To Imagine Justice, We Need Artists as First Responders

I never identified as a particularly political person, or as an artist, until I began working for an organisation that insisted all art is political, and that everyone is an artist.

12 May 2021


At the start of 2020, I launched my own digital consultancy advising arts organisations on how to carry out their missions online. In conceiving of this company, I already knew that the art world was behind when it came to technology, but little did I expect the urgency of such a service just two months later, as museums and galleries worldwide began abruptly closing their doors, then forced to triage how a museum could exist as an exclusively online space. Alongside this influx of new business, I watched from behind my screen as lives were being destroyed by the coronavirus, police violence, racism, fascism, and the compounding of all of these nightmares combined. How could I ethically grapple with the fact that my career was still possible, and perhaps had been accelerated by the structures of where power resides in our digital society?

Once in a generation, we are due to confront a crisis where trust in established institutions catalyse disruptive, systemic change. As Caroline Randall Williams reminded us days after the 2020 election, the objects in history’s mirror are closer than they appear: exactly 79 years mark the time between when the last slave ship docked in Alabama to when Adolf Hitler declared war on Poland, and exactly 79 years from when the United States entered World War II to our present dystopian times.

The fall of 2020 also marked the beginning of my work with the civically engaged, activist arts organisation For Freedoms. In my personal recovery from working inside cultural institutions for the last ten years, absorbing the quiet trauma that all workers of colour face within these predominantly white institutions, I was saved by a collective of artists who believed they had the superpowers to imagine radical visions into reality: fearlessly confronting the issues the rest of the art world deemed too political to touch, ceaselessly championing artists of colour, and insisting on a society where art is essential to our democracy. Though I always knew that I alone could not dismantle the colonial structures of white supremacy within the art world, perhaps progress could exist within artist-led organisations that believed in artists as first responders in the time of crisis. It wasn’t until I began witnessing the horrific violence against people who also looked like me, that I too answered the call.


Chella Man: I Want to be Remembered (Copyright © the artist and For Freedoms, 2021)

May in the United States has historically been celebrated as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Though truthfully, I cannot recall a single time I ever took part in AAPI celebrations in years past, this year is different. This year, we observe AAPI month while witnessing the heartbreaking footage of our Asian elders being beaten on the streets as a direct consequence of weaponised rhetoric such as “the China virus,” with hate crimes against Asians increasing by 164% in just the first quarter of 2021, and by 223% in New York City alone. This year, we simultaneously mourn the loss of Black and Brown lives at the hands of police; day after day, week after week; the list of names already too long to count. It will take so much more than the dedication of a special month to recognise such deep pain. In our world inundated by images in shared public spaces, of both grief and joy, there is profound power in art to shift these narratives and begin to imagine the possibility of justice.

At the end of the documentary Aggie, filmmaker Ava Duvernay shares that “Art requires imagination, and justice does as well. They're both about seeing something that's not there, and then working to make it so.” Through my collaboration with For Freedoms, I am proud to have had a part this AAPI month in imagining justice with our AAPI Solidarity campaign: the brave work of nearly 40 artists taking a stand against hate is now displayed on advertising billboards (and digital spaces) across the country — from Mel Chin’s take on #BlackLivesMatter (黑命攸關) to Christine Sun Kim’s "I.O.U. (one full chapter in the history books) to Asian Americans.” But the pursuit of justice does not simply end once we #StopAsianHate, for AAPIs or any single community. An injustice to anyone is a threat to justice for everyone. Justice is a vast and infinite undertaking — one that requires the work of all of us. None of us can be free, until all of us are free.

We are the ones we've been waiting for.


Christine Sun Kim: IOU (Copyright © the artist and For Freedoms, 2021)


Maia Ruth Lee: Stand for Asians (Copyright © the artist and For Freedoms, 2021)


Nicole Kang: I Reap What You Sow (Copyright © the artist and For Freedoms, 2021)


Carol Lim (Copyright © the artist and For Freedoms, 2021)


Taiki Terasaki: Past, Present (Copyright © the artist and For Freedoms, 2021)


Mel Chin: Better (Copyright © the artist and For Freedoms, 2021)

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Anna Rogacheva: Hate is a Virus (Copyright © the artist and For Freedoms, 2021)

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About the Author

JiaJia Fei

JiaJia Fei is a digital strategist based in New York City. As founder of the first digital agency for art, her practice is centred around the mission of making art more accessible through technology. 

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