Meng Urges Smithsonian to Honor Photographer Corky Lee with Exhibition

Feb 10, 2021
Press Release
Lee, who was from Queens, New York, spent decades chronicling Asian American Community

QUEENS, NY – U.S. Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens), First Vice Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, announced today that she led a letter to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. urging officials there to create a special exhibit honoring the late photographer Corky Lee.

Lee, who was from Meng’s home borough of Queens, New York, was a prolific photographer who captured the Asian American lived experiences in the United States from the 1975 protests against police brutality to the gentrification of New York City’s Chinatown, and from the anti-Muslim hate in the post-9/11 era to the anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex that consists of 19 museums and galleries.

“Photographs are powerful tools and mediums to communicate the human experience. Corky understood this when he studied at Queens College and saw a photo of the Transcontinental Railroad that depicted no Chinese laborers despite them having built it,” said Meng. “From that moment, he dedicated his life to covering our community and making sure our cries, struggles, laughter, and solidarity with others were captured. His whole life was focused on this – helping lift up our stories and giving voice to the greater AAPI community in the United States. Let’s honor Corky by creating an exhibit at our nation’s national museum that highlights his work and legacy. I look forward to seeing this come to fruition.”

Corky Lee passed away on January 27 due to complications from COVID-19.

Meng sent the letter to Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch and Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Director Lisa Sasaki. A copy of the correspondence can be viewed here, and below.

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Dear Secretary Bunch and Director Sasaki,

We write to request the works of the late legendary photojournalist and political activist Corky Lee be exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution.

Corky’s contributions to the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community are unmeasurable. Over his 50-year career, he documented the life of AAPIs through the photographs he took, many of which sought to combat injustices that impacted AAPIs. From historic moments of social and political upheaval, his photos covered anti-Vietnam War protests, fair housing issues, the gentrification of New York City’s Chinatown, anti-Muslim hate post-9/11, the 1975 protests against police brutality, demonstrations following the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, and many more. Corky was like a walking museum, capturing the battles AAPIs fought, including that of anti-Asian hate during COVID-19.

Known as the unofficial Asian American Photographer Laureate, Corky started his career in 1965 while studying American history at Queens College, when he saw an official photo of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah. Though largely completed by Chinese workers, the photo of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad known as the “Golden Spike,” showed none of them. From that moment, Corky committed himself to righting the wrong and undoing the part of American history that has excluded AAPIs.

Secretary Bunch, we wholeheartedly agree with you when you said in your testimony to the House Administration Committee on February 5, 2020, “the experiences of any community offer a lens to better understand our collective national identity,” and that “its stories are stories for everyone.” Indeed, Corky’s work documented the good and bad of AAPI life in the United States. He documented the part of American history that is not taught in schools or reflected in school textbooks, but nevertheless, remains a part of our collective national identity.

We urge you to include Corky’s work at the Smithsonian, as it would ultimately inspire our nation’s diversity. Just as Corky made visible the AAPI community, we urge you to make visible his extraordinary and revolutionary work that chronicled AAPIs and brought to light the untold American stories.

Sincerely,

 

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