‘Sowing Agency:’ Uplifting AAPI voices in the Environmental Justice Movement

Zoe Binder

Staff Writer

Narinda Heng began as a poet, then explored pottery, and later became a backpacking instructor. These three practices overlap and have deepened her connection to the environment, Heng said. One of her poems, titled “Unearthing,” reads, “The culture of extraction demands an elsewhere to run to when the poisons become too much.” The work later resolves, “The answer to a crumbling world is not to leave it, but to love it harder.”

A new exhibition at the SOMArts Cultural Center launched April 30. Organized by the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) and the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC), “Sowing Agency: Seeding the Future for Environmental Justice” is a call for action in environmentalism, offering visitors a space for deep introspection on environmental injustice. 

On the day of the show’s official launch, Lisa Pradhan, the exhibition’s curator, and Diana Li, the managing director of AAWAA, held a virtual kick-off event via Zoom and YouTube livestream. The event hosted a line-up of some of the exhibition’s featured artists who talked about their work, including Heng, and its place within the environmental justice movement.

To kick off the event, artist Rebecca Maria Goldschmidt offered a live cotton spinning. Goldschmidt grew the cotton herself over a couple of years to practice rekindling her relationship to the earth. “When I think about environmental justice, my thoughts go to personal relationships to the land itself,” she said. “It’s important for us to understand how those relationships have been severed and how we can begin to reclaim them.”

In 2019, Pradhan began working at the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice after working in the world of Asian American art. “I started thinking more and more about how environmental justice shows up within my own community,” she said. For Pradhan, there was a lack of representation on the subject of environmental justice in the Asian American Pacific Islander art world. “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not happening. More often than not when you can’t see it, it is happening, but the stories aren’t front and center.”

Echoing that sentiment, Li spoke about the role of art in environmentalism. “Part of the goal of this show is to make the environment a part of our culture,” Li said. “Art makes things accessible.” 

Angela Han, a featured artist in the exhibition whose paintings are inspired by the nine dragons of Chinese mythology, said similarly during a Q&A for the exhibition, “One of the most beautiful things about the arts is that it captures the things that can’t be said. We can process things in our minds, but it’s only when we feel it that we are mobilized to take action.”

For Cindy Shih, a Taiwanese American painter who combines western-style frescoes and Chinese landscape in her pieces, the role of art is to communicate the depth of the environmental movement to those in her community who might struggle with the English language. “The visual language that is spoken in our work is powerful in reaching communities who might not be aware of, or able to understand the conversations that are happening, [around environmental justice],” she said during the Q&A.

Pradhan shared her hopes for the reception of “Sowing Agency.” “We don’t have to have all the answers about how to stop climate change, but what we can do is open a space for people to share their stories and spend this time learning from them,” she said. “I hope that the audience has a similar intention and that they feel activated to make a difference.”

“Sowing Agency” is open virtually and in-person by timed-ticketing through May 23 at SOMArts Cultural Center. Virtual gallery visits are free via the SOMArts website, and in-person visits can be reserved for free at Eventbrite.

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