking the nascent stages of the AASA. The praying mantis on the mural symbolizes harmony, focus and concentration. The forward stride of the students is designed to capture the power and movement of students’ ongoing journey to find a home, both physically and ideologically. 

“I hope this mural brings visual form to the rich history of the AACC and the powerful energy of activism, advocacy, community and culture it purveys on campus and beyond,” YoungSmith said. “I hope it welcomes the Asian American community from all walks of life and brings color and vibrancy to the outside of what is already so vibrant within.”

(Tenzin Jorden, Contributing Photographer)

The two individuals featured in the mural are intentionally made to appear more Southeast and South Asian. According to Yee, this is part of an effort to center ethnic groups within the Asian diaspora who often feel marginalized due to the common stereotyping of Asian Americans as a single monolithic group. By representing the broader Asian diaspora, the AACC sought to fight the widely held assumption that Asian American is equivalent to East Asian.

As a queer Asian American femme, YoungSmith said they harbor a passion for visual storytelling, creating space for queer and BIPOC stories and promoting “anti-racism and just futures.” With this mural, YoungSmith continues their mission of evoking the importance of protest, community organizing, social justice and outreach.

“This will be the first and only public art piece on Yale’s campus — and possibly New Haven — that features Asian-identifying people and centers our community in such a bold way,” Yee said.

The AACC building is located at 295 Crown St.

KAYLA YUP