It is really fantastic to see Nippon Club host an exhibit of Okinawan Art. Okinawa tends, all too often, to get rather sidelined. Whether because it is different, and Japanese tend to focus on representing [mainland/mainstream] “Japan,” feeling it’s okay (or even expected) to leave Okinawan matters to the Okinawan clubs, or whether it’s the simple logistical matter that Okinawa is only one (or several) of so many topics or regions or aspects of Japan, and so logistically Okinawa can only come around again so often. After all, it’s not that frequently that we have exhibits specifically about Gifu, or specifically about fan-making, either.
The Nippon Club exhibit was curated by Onaga Naoki, former assistant director of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and curator of several of the museum’s most impressive and groundbreaking exhibits. So, we know that he is an expert on the subject, and someone extremely well-informed as to the range and depth and breadth of contemporary Okinawan art. That his selection of objects is deliberately and carefully chosen from the full range of contemporary Okinawan art; that this is neither arbitrary, nor the product of a curator with only a narrower, or even misguided, awareness of the field.
So, why is it that we only see certain types of styles, approaches, and themes here, and not other ones? I find it very interesting to see how the Okinawan artists included here represent themselves, and Okinawan identity. Is this a reflection of Onaga’s personal preferences and biases? Or is it a relatively accurate representation of what the majority of Okinawan artists are doing?
Either way, I think it a terrible shame that Okinawa’s vibrant, colorful, upbeat, culture, a culture with such strong connections to history and traditions, should be represented almost exclusively by such extremely modern(ist) works. In a brief news article talking about the exhibit, Onaga says “this is the first real introduction of Okinawan art to be carried out in the United States.” I’m not sure that that’s true, but if it is, it introduces Americans to a decidedly different Okinawa than the one I study, the one I love. He speaks of the exhibit “help[ing] Americans and people of Japanese descent to gain a better understanding of the history and culture of Okinawa,” and Nippon Club’s director says that “While Okinawa has an image in the United States as an island full of military bases, we hope to get people to understand aspects of its culture.” Yet, the complete absence of anything in the exhibit related to the glorious history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, traditional folk songs, architecture, painting, or clothing, and only very little relating to ceramics or textile traditions is quite revealing as to what these people believe Okinawan culture and identity to be; or, what they desire the American audiences to believe it to be.
This is not the first time that I have seen an exhibit of Okinawan art (or just read the catalog) where the art is extremely modern(ist) and global in its aesthetic, approach, and content. There are hints of a Japanese quality to the art, in so far as that they are not so different from what a lot of (mainland) Japanese modern(ist) artists of the last 50 years have done; also, in that the exhibit includes ceramics and textiles, a nod, perhaps, to Japanese craft traditions. But, the only hints of Okinawan history or culture in these works is in how they relate to World War II, to the current US military presence in Okinawa, and other aspects of 20th century history and contemporary concerns.
If it were up to me, I’d put together an exhibit of works that in some way reference or recall pre-modern or traditional Okinawa. Works that borrow and reference the past in a more colorful, playful, post-modernist kind of way, and that focus on a colorful, beautiful, Okinawa with strong connections to traditional identity (esp. music & dance), rather than on the dreary, grey, and decidedly modern(ist) Okinawa seen in these works. I’m looking for the (Neo-)Nihonga artists of Okinawa. The Clifton Karhus, Yamamoto Tarôs, and Yamaguchi Akiras of Okinawa. People whose works are centered on, inspired by, reflect or recall sanshin music, bigata robes, the glories of the Ryukyu Kingdom, continuing and reviving traditions for the modern age, just as the Nihonga artists of the early 20th century did for mainland Japanese painting, and just as Neo-Nihonga artists today do, re-injecting elements of traditional Japan into a Japanese identity which threatens to become too (post-)modern, too globalized. That is, if such artists even exist in Okinawa. Or would that be a disservice? Would that be misrepresenting Okinawan attitudes and aesthetics, to show only the pieces I like?
For as much as the Okinawan community in Hawaii identifies itself strongly with suffering and victimhood at the hands of the Japanese, they also express and celebrate their Okinawan identity through traditional garments, crafts, foods, language, history, traditional observances/celebrations, and most especially through music and dance. I would love to see Okinawan art connected to the Okinawan Renaissance of the 1970s through today; art connected not to Japan’s outdated but continuing struggle to be “modern”, nor to the same-old contemporary issues of suffering and victimhood, but rather to Okinawan identity as identified through a connection to history, tradition, and artistic and musical traditions. Do these exist? Does the Nippon Club exhibit reflect that they do not? Or does it reflect some agenda, or biased attitude on the part of Mr. Onaga? I think Onaga’s last comment in the above-linked article is quite revealing that it is, in fact, the latter. “I hope to show that there is a world-class art in Okinawa,” he says, code for “I want to show that Okinawa is as modern(ist) as anywhere else,” an attitude strongly espoused in Japan throughout the 20th century, perhaps most strongly in the 1960s-70s, while the rest of the world has, meanwhile, in the 1990s-2010s, moved on. Mr. Onaga is clearly caught still in the discourses of modernism, which rejects the traditional, and the culturally distinct, in favor of the cutting-edge, the avant-garde, the abstract and experimental; meanwhile, the rest of us have moved on to post-modernism, which embraces individual cultural identities, and borrows extensively from our traditions in order to craft a more colorful, more beautiful, and less sterilized sense of our own identity – in order to revive our diverse identities, rather than losing them to a sort of a-cultural pan-global modernity/modernism.