Art that weaves a community together

Inspired by dialogue, work by artist Saiyare Refaei recognizes diversity at Fred Hutch
Photo of Dr. Paul Buckley presenting new artwork
Dr. Paul Buckley shows the new art created by Saiyare Refaei during the Public Art and Community Dialogue Art unveiling event January 24 at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service


“We are generationally abundant.”

“We turn our pain into power.”

“We are improving scientific innovation together."

These expressions of longing for belonging, of pride and solidarity are central to the third installation of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center’s Public Art and Community Dialogue Program, sponsored by the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Core (DEI) department.

Last November, Fred Hutch held dialogue sessions to understand how employees who identify as part of Asian, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AAANHPI) communities connect with their culture, with Fred Hutch, and with the larger community. Artist Saiyare Refaei, who was selected in the fall to join the program, literally and figuratively incorporated what she heard — expressions of empowerment and unity — into a print that features a bowl of rice, a unifying food across AAANHPI communities. 

The rice is depicted as an offering, held gracefully by two hands, with the word “we” spelled out in purple grains of rice superimposed on top of the individual white grains. The affirmations that Refaei heard expressed by employees circumnavigate the bowl of rice and each begin with “we” as well. The words and images appear against a woven mat, which is common in many AAANHPI communities on the floor or as a placemat.

“I wanted to find something that literally wove our communities together,” said Refaei. “There are so many different ethnic groups that make up this identity. In talking to employees who identify as AAANHPI, I hope to affirm them in how they show up each day. I hope to show that folx are unified in their experience and in the way they want to be seen.” 

During the dialogues, Refaei heard a deep desire for visibility, along with themes of trust and recognition of the fact that the AAANHPI community is an integral part of scientific advancement. “Our communities come from such generational abundance and care for one another, and those are qualities that employees are bringing to this really important medical work,” said Refaei.

Refaei grew up in McMinnville, Oregon, as a first-generation American with an Iranian father and a mother from Hong Kong. A resident of Tacoma, Refaei learned printmaking from a friend in Oaxaca, Mexico, then furthered their knowledge through print-making classes in college. Refaei developed mural-painting skills by watching other friends.  

“It was a very unconventional way of learning, not in a formal sense but from my community,” said Refaei, who accepts commissions and participates in collaborative art shows, with a focus on art as a way to build and fortify community. “I consider myself a community artist in the way I try to be accountable to communities."

Elevating rice to art came naturally to Refaei, who works at Pierce Conservation District doing garden and farm education and supporting local growers. 

Photo of artist Saiyare Refaei speaking about their inspiration.
Artist Saiyare Refaei speaks about the inspiration for their art during the unveiling ceremony.  Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

“We will be called what we want to be called.”

“We take care of each other.”

“We are empowered by our traditional ways of being.”

Refaei’s print will be displayed as a flag, a banner and as a print that will hang in a Fred Hutch building. It joins two other works of art that highlight the Black and Indigenous communities at Fred Hutch. Mark Modimola’s piece explores how racism and disenfranchisement have impacted the health of the Black community, while Roger Fernandes uses traditional coast Salish imagery to depict overcoming challenge and the use of storytelling in Native cultures as a form of medicine.  

The works of art are intended to broaden the discussion about the importance of community and equity in research and health care, both inside and outside the Fred Hutch community. 

Kaci Bray, administrative manager of operations and initiatives within the DEI Core, said that Fred Hutch has given the artists who are part of the Public Art and Community Dialogue Program autonomy and encouraged them to “create something they haven’t created before” from what they hear and internalize from the employee dialogues. 

“The two hands holding a bowl of rice are offering healing,” said Bray. “The art is saying, ‘We will not be silenced, we will not be passive.’ It is pushing back against stereotypes." 

Joe Ungco, DEI Core’s associate director of DEI learning, client services and data analytics, identifies as a member of the AAANHPI community. They said they appreciate how Refaei’s artwork reflects the wide range of diversity reflected within the AAANHPI community.

“A lot of this came out in the dialogues: what does someone from South Asia have in common with someone from the Pacific Islands?” said Ungco. "What emerged is this theme of solidarity in diaspora because one thing we may have in common across individual groups is immigration, ties to lands that our ancestors may be from.”

Photo of Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Tom Lynch speaking at the art unveiling.
President and Director of Fred Hutch and holder of the Raisbeck Endowed Chair Dr. Thomas J. Lynch speaks about the importance of listening to others and accepting points of view we aren't familiar with during the art unveiling ceremony. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

One manifestation of solidarity is a shared meal staple, such as rice. “Across many of our cultures, food has an important role in bringing our communities together,” they said. "It's a way to celebrate and an act of community. On one hand, it feels silly to say we all have rice in common, but looking at a bowl with rice, I can interpret it as all these individual grains of rice that are different individuals within a community. Each piece on its own doesn’t speak together as a bowl of rice does. It’s about multiple disparate individuals coming together into one space.”

Ungco, who oversees DEI educational initiatives including bias mitigation education, is trained as a geriatric occupational therapist. They specialized in end-of-life care for people with degenerative conditions, which made them a particularly astute observer of quality of life. "I know how important it is to recognize what a thriving community looks like and what the human experience is beyond survival. Art is a way we as humans go beyond the nitty gritty of survival happening on a cellular level. We engage our full humanity. It's a reminder that representation is really important, seeing yourself represented in an institution in a way that is not tokenizing.” 

“We belong here.”

Refaei’s art was officially unveiled on Jan. 24 at noon in the Arnold Building atrium. The event was free and open to the public. 

Watch the unveiling of the third piece of art born out of Fred Hutch's Public Art and Community Dialogue Program.

Video by Connor O'Shaughnessy / Fred Hutch News Service

Bonnie Rochman is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. A former health and parenting writer for Time, she has written a popular science book about genetics, "The Gene Machine: How Genetic Technologies Are Changing the Way We Have Kids—and the Kids We Have." Reach her at

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