Dissent can exist in many shapes and sizes. While it can be associated with anguish, frustration, and confrontation, dissent can also be a display of resilience, highlighting strength found in warmth and beauty – a means to offer peace and galvanise meaningful conversations. Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya's 'I Still Believe in Our City' public art campaign exemplifies voicing dissent through a bold celebration.
Created by Thai Indonesian American artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya during her public art residency with the New York City Commission on Human Rights (NYCCHR) in Spring 2020, the I Still Believe in Our City campaign responded to the growing racism – in the form of discrimination, harassment, assault and murder – targeted towards Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) in North America during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I live this experience every day and needed no further research."
Phingbodhipakkiya was keen to begin working immediately as the pandemic broke out at the start of her residency, meeting with local community leaders and requesting data on the locations of these hate crimes from the NYCCHR. To her surprise, the data showed that anti-Asian bias incidents occurred in every single neighbourhood. Starting in November 2020, these locations became temporary homes for the I Still Believe in Our City public campaign.
Honouring members of the API communities who continue to stand their ground in the face of racial injustice, the series aims to reclaim public space for API communities as integral members of the city. Phingbodhipakkiya explains:
"My goal with this series was to turn these hurts into something beautiful and powerful. Each piece features bold colours, dynamic composition, and hidden complexity, just like New York City herself. It is a reclamation of space, a celebration of our beauty and resilience, a promise that we will come together and fight for our shared future."
Other versions of the series also feature portraits of Black people as a sign of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and as a larger call to end institutional racism.
Phingbodhipakkiya also created a social media campaign to support the project. These included images with text in various languages: English, traditional Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Tagalog (an Austronesian language spoken in the Philippines) and Vietnamese, enabling them to be used by the public as tools to address anti-Asian racism.
The V&A has acquired five bus shelter posters from the I Still Believe in Our City campaign. They foreground close-up portraits of API women in vibrant colours alongside anti-discriminatory messages: 'I am not your scapegoat', 'I still believe in our city', 'This is our home too', 'I did not make you sick', and 'We belong here'.
These posters were striking to encounter on the busy streets of New York, not only for their scale, directness, and dynamism but more significantly for how rare API women are celebrated in the urban landscape, if ever at all. In a world where women of colour can often be reminded that "this is not their world, their city, their street; that their freedom of movement and association is liable to be undermined at any time" (Rebecca Solnit, City of Women, Whose Story is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters), the protagonists on these posters hold power and live in public, so as to empower those who find themselves reflected in the images.
Phingbodhipakkiya explains the intended identities of the figures depicted:
"(They) are composites, almost like I'm the AI putting together people I know, faces I've seen, people who have impacted me. People will swear they see themselves or others in the work, and that is the point, that we know these women even if we don’t actually know them."
In API communities it is not uncommon to address women who are not blood relatives as 'grandmothers', 'aunties', and 'sisters'. The intergenerational love that exists within the communities shines through in Phingbodhipakkiya's characteristic depictions of women of varying ages. While the women on these posters appear familiar and heart-warming, they are also defiant and undeterred, refusing to be stereotyped.
On 16 March 2021, a series of mass shootings occurred at three spas in the Atlanta metropolitan area, leaving eight dead, including six Asian American women. In the wake of the shootings, Time magazine featured a portrait from Phingbodhipakkiya's I Still Believe in Our City campaign, titled With Softness and Power, on the cover of their 29 March/April 5 2021 issue.
Posters from the series became a unifying image at the 'Stop Asian Hate' rallies held across North America, in over 94 US and eight Canadian cities in the weeks that followed the Atlanta Shootings. The figures on the posters became the face of the masked protestors, telling the world they were there and their lives mattered.
Anti-Asian hate attacks in the UK also spiked during the coronavirus pandemic. The number of such crimes reported to police in London alone tripled at the start of the pandemic. Acquiring these posters into the V&A collections not only resonates with communities in North America but also with local East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) communities in the UK, who find living here increasingly unsafe.
Hundreds gathered at London's Parliament Square on 10 July 2021 as part of the 'Protest to Protect: ESEA' to demand action from the UK government, highlighting that the pandemic has caused a 300% increase in racism towards ESEA people in the UK, with Asian women disproportionately targeted. The protest was attended by the likes of Sarah Owens MP, actress Gemma Chan, and fashion writer Susie Lau. One of the poster slogans from I Still Believe in Our City was spotted in the crowd: 'This is our home too'. It had travelled across the Atlantic and found itself being used as a tool for people in the UK to amplify their voices.
During #StopAsianHate rallies in Newcastle, Birmingham, Bristol, and London that took place on 24 July 2021, slogans and speeches such as 'Not your model minority' resonated strongly with Phingbodhipakkiya's sentiments of resisting the assumptions and stereotypes assigned to API/ESEA communities due to a lack of existing platforms to express their diversity.
For the V&A, I Still Believe in Our City represents a unique cultural moment and the powerful role design plays in expressing oneself, individually and collectively – in this case, voicing dissent through public art and protests, and addressing the issues of racism. As part of the Rapid Response Collecting programme, the poster series sits alongside a Pussy Hat worn at the Women's March in 2017; Extinction Rebellion's visual identity, designed to create urgency around the climate emergency; and copies of the July 2020 issue of British Vogue which feature portraits of key workers in London.
Bringing Phingbodhipakkiya's works into the V&A creates a starting point for discussions in the UK and internationally, and shows how through design objects we can ask the pressing questions of today. Through these acquisitions, we also endeavour to celebrate artists and designers who are currently underrepresented in the sector.