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Archive for the ‘Painting’ Category

Continuing on from my last post

Right: Chinese folk deity Guan Yu, by Higa Kazan 比嘉崋山 (1868-1939), one of the premier Meiji period artists in the Okinawan equivalent of (mainland) Japan’s Nihonga movement. (Reproduction on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Photo my own.)

I find it really exciting to be seeing these exhibits at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. This is the history of Okinawan modern art, and the associated canon of works, being promulgated right here, right now. By which I don’t mean to say this is Okinawa’s equivalent of the Armory Show or the Salon des Beaux-Arts, events where the newest latest artworks made a great splash, receiving such positive or negative reactions that they later became famous, oft-cited – in other words, canonical – touchpoints in the history of modern art. But, still, these exhibits right now at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum are the ones pointing to those earlier events and telling a story about them, in perhaps the most coordinated effort yet, and thus in doing so are creating the standard story of Okinawan modern art, and the standard works featured within that story. Imagine being there the first time a major museum put works by Monet, Manet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Magritte, Picasso, Gaugin, Seurat, Matisse, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Pollock, and Rauschenberg in a room together and told you, the viewer, that this is the story of “modern art.” Imagine getting to see all of those works, which a decade or two later have – as a result of this exhibit – become known as some of the most important, most famous works in the world. At that later time, students and others see these paintings in textbooks, in lecture slides, in newspapers or magazines or websites, and dream of someday hopefully getting to see them – but you were there, at the exhibit that made them famous. Visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and seeing all of these works by Nadoyama Aijun, Higa Kazan, Nakasone Shôzan, Ômine Seikan, Adaniya Masayoshi, Yonaha Chôtai, Kawahira Keizô, and all the rest, is something like that, but for Okinawan art.

I may be mistaken, I may be reading this whole thing wrong, but it certainly feels to me, as I walk through these galleries, that these are the exhibits that are setting the story. These are the exhibits people within the field will be talking about for decades to come. I certainly will be. I don’t know what competition might be out there, other up&coming English-speaking specialists in Okinawan art, but I’m certainly hoping to be one of the first to put out some kind of comprehensive survey in English on the overall history of Okinawan art, and/or to teach classes on it, and I certainly will be looking back at exactly these exhibits, and at some of those I have already missed, but for which I at least got the catalog, such as the museum’s opening exhibit, back in 2007: “Okinawa bunka no kiseki, 1872-2007.”

I wrote in my last post about developments in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Western oil painting (yôga) came onto the scene, and as “traditional” Japanese painting transformed into something new (Nihonga) in order to adapt to the new modern age. Sadly, I missed the earlier rotations of this “Okinawa bijutsu no nagare” (“The Flow of Okinawan Art”) exhibit, and as I am not so well-read on any of this yet, I don’t know actually what was going on in Okinawa’s art world at that time, that might better parallel these developments.

“Yaeyama Landscape” 八重山風景, by Ômine Seikan 大嶺政寛, 1970.

But, despite leaping anachronistically straight to the postwar period, artists like Nadoyama Aijun (1906-1970) and Ômine Seikan (1910-1987) were still hugely influential and significant pioneers in their own ways, for that time. I wish I could say what the earlier history of oil painting, or other Western influences, in Okinawa were, and thus where exactly Nadoyama and Ômine fit into a longer story. I’ll learn that in time. But, even in the postwar period, they were creating works that depicted traditional Okinawan subjects in relatively realistic (if at times Impressionistic) styles, that far more closely resemble the styles of Paris-trained Meiji era artists, than those of abstract or conceptual artists of, say, the 1960s. Maybe a more trained eye would be able to look at these and know immediately that there’s something about their style that marks them as being no earlier than the 1940s-50s, but to me, they remind me of those Meiji developments, as artists like Kuroda Seiki and Yamamoto Hôsui worked to depict their own world – Japan, a Japan still very much filled with “traditional” sights – in a Western, “modern,” realistic mode. Also like the Meiji artists of a half-century or so earlier, Nadoyama and his contemporaries were founding artist communities, exhibitions, and journals, and exploring new (well, by the postwar maybe not so new) ways of being an artist in the modern world.

