Collage art of the activist organization Godzilla Asian American Network.

442: The Godzilla Asian American Arts Network that trampled on conformity

This 1990s artists’ collective was as anarchistic as the titan lizard itself

The Godzilla Asian American Arts Network embraced the spirit of the anarchistic lizard.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Caroline Cao

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

Have a historical tidbit you’d like to share? Let us know!

Did you know that a Godzilla hatched in New York City in the 1990s? No, it’s not quite the kaiju. Rather, it was a force just as formidable: a collective of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders fighting against their exclusion from art spaces.

In 1990, artists Ken Chu, Bing Lee, and Margo Machida founded the Godzilla Asian American Arts Network. According to the group’s 1991 mission statement, Godzilla set out to “establish a dynamic forum that will foster information exchange, mutual support, documentation and networking among our expanding numbers across the United States.” Its founding was informed by its predecessor, the Basement Workshop, the first Asian American arts collective that operated from 1970-86. By 1995, Godzilla bloomed into a network of 2,000 members.

Why name itself after a giant cinematic lizard that served as a symbol of the devastation atomic bombs caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II? The network’s loose structure and eclecticism befit an association with the “anarchistic lizard,” as the late art historian and member Alice Yang described. The group’s expansive activism ranged from addressing the scarcity of Asian representation in art spaces, protesting anti-Asian violence (they mourned for Lin Lin, a portrait artist shot in 1991) and addressing the complexities of representation, to amplifying awareness of the AIDS crisis and promoting solidarity with Black and Brown communities. Their meeting notes, slick newsletters, Kodak photos, protest letters, and essays are compiled within Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network 1990–2001, a book curated and edited by Howie Chen. 

In 1991, Godzilla penned a letter to David Ross, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, to protest the lack of Asian American representation in the museum’s influential exhibit, The Whitney Biennial—marking their first major act of activism. Ross convened with 12 Godzilla members to hear their concerns, and he made plans to hire curators from marginalized communities onto the museum's staff so that their curatorial leadership would be more aware and inclusive of artists of color. Come 1993, the Biennial displayed a record number of Asian American artists and began tackling racial politics. The following year, the Whitney appointed Eugenie Tsai, a Godzilla member, as curator.

A letter written in 1992, from the Godzilla Asian American Network thanking the director of the Whitney Museum for opening a dialogue.

In 1992, Godzilla wrote a letter thanking the director of the Whitney Museum for opening a dialogue.

Courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery

To further illustrate the collective’s causes, a meeting agenda from April 19, 1991 encouraged members to submit art to Visual AIDS, a nonprofit that tackled AIDS awareness through art. It critiqued the nonprofit as being “dominated by white gay males,” pointing out that “no community is immune to AIDS,” and the importance of Asian artists gaining visibility in the AIDS conversation. That same agenda also alerted members to the Black and Latino Caucus’ demonstration against budget cuts affecting arts organizations. 

Godzilla’s diverse collections and exhibits zeroed in on the multitudes of identities and intersectionalities. In 1991, Chu curated Dismantling Invisibility: Asian and Pacific Islander Artists Respond to the AIDS Crisis for the New York Art in General exhibit, which explored the taboo subject of AIDS in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Skowmon Hastanan organized the 1993 Curio Shop exhibit, confronting the exotification of curio shops and the monolithic labeling of “Asian American,” in the Manhattan-based Artist’s Space gallery. In 1995, Godzilla introduced an installation titled Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—NOT! at the Kapio'lani Community College in Honolulu, which featured personal and public representations of Asian and Pacific Islander identities. And as a last hurrah to their dissolving organization (and to honor Yang, who died in 1997), the collective staged their final 2001 exhibit Why Asia?, an urban rendition of a Buddhist tradition of writing prayers and wishes and tying them to trees. Twenty-four artists designed 13 banners of good wishes and sentiments—made from abstract paintings, photography, and graphics—which were hung on Chinatown lamp posts for public viewing.

A poster of Godzilla The Asian American Arts Network's 1993 exhibit, titled Curio Shop.

A poster of Godzilla The Asian American Arts Network's 1993 exhibit, titled Curio Shop.

Courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery

Although the organization has since evaporated, its activism lives on in its veterans. Archived in Chan’s book, the late curator-essayist and member Karin Higa wrote in her 2006 essay “Origin Myths: A Short and Incomplete History of Godzilla,” “There wasn’t necessarily an official end to Godzilla. It just slowly petered out.” But the surviving Godzilla members remain steadfast fighters against the machinery of capitalism and elitism. In 2021, Godzilla members Arlan Huang and Tomie Arai led a call for transparency and accountability from the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)—an institution that arose thanks to the foundational Basement Workshop—which allegedly accepted a $35 million city grant to support the construction of a 300-foot mega-jail in Chinatown.

An artwork showing a sculpture of a human covered mostly by a sheet. Above the sculpture is a metallic sign that reads, "Miss Hanoi."

One of the works currently on display at the Eric Firestone Gallery: An Pham, "Miss Hanoi," 1993.

Courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery

And in a letter, 19 Godzilla members announced their withdrawal from the Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990-2001 exhibition to be curated at the MOCA. The letter asks, “In the context of global protests for racial justice, what do MOCA’s claims of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and Indigenous sovereignty truly mean? The complicity of MOCA’s leadership with the jail plan amounts to supporting the system of mass incarceration and policing that disproportionately affects Black and Brown lives.”

Amid Chinatown’s continuing protest against the mega-jail this year, Godzilla still wanders New York City as a new exhibit Godzilla Echoes From The 1990s Asian American Arts Network currently stands in the Eric Firestone Gallery in the Soho neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, New York City and runs until March 16.

A painting of an elderly person riding on a bicycle.

One of the works currently on display at the Eric Firestone Gallery: Yun-Fei Ji, "Going Home in High Spirits," 2022.

Courtesy of Eric Firestone Gallery

Published on March 5, 2024

Words by Caroline Cao

Caroline Cao is an NYC-based writer. A queer Vietnamese American woman, she also won’t shut up about animation and theatre. She likes ramen, pasta, and fanfic writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Maximinalist.

Art by Vivian Lai

Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.