In mural celebrating Asian student heritage, past and present come alive

Created by Los Angeles-based artist Lauren YoungSmith, the mural “Finding Home” is meant to convey the legacy and future of Asian students on the Yale campus.
The mural “Finding Home” by Lauren YoungSmith

(Photo by Mara Lavitt)

Yale sophomore Sanya Nair was awestruck as she watched the unveiling of a new mural on an exterior wall of the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) last month to celebrate the center’s 40th year in existence.

Spanning several stories of one side of the red-brick building at 295 Crown St., the new mural realistically depicts two gender non-conforming students of Asian heritage, dressed in colorful attire and wearing backpacks. One, wearing a barong tagalog with batik-inspired patterns, looks forward out of blue glasses, a baseball cap on their head and a small hoop earring in their left ear. The other figure, who faces slightly backward, has a long, flowing blue and gold braid, large hoop earrings featuring a Mongolian design, and a nose ring. A megaphone is in their mehndi-covered hands, and their wrists are adorned with multiple bangles. Their open backpack is filled with books that have significance to Asian-American history, culture, and creative arts at Yale and more broadly.

Surrounding and interlacing the two are pastel-colored gingko leaves, from which dangle the tree’s orange, cherry-sized fruit. The gingko tree is native to China and also lines the streets around the Yale campus. On an abutting two-storied wall are different shoes: red-laced boots, flip flops, flats (decorated with an Asian tiger motif), and purple Converse sneakers.

The mural, titled “Finding Home” and designed and painted by Los Angeles-based artist Lauren YoungSmith, is meant to convey something of the center’s legacy as well as its present and future as a “home” for Asian students on the Yale campus.

Lauren YoungSmith
Lauren YoungSmith (Photo by Mara Lavitt)

I had been watching with my peers as the artist materialized the design onto the wall from white primer to a colorful and vibrant representation of what makes the AACC such a welcoming and strong community,” said Nair, who works as an undergraduate student coordinator on the center’s alumni engagement team. “I know how much the center means to current (and former) Yale students, and for it to be honored and celebrated via this mural is incredibly heartwarming.”

The idea for the mural came about when Joliana Yee, AACC director and an assistant dean of Yale College, was contemplating how to mark the center’s 40th birthday in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic prevented a celebratory large-scale gathering of current students and alumni with ties to the place.

From the time I arrived at Yale several years ago, I always thought it would be great if we could have a mural on our building like the beautiful ones at our neighboring Casa Cultural Julia de Burgos [the cultural center for LatinX students],” said Yee. “I knew that having a mural was something our Asian community had talked about even before I came to Yale, but hadn’t had the resources to execute.

Our students were really excited by the idea of a mural, and given how much anti-Asian racism this past year and a half has brought into the Asian community worldwide [in response to COVID having originated in China], art felt like the natural response as a source of healing from that and the pandemic, as well as for beauty and reflection.”

After receiving support from the Yale President Office’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces in June, a nationwide call for proposals went out, during which YoungSmith — an urban artist whose murals and fine art are exhibited around the world — was chosen by a mural advisory committee made up of students, alumni, faculty, and administrators that Yee and AACC Assistant Director Sheraz Iqbal co-chaired since January.

One criterion was that whoever was chosen, the artist had to be willing to listen to community feedback, said Yee. “All of us connected to the center — students and alumni alike — wanted to ensure that the art is representative and inclusive of our entire Asian diaspora,” she said. One concern, for example, was that students of South Asian heritage, who often feel “invisible” because people presume “Asian” refers only to East Asian people or culture, felt the mural spoke to their experience.

YoungSmith (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) is of mixed white and East Asian heritage. They dove into an exploration of the history of the AACC before coming up with their mural design, learning about the student activism and advocacy that gave birth to a cultural center for Asian students on campus in 1981. Much of that history is revealed in a new “virtual museum” on the AACC website.

One historic tale shared on the site, which has come to be known simply as “the shoe story,” tells of how, when Asian students had a meeting with then Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti in the early 1980s, they decided to leave their shoes at the entrance to the tiny space in Bingham Hall that served as the dedicated space for Asian students to gather. The students hoped to convince Giamatti that a larger space and dedicated center — like the Afro-American Cultural Center — was a necessity for Asian students. Giamatti, impressed by the large number of shoes and the determination of the gathered students, promised to consider their request.

