Miki Fujiwara: Art for Change

Miki Fujiwara, aka Urban Envy, is a self-employed visual artist/community activist based in New York City.
Born in Hiroshima, Japan, Miki is known to be one of the original members of the New York Tributary Art Movement. The majority of her work, mostly paintings, has been categorized as “Cultural Surrealism,” often said to be in the “tradition of Cynthia Tom and Frida Kahlo.”
Urban Envy’s works can be seen in local galleries of New York City.
Here’s Miki…

*Can you describe your community activism and how you use your role as a visual artist to work for positive change?
My role as an artist/activist is simple. It is to tell “my side” of the story to as many people as possible. As an artist/activist, my job is to become the voice of the voiceless, my method is to create artworks, and my key platform is the Internet but it can be street based or it can be in galleries. My message can be anything — my personal experience as a person living in the United States to more specific social issues, to expressing a group voice.
As an artist/activist, I think I encourage people to have an open-mind. What I mean by this is that though artwork, I can speak my mind without preaching one way or the other. I bring awareness to people and assume they will come to their own conclusions. I don’t expect instant change, but I do expect awareness, therefore, have big dreams of it leading to social change. Since most of my artworks are non-didactic, it allows the viewers to keep a
open mind, therefore, reaching some who were unreachable by other tactics.
From your experience, what are some issues you feel many youth are able to better express through the use of art?
I say, local and community issues. I believe young people are most effective when addressing issues facing their local communities. And as far as visual arts go, “community/street art” seems to be their “weapon of choice.” I am including murals, graffiti art, and guerilla art here. These methods have always had some political tinges to them. And, having a shared sense of identity, culture, and place is what makes these community/street art so effective.
Then, to involve youth… that gives us hope for the next generation to come. It touches people on a completely different level. I think that many youth feel something deep inside, yet are unable to express themselves verbally and often do not know how to take action. On the other hand, they know what they see, so they feel the need to chronicle their lives. This can be about celebrating their heritage, to making note of police brutality, to chronicling a death of a significant figure within the community. Community/street art, when effective will stir your emotions. It has the ability to make you passionate about something and is free for all to see. What is magnificent about community/street art is that it comes without the often elitist and pretentious side of the art world.
Of course there are many other ways in which today’s youth express themselves. But when do youth feel they are better able to express themselves through art? My take on this is, when they require methods to be a part of something that is “grassroots” rather than being a part of something that they may feel to be a “hierarchical entity.” The pecking order within a movement, no matter how positive is the cause, can be difficult. For young people who might feel they are at the bottom of the pecking order, this feeling is probably exaggerated. So they choose to express themselves in other ways that echo their true voice. Art gives them a major platform and an equal standing with those who might be more established within the community to be heard.
What are some examples of youth programs you have spearheaded or have been a part of that you are especially proud of?
I’m proud and blessed to be a part of all the youth programs that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. But if I had to choose, I would say I am particularly “fond” of programs which integrate arts into urban schools. I am not talking about creating more art, music, and/or drama classes, although that is also important. These programs made art part of the students’ everyday lives. By working together, teachers and artists successfully integrated literature, visual arts, music, film, etc. into the students’ core classes like Math, English, and History. These types of programs show students that art is not something that is only enjoyed by elites. It shows them that art is all around us for everyone to enjoy. And these programs stress that subject matter of these so called “classic” works are not difficult to understand, it is often life as they see it. Teaching classic art in students’ everyday classes may seem far-fetched to some, but I assure you that these kids actually “get it.” When integrated in a correct way, they get the connection between life and art, and, most importantly, they learn that they too are worthy of it.
How do you perceive yourself as an artist? And how do you perceive yourself as an activist? Are they one in the same?
Yes, definitely, it is one in the same. I am NOT an artist working as an activist or an activist working as an artist, I am always both. Art is my political, social, and casual voice. Without it I cannot carry a decent conversation and I would not be very effective in making people aware of issues that are essential to my existence. It takes a lot to put “you” out there in any form. I have the same fears that many others have: fear of being overly righteous, fear of being judged, fear of being dismissed, fear of failing, etc. Saying it through my art makes it a little easier, since most people expect some type of controversy and drama from artists and their artworks.
What are some upcoming projects you are working on? Are you planning any special projects around the ’08 presidential election?
I am supporting a certain candidate, but no, I am not working on any creative projects around the presidential election. I chose to stay away from that for many reasons.
What I hope to be concentrating on this year is my Suzie Wong 2020 Project. This is my attempt to bring awareness and social change through art. By using the novel/film character Suzie Wong from The World of Suzie Wong as a symbol of historic and current discrimination against Asian women (in general) in the Western world, this project attempts to change the image of Asian Pacific American (APA) women within mainstream America. The World of Suzie Wong, originally a novel written by Richard Mason, became a hit Hollywood film in 1960 directed by Richard Quine. It is about an Englishman who goes to Hong Kong to “find” himself and meets a local prostitute named Suzie Wong.
The film is known for it’s negative portrayal of Asian women as exotic, submissive, dim-witted, promiscuous and overly sexual; and for creating and reinforcing the negative stereotypes of APA women. Several generations later, these negative stereotypes of APA women within the United States are still prevalent. This project will overtly challenge the stereotypes put upon APA women by mainstream America by means of ART.
I have been planning to jump into this project for about a year now and hopefully, this is the year where I can get some creative pieces done for this project.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Sure. Art is powerful. Art is also effective in reminding us that something is from the heart. Without any known message, it can affect your mood, it can heal you, it can kill you, it can move you, and yes, it CAN impact policy. Art reaches and touches many. Some use it to spread beauty, others, love, but my artistic mission is to challenge stereotypes.
Lastly, let me throw in the importance of the Internet and technology. With today’s technology, the possibility for artists/activists to reach and touch people is endless.
You can contact me @ www.urbanenvy.com, www.myspace.com/urbanenvynyc, and www.nytributary.com.

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