by Amanda Ong
On Jan. 15, 2022, the newest student exhibit by the YouthCAN program, “Fashion in Focus,” opened at the Wing Luke Museum in the Frank Fujii Youth Gallery.
YouthCAN is a free after-school arts program for high school students that runs its schedule on a quarter system. “It’s a great way for high school youth to learn about the Wing and explore arts professions,” Blake Nakatsu, exhibit developer and YouthCAN program manager at the Wing Luke Museum, told the South Seattle Emerald. “Our goal is really to just provide a space for youth to engage with arts and their peers. And I hope that we continue to be a place where students feel connected to the Chinatown-International District.”
Each quarter, the program invites a different teaching artist to work alongside Nakatsu and YouthCAN assistant Meilani Mandery to develop a curriculum. This quarter’s teaching artist was Tamar Sunnam Manuel, a mixed-media artist who goes by “Solitary Frowns” professionally. Following a quarter of discussion, Mandery and Manuel took the students on outdoor and studio photo shoots — the work from which is now displayed in the “Fashion in Focus” student exhibit at the museum.
The program that led to “Fashion in Focus” aimed to give students a new perspective on fashion as an art through the lens of photography and, more than that, on fashion as an accessible medium. “The fashion industry can be very elitist and not very accessible to folks just getting in,” Mandery told the Emerald. “So we wanted to have a program that deconstructs all of those notions and gives students a platform to rebuild it into something better, something that they can see themselves in, and that they can be interested in participating in without perpetuating all of the harms that these industries cause.”
Mandery herself presented on punk fashion, which, despite commercialization, has deep roots in queer, feminist, anti-establishment, BIPOC-led movements. Through presentations like Mandery’s, the program aims to embed themes of racial justice, solidarity, history, community, and culture into the discussions led by the program.
“Something that I was really cognizant of when building the curriculum was using diverse examples — whether that was body type or racial and ethnic identity of models — to be able to show that there are different people other than what traditional fashion photography will tell you,” Mandery said. “Fashion photography can be you, and it can be your friend. It can represent your culture, however that manifests in your day-to-day life, in what you wear.”
Photography in the CID can be tricky, however. Mandery points out that trends have driven Instagram influencers, many of them white, to visit their local Chinatown or Asian grocery stores and take photos there — using these places as an “exotic” backdrop of Asian aesthetics. “We had to have that conversation with students, about [how] this is a neighborhood first and foremost. And we’re welcoming you here, but the neighborhood is not just the background.”
“We try to be responsive to things that are happening,” Nakatsu said. “For example, during the uprisings and in the summer of 2020, YouthCAN looked at ways that we could use our voice to make, like, posters, propaganda posters. Our teaching artist had made posters and designs rallying against, like, anti-Asian sentiment upon the onset of COVID. And so in response, we as YouthCAN wanted to make posters during the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd … in solidarity with the Black community.”
While the program usually has a dedicated studio space at the Wing Luke Museum, during the pandemic, classes have been online. However, any needed supplies are mailed to students before class to maintain the museum’s commitment to a truly free program. While mediums have changed, each one has sparked new creative pursuits for the students — past quarters featured mediums like mail art, encouraging students to make and send each other postcards.
The pandemic-related adjustments have been difficult, Nakatsu said, but ultimately, the program has worked around the lack of studio space and still found ways to create community learning experiences and uphold its commitment to accessibility.
Teaching artist Manuel told the Emerald that, from his perspective as a former YouthCAN student, the power of the program lies in its ability to create an experience for students, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, that inspires them to believe in themselves as artists. “It was one of those really cool experiences where it was just like, hey, let’s not focus so much on [how] we need to get the perfect shot, and focus more on creating an experience for the students of it being a great day where somebody was able to come in and show them a little bit about what they’re able to do, and hopefully encourage them to continue doing that as well,” Manuel said.
Manuel’s experience resonates with other students of the program. Student Maddie Tanabe told the Emerald, “Since I didn’t have much experience with the photography side of things, it was a great experience to talk and learn with our teaching artist and other students. I think that this quarter especially helped me understand photography as a medium that I could experiment and test out.”
The opportunity for students to have their work displayed at the end of the quarter is perhaps one of the most unique opportunities of the program, one that most museums lack. “One of the things that I love most about the program is at the end of it, students are exhibiting artists,” Mandery said. “And that’s not an opportunity that everyone gets, especially at this age.”
“They’re able to see something tangible, that’s theirs,” Manuel said. “And that’s really exciting.”
Museums as institutions have quite literally been developed out of colonial practices, building collections out of looted art and artifacts, and alienating and antagonizing BIPOC. Integrating community voices into museum walls plays a large role in decolonizing museum practices. “Just having a dedicated space for youth art to be displayed at a museum is social justice work, it is equity work,” Nakatsu said. “The museum world is significantly gatekept and elitist. Allowing for community voices to be on our walls is definitely a part of the equity work that we do.”
Providing a free art space is critical for that work, Mandery noted. Moreover, in this case, “space” also means a real, physical space to have that art celebrated. It builds community, it acquaints students to different arts professions, and it introduces students to the CID, Asian American, and Native Hawaiʻian and Pacific Islander cultures.
“I think it’s so important that young folks are able to express themselves in creative ways, but also receive a platform to do that work outside of whatever they have access to in school or in their own family,” Mandery said. “I think having this dedicated community space that young folks can come in, make whatever they want to, and introduce them to working artists — I don’t think there’s necessarily another art space or cultural space that has that right now.”
Ultimately, “Fashion in Focus” has taught students that fashion and photography are accessible to you no matter your ability, whether technical, physical, or mental, and now, their own work lines museum walls. “I want people to be able to see themselves and find themselves in their own work,” Mandery said. “Art is not a luxury.”
This message has impacted students in meaningful ways, both as artists and as growing humans. “When I reflect on this program, I have fallen in love with photography, because taking pictures brings me joy,” student Henry Jensen said to the Emerald. “Learning about subcultures of fashion, I feel comfortable expressing my image by wearing any clothing that gives me comfort and meaning to the day.”
Visit the “Fashion in Focus” show at the Wing Luke Museum on 719 S. King St., or learn more about YouthCAN on the museum’s website.
Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.
📸 Featured image courtesy of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.
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