Students in front of mural
Joliana Yee, director of the Asian American Cultural Center (top left) and AACC Assistant Director Sheraz Iqbal (top right) with students (bottom row) Aranyo Ray ’25, Natasha Ghazali ’22, Pia Gorme ’23, Linda Thach ’22, Vivian Zhao ’24, Andrea Lee ’23, Eunice Kiang ’24, Manuljie Hikkaduwa ’23, (top row) Ronak Gandhi ’22, Adrian Kyle Venzon ’23, Resty Fufunan ’24, and Tony Ruan ’25. (Photo by Dan Renzetti)

The shoes on YoungSmith’s mural surround a doorway to represent this part of Yale history.

When the center was established in 1981 as the Chicano and Asian American Cultural Center, it shared a space with Movimiento Estudiantil Chicaco de Aztlán (MEChA), an organization created in 1969 of students from various racial and ethnic backgrounds concerned with social justice and cultural awareness. Yale undergraduates who were part of the Asian American Student Alliance, also founded in 1969, and MEChA had united for more than a decade in various causes of activism, including protesting the Vietnam War and supporting the civil rights of the Black Panthers during the highly publicized New Haven murder trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale.

YoungSmith said the megaphone in the mural serves to be a symbol for some of that history of activism and organizing by Asian students at Yale.

Mural detail showing hand with megaphone.
(Photo by Dan Renzetti)

I was really inspired to learn how active Asian students were both on campus and beyond, and so I tried to capture that energy in the mural,” the artist said. “I wanted the two characters to speak to both the past and the future, to current students and older alums, so I created them looking as if they are striding forward. So there is a sense of movement in the piece, as if they were going to a protest or some sort of action.”

The books featured in the mural were suggested by members of Yale’s Asian community during one of the several feedback sessions YoungSmith held to discuss the emerging design of the mural. The books’ subjects include feminism, the Black Panthers, and Brahmin poetry. Also in the student’s backpack is the AACC’s magazine “295,” named for the center’s address on Crown Street.

The sticks coming out of the backpack are dandiya sticks used in South Asian dance; there is a praying mantis that for Asians symbolizes peace and wisdom; and the gingko foliage captures the idea of evergreen energy, while fruit is always an offering in Asian culture,” YoungSmith said. “I always put a ton of detail into my pieces and I’m into ‘Easter eggs’ [hidden references], so every single thing has its symbolism.”

The textiles of the clothing worn by the mural’s characters, as well as some of their jewelry, are drawn from various South Asian cultures, according to YoungSmith.

As part of this commemorative mural project, the Yale School of Art co-sponsored a short-term residency where YoungSmith was able to sit in on graduate-level classes. They completed the mural, which was created using spray paint, in just over a week’s time. While on campus, they also gave advice to some undergraduate students on their senior theses. Yale College students in a painting class taught by School of Art lecturer Sophy Naess had the opportunity to observe and chat with the artist while they worked on the mural.

YoungSmith described the opportunity to engage with the Yale community as a “singular experience.”

I usually just plan the image on my own and paint it, and hopefully get to interact with some people, but am usually quickly on to the next thing,” the artist said. “Getting to come and spend time was really, really fun. This piece belongs to the space it is in, and there are a ton of really brilliant young people at Yale. I just wanted to make everyone feel good and proud and like they could claim the mural for themselves.”

For Yee, the mural more than makes up for the lack of a community birthday bash for the AACC. In its own way, she said, it brings together past and present Asian students at Yale.

It’s safe to say that I feel immense pride that the AACC is now adorned with such a beautiful and distinctive mural that not only embodies the center’s history but also stands as the only artwork in the city of New Haven centering the Asian diaspora,” Yee said. “I hope many Yalies, New Haveners, and visitors alike will get to enjoy its beauty and learn of the AACC’s significance for years to come.”

THE AACC is one of four cultural centers at Yale. MEcHA is now located in La Casa Cultural de Julia de Burgos at 305 Crown St. The Native American Cultural Center is around the corner at 26 High St., and the Afro-American Cultural Center is housed in 211 Park St.

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