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Multitudes project heads to Perkins

Asian American students are reclaiming Perkins Library as a space for displaying diversity and subverting stereotypes.

Beginning next Friday, the Perkins Student Art Gallery will feature Multitudes, an interactive photo project and exhibition. Sponsored by the Kenan Institute of Ethics, Multitudes hopes to inspire a conscious cultural awakening about the Asian student population and perceived stereotypes through a series of portraits.

“We aim to represent how being Asian at Duke is complex. Another way to look at our thesis would be saying that we are trying to reclaim and re-appropriate the politics that have been imposed on the Asian student body at Duke,” said junior and project co-director Tong Xiang, former managing editor for online of The Chronicle. “We aim to introduce the notion of multitudes and individual complexity into the Asian student body politic.”

The exhibition will feature 40 portraits of Asian students, including but not limited to international East Asian students and Asian American students. Each person will be bare from the neck up and accompanied by a statement that completes the thought, “I am Asian and—.”

“The effect of this is going to be, ‘Wow, there are so many Asians,’ and immediately because of the way that we have been programmed to see race, we’re going to think of a homogenous monolith of Asians,” sophomore and co-director Katherine Zhang, a member of The Chronicle's independent editorial board, said. “The interplay here is between the homogeneity, seeing a wall of forty Asians, and going up close and seeing the individual statement that speaks about each person.”

The photo shoot, which was held this past Sunday, was open to anyone who self-identified as Asian, regardless of the student’s heritage. The goal was to be proactive rather than reactive in regards to these stereotypes, with the highest priority placed on representing the complexity and multitudes of Asian students’ experiences at Duke.

Sophomore participant Andy Chu, who is one-fourth Chinese, shared his experience about not appearing Asian despite his name.

“Whatever Chinese characteristics I do have, no one notices because I look white. I don’t have anything to define myself other than whiteness,” Chu said. “I really wish that there was some kind of way to change that. What I’m afraid of is that [my Asian identity] will just become a last name for me.”

Unlike Chu, junior participant Justine Hong encountered a different cultural experience as an Asian American student at Duke.

“I come from the [San Francisco] Bay Area. If anything, being Asian was the majority of the minorities, I suppose. Coming here was different because now I have fewer Asian friends,” Hong said. “I feel more aware of things that are related to my cultural identity, especially because a lot of the time [it] will be the first exposure to Chinese culture for my friends.”

The project’s devotion to depicting the complexity and uniqueness of every Asian student is a continuation of the house course that both Xiang and Zhang teach, titled “Special Topics of Asian American Social Justice.” During the first half of the semester, the seminar was dedicated to discussing questions of Asian parenting, sexuality, affirmative action, activism and art. The latter half of the semester has been devoted to exploring answers to these questions through developing this project, which was also inspired in part by a course in Asian American theater taught by Sean Metzger, an assistant professor in English and theater studies.

During Metzger’s time at Duke, there has never been an artistic outlet solely devoted to the Asian or Asian American student experience. Metzger, who acts as the Multitudes adviser, was hired by Duke in 2004 during a call for a more interdisciplinary curriculum, which included a push for Asian American studies.

Although Metzger was and is essentially Duke’s only Asian Americanist, he will be leaving after this semester.

“It’s a problem that Sean was hired eight years ago, and no one was added to his field,” Xiang said. “Through those actions, Duke perhaps unintentionally denies the claims to identity that Asian Americans have at Duke.”

Other peer institutions have developed programs dedicated to ethnic studies, with Asian American studies in particular.

“We have just as many Asians as these other schools. It’s not like the Asians here don’t have as many stories to tell as the Asians there,” Zhang said.

Multitudes invites students to participate in a dialogue about both the personal stories each portrait conveys as well as the larger institutional implications surrounding the Asian student body on campus.

“It’s not just the sheer size of the demographic that matters, but it’s the outpouring of interest for this specific project,” Zhang said. “It just shows that not only are there a lot of Asians, but a lot of Asians care about these issues.”

Multitudes will be on display starting Friday, April 20 in the Perkins Student Art Gallery.

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