Just a few weeks into 2020, Adriel Luis was already feeling the weight of an entire decade on his shoulders.
Like everyone else around him, Luis had watched Covid-19 ricochet around the world. A viral illness first detected in Wuhan, China, the disease quickly spilled across international borders, infecting hundreds, then thousands, then millions—and sparking fear, hatred and even violence against those who resembled the East Asian individuals whose faces had initially headlined news of the outbreak.
Weary of the chaos and worried for his friends and family, Luis began to search for a way to respond and help his community heal. What he found wasn’t strictly medical—at least, not in a traditional Western sense. Instead, Luis strayed toward one of the mediums he knew best: art.
“What was helping me stay grounded was seeing a lot of artists who, despite going through a lot of economic turmoil, were still taking a moment to create and share,” says Luis, who is curator of digital and emerging practice at the Smithsonian's Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). “It was just a really generous gesture. And I felt like, that’s the conversation that I actually want to be a part of.”
So began “Care Package”—an online exhibition of meditations, songs, poems and other creative works centered on the practice of healing that debuted earlier this month. Curated from previous collaborations between APAC and more than a dozen Pacific Islander and Asian American artists, writers and scholars, the collection is eclectic, interactive and freely available to all for the very first time.
Most of the contents of “Care Package” are slightly retooled versions of past creative endeavors, and don’t represent direct responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, Luis notes. But the messages within each display, which span themes ranging from intimacy to tranquility and respect for the natural world, are timeless, especially in the face of crisis. “I wanted something that still acknowledged the moment, but at the same time, would ease my spirit,” Luis says.
During a period of immense difficulty and unpredictability, “we can’t just live in a fight or flight response,” says Jennifer Ho, a scholar of Asian American studies and director of the Center for Humanities and the Arts at the University of Colorado Boulder. “We need to have other ways of responding that aren’t simply about fear. Being fulfilled artistically . . . can be nourishing for us as we have to gear up and face the world.”
Among the artists featured prominently in “Care Package” is artist Yumi Sakugawa, who contributed two of her past works, both of which first premiered at APAC’s 2016 CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures event in New York City. In the first, titled Not So Distant, Sakugawa leads a guided meditation, tailored for a futuristic audience that has migrated away from an uninhabitable Earth, but remains spiritually linked to its terrestrial roots.
Also available is The Corner of Heart-to-Hearts, an interactive zine produced by Sakugawa in partnership with writer Chad Shomura. Intended to be explored with a partner, the piece invites a pair of people to connect via a deck of cards, each prompting them to share an experience centered on a human emotion like “anxiety” or “anger.” Even complete strangers can take the opportunity to achieve a moment of intimacy, says Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, APAC’s Curator of Asian Pacific American Studies. “It’s asking for a kind of intentional vulnerability,” he says.
Debuting in November of 2016, shortly after the political turbulence of the presidential election, the zine may have fostered a sense of security and togetherness among members of communities who were feeling particularly fractured or marginalized, Sakugawa says. That sentiment applies now, too—especially as the global crisis has necessitated a severe shift in the ways people are able to connect.
“I find comfort in the fact that … art made a few years ago can be repurposed again for uncertain times,” she says. “Even under constricted situations and circumstances, people are still [each other’s] best resources.”
Those weathering the pandemic alone may also find solace in the works of poets Sham-e-Ali Nayeem and Lehua M. Taitano. Nayeem’s poem “Between You and You” was originally published in her recent book City of Pearls; a recorded version, partnered with music composed by musician Qais Essar, now appears in “Care Package” in both text and video forms, embracing the complex healing process mind and body undergo in times of solitude.
“So many of us are in isolation, without anyone else around,” Nayeem says. That’s a challenging mindset to work in, she adds, but also “fertile space to connect with the truth in yourself.”
Taitano’s “Current, I,” also available in multiple mediums, roots readers and viewers in the natural world—an ever-present force that Taitano says shaped her upbringing as a queer CHamoru writer from Guåhan (Guam). “The land, the water, the very Earth itself is an ancestor,” she says. “As a Pacific Islander, that’s inherent to my life and my perspective.”
Similar sentiments are echoed and amplified in “Photosynth,” a sound bath by Low Leaf, Alex Abalos and Adam Labuen, inspired by rice cultivation and land displacement in the Philippines. In composing the piece, the artists collaborated to blend sounds from traditional instruments, like the harp, with others that are a bit more off the beaten path—including sonic frequencies from plants transmitted through a modular synthesizer. “I jam with plants anyway,” says Low Leaf, who often showcases the natural world in her work. “But this was the first time I was able to literally use them as a musical tool.”
Low Leaf hopes the sound bath—and “Care Package” as a whole—will encourage its audience to not just “be at home in their bodies,” but also feel a more expansive connection with the Earth, perhaps even evoking the evolutionary roots of our species, which was once more in tune with nature.
Many elements of “Care Package” are both palliative and forward-thinking—a reaction to crisis, perhaps, but also a message about how to prevent it in the future, says Catherine Ceniza Choy, a scholar of Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
“These artists are presenting us with a kind of constructive critique . . . about the damage that has been created on our planet,” she says. “How are we treating our home? How are we treating one another? These are things we need to consider for our coexistence with one another, but also with the world.”
The arrival of “Care Package” has coincided with a moment of tension surrounding Asian American identities. Around the world, individuals of Asian descent have suffered pandemic-related persecutions, ranging from slurs on social media to public acts of physical brutality—simply because they remind their attackers of a dangerous virus, a biological entity incapable of distinguishing the race or ethnicity of its host.
For many Asian Americans, the sense of belonging in this country still feels conditional, Ho says. The ongoing spate of xenophobia “reinforces this idea that we do not belong here . . . somehow, we have to justify our Americanness.”
“Care Package” claps back against that notion, Choy says, “documenting the presence” of Asian Pacific Americans and “preserving the beauty of their history and culture.” Doing so, she says, shows that this community has a unique and undeniable presence that can’t be silenced or suppressed.
The exhibition’s sway in this arena will only grow, as more works of art and projects continue to be added. Davis also points out that the site’s interactive nature invites the audience to take part in the conversation, too. “We wanted to put out a care package that isn’t just offering art to be received—to be viewed or watched or listened to,” he says. “We wanted to offer things that give people a chance … to be co-creators.”
That creative agency can be empowering for all who experience “Care Package,” either as creators or participants, Sakugawa says. Recalling the teachings of author and activist Adrienne Maree Brown, Sakugawa muses about a new world that doesn’t yet exist, in which today’s marginalized and vulnerable communities are finally allowed the equal footing they deserve.
Instead of just “letting the default happen,” she says, “I think it is really up to all of us to question . . . how we want our future to unfold, and then take those steps.”
The online exhibition "Care Package" will unveil works in the coming weeks. It is part of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s holistic series of responses to the unique and complex ways in which Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans are affected by the COVID-19 crisis and its repercussions.