Nadoyama followed, really, somewhat, in the steps of the major Meiji period artists. Born in 1906, he began studying oil painting in 1924, at the Tokyo Art School (Tôkyô bijutsu gakkô), the very same school that is at the center of the standard narratives of the major developments of Meiji art. Twenty years later, he lost nearly all of his works in a major air raid on October 10, 1944.1 Two years later, after the end of the war, he created what’s now in the process of becoming one of the canonical works of 20th century Okinawan painting, a portrait of a woman in a white bingata robe, titled simply 「白地紅型を着る」 (lit. “Wearing Bingata with a White Ground”, Left.).

Meanwhile, in August 1945, within the very first weeks of the Occupation, US Navy officer Willard Hanna headed the establishment of what they called the Okinawa Exhibit Hall (沖縄陳列館). The US Military Government of the Ryukyus also established an Office of Culture & Art (文化美術課) and enacted some significant efforts to support and promote artists, actors, dancers, and the like. In 1948, Nadoyama, along with a number of others, successfully petitioned the mayor of Shuri for the creation of an artists’ community which they termed Nishimui; many of the artists who took up residency there worked for this Culture & Arts Office, either as “art officers” (美術技官) or in some other capacity. They established private studios at Nishimui, and many made a living by painting portraits for GIs, using that money and stability to pursue their art practice. Today, we are told, one of those studios remains in operation in the Gibo neighborhood of Shuri.

As early as the following year, in 1949, the artists of Nishimui organized the first “Okinawa Exposition,” or Okiten, an event meant to stand as the premier art exhibition in Okinawa, paralleling the national-level Ministry of Arts Exhibition, or “Bunten,” held annually in Tokyo, which had by then been renamed the “Japan Exhibition,” or Nitten.

Though it may be anachronistic to compare 1920s-40s Okinawa with 1870s-90s Japan, I cannot help but see Nadoyama’s story as connecting into the broader story of Okinawa’s art history, as a parallel to Japan’s. Just as we learn of the Tokyo Art School and the Bunten, and the various different art schools, artists’ groups, exhibitions, notable events, art/literary magazines, that took place, and the factions and tensions and rivalries, and the role of all of this in influencing the art itself in Meiji period Tokyo and Kyoto, so too does Okinawa have its stories, of the Nishimui artists’ village, created in 1948 in Shuri, and the relationship of these artists to the US military Occupation government; and of the Okiten, first held in 1949. And for me, that’s one of the things I love the most, is the stories. Stories that have yet to be told widely enough; stories that have yet to be incorporated into our mental vision, or understanding, of our infinitely complex, diverse, colorful world.

“Now… (3)” by Kawahira Keizô, 1988. Apologies for the skewed shape of the image here; I wish I would have been permitted to take my own photos in the exhibit, but since I wasn’t, and since I can’t find images of the work online, I had to fall back to taking a cellphone photo of an image out of a book.

The other major side of what I found so intriguing about this exhibition at the Prefectural Museum was how starkly obvious it is, just by glancing around the room, that Okinawa was right there, following right along with global art trends – that Okinawa is not only folk art; that they were not woefully behind the times; that while they may have been absent from the global art scene, and remain absent from our narratives of world art history, they were indeed producing modern art indicative of the styles current around the world in the 1930s, 1960s, 1980s. Looking around the room, one can immediately spot works that absolutely reflect those styles, and interests, in abstraction or whatever it may be, while at the same time reflecting the particulars of Okinawan culture, identity, history, politics, and experience.

