“Do you not see me as American?”
Statue-still under a cold spotlight, Nabila Nawrin, BC ’19, stares at her shadowy audience as her own voice echoes over Roone Arledge Auditorium’s loudspeakers. Her stance—crossed arms, strong gaze—reflects the confidence with which she had delivered this prerecorded monologue. Her words flash and unfurl on a black screen behind her; the animated text has a strobe-like effect in the cavernous theater. Her question—suspended in the air—is one that each performer in the fashion show would address: that of Asian-American identity.
The spotlight left Nawrin and illuminated the model to her right. Her monologue transitioned into her neighbor’s. After each model’s speech had played, the runway lights came up between rows of audience seats, and the cast marched down from the stage in pairs. They posed for the camera-wielding spectators before circling back to the wings of the stage. Lights down, next set: A new cast of models took to the stage, each sporting a look from the next collection, and a new monologue thundered out.
The Columbia University Asian American Alliance is primarily a political activism group, according to cultureSHOCK Director Tina Wu, BC ’19. That being said, AAA has built a reputation for itself on campus, hosting several yearly cultural events that attract a wide audience. The best-known among these is probably cultureSHOCK, an annual multimedia performance and social gathering. The 2016 production of cultureSHOCK: Redefine showcased performances as varied as the performers’ identities on Saturday, Nov. 19. With concert and fashion show elements, the moments in which the power of art as activism brought the audience to silence defined cultureSHOCK: Redefine.
The theme of “redefining” multiple identities influenced each part of the performance. The fashion show’s cast consisted of 20 undergraduate models. Each model showed off pieces of the work from four up-and-coming, New York-based Asian-American designers, standing statuesque as their monologues reverberated through the room. Their confident words and movements held the audience rapt.
Wu and cultureSHOCK’s fashion show coordinator Isabelle Lee, BC ’19, anticipated that the fashion show would be cultureSHOCK’s centerpiece. “The mission of cultureSHOCK is to provide a space for people of color on campus, specifically those who identify as Asian American,” Wu said. “I think that the fashion show portion will speak to that the most.” Indeed, AAA’s politically active nature shone through the models’ personal narratives.
The models who addressed beauty standards in their monologues asserted powerful refusals to conform to Western stereotypes about Asian beauty and bodies, both rejecting the modeling and fashion industries’ obsessions with “token” East Asian features and recounting their personal efforts to challenge generalizations of Asian Americans. One model spoke on the submissive stereotype of Asian women and the struggles associated with that generalization. As her monologue faded out, a hip-hop beat burst from the speakers and the background screen, which had been rolling the script of her monologue, flashed the response “ANGRY ASIAN GIRLS” in vibrant, block letters. The message was clear, and the models who proceeded to take the runway took ownership of it through their determined poise.
Dance groups Malama Hawai’i, CU Dhoom, CU Generation, and Raw Elementz; a cappella group CU Sur; and martial arts performance group Columbia Wushu performed after the fashion component of the show. Anik Khan and Awkwafina, both Queens-born hip-hop artists who identify as Asian-American, capped off the evening with their much-anticipated sets. It was a difficult task to match the centrality and focus of the fashion show. AAA succeeded, though, in choosing high-energy groups whose performances served as a celebration of the models’ courage in coming forth with their personal monologues. The music and dance sets were upbeat and festive—a well-deserved celebration of the energy and perseverance of the performers.
At a historic moment marked by political division and uncertainty, “cultureSHOCK” was an opportunity for members of the Asian-American community at Columbia to stand together and make their voices heard through visual and performing art forms. The models told stories of hardship and the bravery required to overcome it within the complicated racial landscape of contemporary America; and yet, the overwhelming tone of the evening was one of solidarity, as evidenced by the thunderous applause that followed each clothing collection, speech, and musical performance.
Perhaps this tone was best exemplified by an Asian-American model who spoke about her autism. She took the neighboring model’s hand as her monologue played over the speakers and she started boldly into the crowd, overcoming, in that moment, her fear of making eye contact, which she noted was a result of her disability. The final words of her monologue not only embodied the sentiment of self-ownership that each model expressed, but also provided an apt response to Nawrin’s initial question about how Asian Americans, of all intersecting identities, are “seen.” “Disabled and imperfect,” the model’s voice rang out, “I will define how I see myself.”