It was 1970, and the civil rights movement had left its mark on many young people. Four Asian-American artists influenced by the activism came together to form Visual Communications, a media organization dedicated to the accurate portrayal of Asian-Americans.
More than 20 years later, Visual Communications finds its goal and activities more important than ever, as stereotypes and racial discord remain alive and strong throughout the United States.
Based in Little Tokyo, the nonprofit group of filmmakers, writers and designers encourages and promotes Asian-American media works by producing and showing films and videos, sponsoring exhibits and workshops, and publishing educational materials.
Visual Communications will be honored for its contributions to the Asian-American community at a banquet Saturday in Torrance. The organization is one of five community groups and individuals that will receive the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California’s annual community service awards.
Entertainer Nobuko Miyamoto, founder of performance art group Great Leap Inc., another local organization dedicated to providing a voice for Asian-American artists, is also an award recipient. Miyamoto and Great Leap have collaborated with Visual Communications on various projects.
With a core staff of eight, Visual Communications has produced a variety of materials for use by local community groups, such as an anti-drug music video for the Asian American Drug Abuse Program. In its early days, Visual Communications also produced “Ethnic Understanding” educational materials for the Los Angeles Unified School District to teach elementary schoolchildren about Asian cultures.
In addition to sponsoring film and video festivals to present Asian-American artists’ works, Visual Communications also holds workshops to help artists improve their production and marketing skills.
In its cluttered office on the third floor of an aging building on Los Angeles Street, the group houses an impressive archive of 300,000 historical photographs chronicling Asian-American life. The pictures have been collected from scores of Asian-Americans who have donated their family albums.
“That’s my folks!” executive director Linda Mabalot says proudly as she points to an enlarged 1940s-era photograph of a family of five.
In fact, a photo exhibit was what launched VC, as members call the organization. Robert Nakamura, Alan Ohashi, Eddie Wong and Duane Kubo, all photographers and filmmakers, came together to produce an exhibit about the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans and ended up forming Visual Communications.
“There were no materials on Asian-American history and culture,” said Mabalot, who joined the group in 1977. “As media artists, we wanted to use our skills to produce sensitive but honest stories and portrayals.”
Fighting racial stereotypes is a continuing battle, she added. “The mainstream media still looks at us as foreigners,” Mabalot said. “Japan-bashing, everything affects us Asian-Americans. Images portrayed in the media, without further explanations, can affect public perceptions.”
As Visual Communications concludes its first quarter-century, it faces new challenges, Mabalot said. To better serve Asian-American communities, the organization must make sure it reaches out to the underrepresented segments, such as the new Southeast Asian communities, she said.
Visual Communications also needs to build more partnerships--not only with other Asian-American organizations but with groups of other ethnicities, Mabalot said.
“We have to develop a whole new language. . . . What does cultural diversity really mean?” she asked. “We need to ask the question: ‘What do we want the world to be like?’ ”