After debuting the fruits of her recent residency at the Graduate Hotel in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti artist, illustrator, and graphic recorder Yen Azzaro
is taking her work on the road for a show in New York City.
Azzaro, who also works as a mentor in Concentrate's Voices of Youth program, recently debuted her latest work, "Altar|Alter
." Part installation and part performance, the project was made possible by the Graduate Hotels’ Sweet Dreams Society Artist Residency
, through which Azzaro had a residency at the Graduate Ann Arbor hotel this summer. "Altar|Alter" pays homage to the victims and families of anti-Asian hate crimes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Azzaro says the inspiration for "Altar|Alter" came to her in a vision in which she prominently saw the colors red and white.
"Red in many Asian cultures is about auspiciousness and good fortune. But there is also this intensity of the color that evokes passion and rawness and blood," she says. "The color white, for many Asian cultures, evokes the idea of calm and peace that comes with death and the afterlife."
From her vision came the concept of an altar. Growing up, Azzaro witnessed her Chinese Buddhist parents performing rituals at the family altar. She says she didn't have a full appreciation of the ritual of daily prayer – nor did she understand how Buddhism would resonate and comfort her throughout her life.
Azzaro brought her vision to life by creating a physical altar that is divided into red and white halves, respectively symbolizing deceased victims and survivors of anti-Asian hate crimes. Thought-provoking objects – such as a Target shopping bag representing the bag that an unidentified Vietnamese woman was holding when she was brutally punched 125 times, kicked seven times, and spat on – line the altar's shelves.
Azzaro shares that feedback was very positive for the project's one-night opening on Sept. 8, at the Graduate in Ann Arbor, where she installed the altar and did a live performance piece. One goal was to offer community members a way to participate in a religious ritual where they might be able to experience the discomfort of praying in a religion that is foreign, or of "being on view in an uncomfortable way."
Another goal was to spur action. At the "Altar|Alter" opening, after participants prayed, they were routed to a table with instructions on how to take action against Asian-American hate. At the end, visitors were able to view a large printed diagram of the altar, which detailed the violence committed against each listed victim.
Currently, Azzaro is preparing to share her project in New York on Oct. 26 at the Roosevelt Island Graduate.
It's slotted to open as part of a group exhibition with other Graduate program residents from across the country. Azzaro is looking forward to meeting other participants at the New York show, including DJ White Shadow, who is a Graduate residency program mentor and a producer for Lady Gaga. And she's anticipating coming back to Washtenaw County even more inspired.
"I want to come back and continue talking about things so that we don't continue to normalize this pandemic of violence that Asian-appearing people in this country have been left with," she says.
Jaishree Drepaul is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of Yen Azzaro.