The “Manhood” poster series was created by artist, and San Francisco native, Deborah Enrile Lao as a way to inspire young Asian American boys and men. The series consists of screen printed posters of five iconic Asian American men—Richard Aoki, George Takei, Jeremy Lin, Bruce Lee and DJ Qbert. In Lao’s artist statement, she writes:
This piece challenges the unkind, one dimensional portrait of Asian American men in mainstream Western media. By exuding strength, creativity, leadership and masculinity, these five icons buck characterizations of Asian American men as meek nerds who never get the girl (or guy). Bold paper colors and a minimal illustration style reclaims the one dimensional space into one that portrays these men as “superheroes” that young boys and men can aspire to be like.
I chatted with her on the phone to talk about her poster series and the inspiration behind them.
What inspired you to create these posters?
I had just finished an advanced screenprinting class which pushed me to explore and experiment with my personal ideas. I have a young brother—he was an inspiration behind creating the posters. I wondered about how the younger generation of Asian American boys would feel when they grow up, who do they have to look up to? So I came up with the “superhero” concept using primary colors and simple faceless outlines. I want people to be able to see themselves in these icons. The posters represent the ideals behind the people more than just the people themselves. And it started with Bruce Lee.
Why Bruce Lee?
A documentary about him was coming out when I was starting this project. When I was thinking of Asian American male sexuality and virility, Bruce Lee was the first person who came to mind. He was the first cross-over actor who appealed to both black and white audiences, and had international fans.
Asian Americans are always the ones being made fun of, the butt of jokes in mainstream media, and Bruce Lee defies that stereotype. He was well-respected and no one messed with Bruce Lee.
And the others?
I had a hard time thinking of men outside of Bruce Lee. So the purpose of the project was to think of men who had made an impact and remember them. I wanted to create positive portrats of Asian American men. Jeremy Lin seems to be “it” at the moment. He is really living his dream, yet humble, honest and seems really rooted. It’s inspirational to see an Asian American male figure so accepted and revered who is just being himself. To me, he represents the idea of being yourself, living out your dream, and being respected.
After Jeremy Lin, I did George Takei then Richard Aoki and lastly DJ Qbert.
Why DJ Qbert?
I felt like the series needed a fifth person to make it more substantial. Hip-hop has been inclusive within the movement. When the Invisibl Skratch Piklz came out, they were the first Asians in hip-hop. It didn’t matter what race they were, what mattered was that they could really scratch. And the fact that Qbert is Filipino resonated with me since I’m Chinese-Filipino.
Now you see Asian American hip-hop groups like Far East Movement on MTV, and all these Asian American boys crews winning dance competitions. I feel DJ Qbert lead the way for Asians in hip-hop.
Do you think you will do more with this series? Possibly something with API women icons?
That’s a possibility. I would like to have more representation of Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians. But I want the ideas to come organically, naturally, and use people who really resonate with me. I’ve been thinking of extending this to Asian American women such as Patsy Mink. While working on this, names of iconic API women kept coming up.
(Below are the five posters in the series.)