Mia Park, an Asian American woman, is shown behind a drum kit.
Drumming up support for APIDA Arts Festival: festival founder and executive director Mia Park (shown performing at Covers for Cover 2022 at Lincoln Hall) Credit: Liz Farina Markel/Tipping Point Photography.

Scanning the three-day offerings of the APIDA Arts Festival, held May 5-7, one of the first things I notice is the array of ages, ethnicities, and mediums on display. Veteran of the Chicago music scene and filmmaker Tatsu Aoki is present on Saturday morning at the Goodman Theatre for Tea and Talk, where visitors can meet and mingle with creatives. On Friday, teen glassblower Tiberius Geisen’s glass sculpture will be on display in the same space (the Chicago Cultural Center) where Rika Lin and Shalaka Kulkarni perform dances for festivalgoers. The performers and artists celebrated are sculptors, dramatists, writers, musicians, comedians, and chefs. They claim heritage from all over the Asian continent, from south to central to east Asia. 

APIDA Arts Festival
5/5-5/7: events at Claudia Cassidy Theatre at Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; Alice B. Rapoport Center for Education and Engagement, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn; Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; complete schedule at apidaarts.org; free and all ages

When I ask executive director Mia Park about how she achieved all this, I’m also paying a compliment. Initially, I was neutral, if not slightly skeptical, about the festival—in my experience, it’s easy for an event to call itself groundbreaking and inclusive while in actuality featuring a siloed, cliquish group. Asian arts initiatives tend to focus solely on East Asian people, or neglect aspects of the Asian American experience like queerness, class, or colorism. One look at the APIDA Arts Fest lineup and my skepticism was replaced by an impression of genuine desire to show as much of the tapestry of Asian American life as it can.

But in answering my question, Park responds by talking about failure; she wishes she could have had more elderly and more high school and college-age artists, as well as more Pacific Islander and Central Asian ones. She tells me about the extensive research her team did to try to reach out to underrepresented communities, even sending press releases to Chicago tiki bars. “I don’t want to risk feeling tokenistic,” she muses. “This festival is really trying to promote our mission statement: to amplify and unify.” 

Eileen Doan is shown standing at a microphone and podium.
Eileen Doan Is one of the performers in the first APIDA Arts Festival. Credit: Kristi Jan Hoover

Park’s answer is a testament to just how seriously the APIDA Arts Festival takes its pluripotency. The first festival of its kind in the midwest, it offers a veritable smorgasbord of options for all kinds of Chicagoans to experience. Take, for example, Eileen Doan, who will be showcasing her sometimes anthemic, other times crooning folk-pop songs on Saturday at the Goodman. Doan, who uses she/he pronouns, tells me that he feels “very connected with everyone in the festival even though we’re doing very different things.” Not only will Doan be contributing her talents musically to the festival, but she will lend his dramatic talents as well to readings of plays later in the festival. “We’re all gathering to celebrate this arts festival for the first time, specifically for Asian creatives in the city.” Rapturous, she calls the festival a “wonderful and beautiful and amazing celebration of Asian creativity.” 

Korean American visual artist Katie Chung echoes a similar sentiment. “It’s the first time someone’s taking initiative to have an Asian American arts festival here, so I thought, ‘What a rare opportunity to see the whole community in the same room on the same weekend.’” In the past, Chung has made textile-based art that called to her experience as a second-generation Korean American and the child of dry-cleaner parents. But at APIDA, Chung is debuting a new exploration of her personal story: a wearable art object that uses tags collected from her parents’ store and which incorporates aspects of a hanbok, or traditional Korean garment. 

I ask if this project has produced some new realization in her continued inquiry into Korean Americanness. She replies that the piece for APIDA fest has exposed her to other traditional Korean culture, but also that it’s widened her sense of community as well. “I’m just meeting more people in person and virtually; it’s opening my idea of Korean Americanism and how it’s whatever I want it to be.” The result of that expansion is that Chung has found she “grew up always being told, ‘You’re not Korean enough; you’re not American enough,’ but now I’m in this gray area. This is who I am.” 

Just as her new piece traverses the boundary between public and private, something that grazes the skin intimately while being made out of material not traditionally seen as wearable in the public eye, the experience of making the piece seems also to have threaded the outside and inside world of the artist. Driving this point home is the title of the piece: Kyung Mi. I ask her about the provenance of the name, and Chung replies, “I chose to name it this because it’s my mom’s first name. She’s worked and owned [her dry cleaner’s] for over 30 years, and everyone calls her Chung, which is my father’s last name. Because people can’t pronounce her [first] name and I wanted this to be an homage to her.” Through work like Chung’s, APIDA Arts Festival invites us to consider not just the outward-facing aspects of Asian Americana but the intimate, internal ones as well. 

Helen Lee is shown kneeling by the lakefront, holding feathers in her hand, some of which are blowing away in the wind.
Helen Lee curates a program of dance at the MCA May 7 as part of APIDA Arts Festival. Credit: Kristie Kahns

Speaking of internal experiences, something I noticed immediately in the festival lineup was the inclusion not just of sight, sound, and touch, but also taste. On the third day, held at the MCA, APIDA Arts Festival has invited chef Margaret Pak of the much-lauded Thattu to share her gustatory talents with festivalgoers. On the weekend menu is a Kerala fried chicken sandwich, naked-fried in rice flour and served with a curry leaf aioli on brioche, as well as Pak’s playful take on tater tots, tossed in chaat masala, a funky, sweet-sour-salty spice blend used in South Asian cuisine. Pak recalls when Mia Park came to eat her food when Thattu was still a pop-up: “She was very excited.” The invitation to be a part of APIDA Arts Festival came shortly after. “I remember asking her what does the acronym stand for and what the art fest encompasses. It was more than food and performance art and live music and bands and variety shows. The more she described it, the more it was confirmation that I’d love to be part of it and would love to share my Kerala cuisine with her.” 

When I ask how Pak views her food as being in conversation with the art at the festival, she thinks for a moment and tells me, “I’ll be honest, I was a little surprised, because I do typically feel [art] is something you should touch. And then I quickly realized I have a fried chicken sandwich we eat with our hands. Like Indian traditional food, it’s very sensory.” She goes on to tell me that she believes her food invokes a feeling of comfort. On one level, this is purely physical—we’re talking about a fried chicken sandwich, after all. But it’s also a comfort of the spirit. 

Pak’s introduction to Kerala food was through her husband, Vinot, to whom she’s been married for 18 years. It was through his cooking and their love that she found herself falling not just for Vinot but for Kerala food as well. Fast-forward a few years and now she’s sharing that feeling of finding home in a dish and in a person with restaurantgoers and festivalgoers alike. Her culinary ode isn’t just a one-way street, either; Pak tells me about a group of Indian aunties who visited Thattu and asked if she was roasting her coriander. “Once I started roasting the coriander, it really brought out the earthiness of this coriander chicken. Now there are layers of Vinot growing up on this food, then me adding my touch, and now my Indian auntie customers-turned-friends. I kind of love that about some of our dishes.”

With so much to choose from, what does Park hope that people walk away with after experiencing the whirlwind tapestry of APIDA Arts Festival? Her answer is immediate: “I hope they find some kind of wholeness in being part of this festival, whether they’re allies, whether they’re APIDA or not demographically.” Her final words are resounding, triumphant, almost a  proclamation: “I just know if I’m confident in my community, it will make the community feel whole and complete. Then people experiencing our art will also take away this feeling, this feeling of wholeness and complete[ness].”