Wing Luke Museum’s ‘Fashion in Focus’ Exhibit Highlights Youth Art Program

by Amanda Ong


On January 15, 2022, the brand new student exhibition of 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 operates its schedule on a quarterly system. “It’s a great way for high school kids to learn about the Wing and explore artistic professions,” said Blake Nakatsu, exhibit designer and YouthCAN program manager at the Wing Luke Museum. South Seattle Emerald. “Our goal is really to provide a space where young people can engage with the arts and their peers. And I hope we will continue to be a place where students feel connected to Chinatown-International District.

Each term, the program invites a different teaching artist to work alongside Nakatsu and YouthCAN Assistant Meilani Mandery to develop a program. The teaching artist for this term was Tamar Sunnam Manuel, a multimedia artist who calls herself “Solitary Frowns” professionally. After a quarter of a chat, Mandery and Manuel took the students on outdoor and studio photo shoots – whose work is now featured in the “Fashion in Focus” student exhibit at the museum.

Fashion in focus. Photo courtesy of Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.

The program that led to “Fashion in Focus” aimed to give students a fresh 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 elite and not very accessible to people who are new to it,” 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 they can see themselves in and be interested in participating in without perpetuating all the damage. who these industries cause.

Mandery herself showcased punk fashion, which despite commercialization has deep roots in the queer, feminist, anti-establishment, and BIPOC-led movements. Through presentations like Mandery’s, the program aims to integrate the themes of racial justice, solidarity, history, community and culture into discussions led by the program.

“One thing that I was really aware of when creating the program was to use various examples – whether it was the body type or the racial and ethnic identity of the models – to be able to show that there is different people other than what traditional fashion photography will tell you,” Mandy said. “Fashion photography can be you, and it can be your friend. everyday, in what you wear.

Photography in the CID, however, can be tricky. Mandery points out that trends have caused Instagram influencers, many of whom are white, to visit their Chinatown or local Asian grocery stores and take photos there – using these locations as an “exotic” backdrop for the aesthetic. Asian. “We had to have this conversation with the students, about [how] it is a district above all. And we welcome you here, but the neighborhood is not just the background.

“We try to be reactive to things that happen,” Nakatsu said. “For example, during the uprisings and in the summer of 2020, YouthCAN looked for ways to use our voice to do, like posters, propaganda posters. Our teaching artist had made posters and drawings rallying, for example, to anti-Asian sentiment during the outbreak of COVID. And so in response, we, YouthCAN, wanted to do posters during the uprisings after the murder of George Floyd… in solidarity with the black community.

While the program typically has dedicated studio space at the Wing Luke Museum, during the pandemic classes have been online. However, all necessary supplies are sent to students prior to class to maintain the museum’s commitment to a truly free program. Although the mediums have changed, each has sparked new creative pursuits for students – previous terms have featured mediums like mail art, encouraging students to create and send postcards to each other.

Pandemic-related adjustments were difficult, Nakatsu said, but ultimately the program worked around the lack of studio space and always found ways to create community learning experiences and maintain engagement. in favor of 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 socio-economic 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, a great day where someone was able to come in and show them a bit of what they are capable of and hopefully encourage them to keep doing it as well,” Manuel said.

Manuel’s experience resonates with other students in the program. Student Maddie Tanabe told the emerald“As I didn’t have much experience with the photography side, it was a great experience talking and learning with our teacher artist and other students. I think this term has especially helped me to understand photography as a medium that I could experiment and test.

The ability for students to have their work on display at the end of term is perhaps one of the most unique opportunities in the program, one that most museums lack. “One of the things I love the most about the program is at the end, the students exhibit artists,” Mandery said. “And that’s not an opportunity for everyone, especially at that age.”

“They are able to see something tangible, it’s up to them,” Manuel said. “And that’s really exciting.”

Photo representing one of the walls of the gallery as part of the "Fashion in the spotlight" exposure.
“Fashion photography can be you, and it can be your friend,” says Meilani Mandery, YouthCAN Assistant. “It may represent your culture, but it manifests in your everyday life, in what you wear.” Photo courtesy of Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.

Museums as institutions literally grew out of colonial practices, build collections from looted art and artifactsand alienating and upset the BIPOC. Embedding community voices within museum walls plays an important role in decolonizing museum practices. “Just having a dedicated space for youth art to display in a museum is social justice work, it’s equity work,” Nakatsu said. “The world of museums is considerably closed and elitist. Allowing community voices to be on our walls is certainly part of the equity work we do.

Providing free art space is essential for this work, Mandery noted. Moreover, in this case, “space” also means a real and physical space to celebrate this art. It builds community, introduces students to different artistic professions, and introduces students to CID, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander cultures.

“I think it’s so important that young people can express themselves creatively, but also be given a platform to do this work outside of whatever they have access to at school or in their own families. “said Mandery. “I think having this dedicated community space where young people can come in and do whatever they want and introduce them to working artists – I don’t think there’s necessarily another artistic space or cultural space that has this right now.”

Ultimately, “Fashion in Focus” taught students that fashion and photography are accessible to you, regardless of your abilities, whether technical, physical or mental, and now their own lines of work on 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 had a significant impact on the students, both as artists and as growing humans. “When I thought about this program, I fell in love with photography, because taking pictures gives me joy,” student Henry Jensen told the emerald. “By learning about fashion subcultures, I feel comfortable expressing my image by wearing any garment that gives me comfort and meaning in the day.”

Visit the “Fashion in Focus” show at the Wing Luke Museum at 719 S. King St., or learn more about YouthCAN on the museum website.


Amanda Ong (she) is a Chinese-American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate in the University of Washington’s Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in Creative Writing and Ethnic and Racial Studies.

📸 Image courtesy of Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.

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