“Now… (3)” (1988) by Kawahira Keizô, an oil painting depicting the Japanese and American flags flying together against a perfect cloudless blue sky, has a smoothness and starkness that, well, I don’t know what exactly was going on in the 1980s elsewhere in the world, but it’s certainly moved on past the obsessions with abstraction and conceptual art of the 1960s-70s, and with earlier decades’ trends in rejecting realism and embracing impressionism. This is one of the cleanest paintings in the place – bright colors, stark clear lines, nothing impressionistic or “stylized” about it.

“Koko ni iru watashi” (ここにいるわたし) by Gibo Katsuyuki 儀保克幸 (2009). Image from galleryokinawa.com.

Koko ni iru watashi” (“I, who am here”), a wooden sculpture of a schoolgirl by Gibo Katsuyuki, made in 2009, similarly, would not stand out at any contemporary art gallery. Put it in a US university’s art gallery and tell me it’s by one of the MFA students, or one of the professors, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But, look closer, and you find that the girl is hiding her hands behind her back, and that they are tattooed with designs which were typical on Okinawan women’s hands prior to the late 19th century, and which were banned as “uncivilized” practices for many decades.

These pieces are not only beautiful, masterful, inspiring, moving pieces of art, just as good, just as modern, as anything produced elsewhere in the world, but they also speak to the viewer of a particular story, a particular experience. They convey for us the emotions of that experience, and the issues and difficulties of that particular history, a history unique to Okinawa, and thus contributing to the diverse fabric of global understanding something that only they can provide – the uniquely Okinawan piece of the jigsaw. At the same time, these same issues parallel those shared by a great many indigenous and colonized peoples around the world – issues of suppressed, destroyed, lost traditions and efforts to revive and restore one’s identity; issues of stolen land and of suffering under occupation – issues which the vast majority of utterly mainstream (post)modernist, conceptual, abstract, thematic works by Japanese, American, or European artists won’t give you.

I can’t believe it; I wasn’t planning for this to be a whole series of posts. I think my first (lost) draft was actually much more concise. Oh well. I’m certainly not going to complain about having more content. Stay tuned for Part 3.


1) At least one of Nadoyama’s prewar works, long thought lost, was actually discovered in 2006.; as for the air raid, why am I not surprised that even despite the extensive interest among English-language Wikipedia writers, and English-language history enthusiasts more generally, in just about all aspects of World War II, there is no English-language Wikipedia page for the 10-10 Air Raid, an event cited regularly in Okinawan histories as a specific and extremely notable event?

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I have been very much enjoying visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum several times these last few weeks. They have three exhibits up right now on different aspects of Okinawan modern art, which not only provide the opportunity for me to learn new things, to continue to work towards an ever-fuller (though never complete) vision, or understanding, of the infinite depth and breadth of all that is “Okinawa,” its people, and their history & culture, but they also remind me of who I want to be as a scholar. I feel in my element, in a way, in those galleries. I am not someone whose passion lies chiefly in wrestling with complex conceptual interpretive problems about how our society functions, or what anything “really” “means,” so much as I am someone who revels in learning new things – stories, images – and then sharing them with others.

I am not a specialist in modern art, and none of these exhibits really do much to inform my research in any direct way. They are addressing a different period, a different set of themes and questions: problems of modernity, of identity amid a particular context of 20th century political and cultural experience. But these are still Okinawan objects and images, Okinawan stories – stories that are only just now beginning to be told; stories I am glad to be learning, deepening and expanding my knowledge; and stories that I am eager to share with others, should I ever be fortunate enough to get the opportunity to teach a university course on Okinawan art history, or to curate an exhibit.

The museum’s exhibition calendar for 2016-17, which I’m putting here as a stand-in for the notion of Okinawa bijutsu no nagare, the “flow” of the history/development of Okinawan art.

The first of these exhibits is part of an ongoing, or at least quite frequent, series of rotations of objects from the museum’s permanent collection, constructing and conveying a standard narrative of the history of Okinawan art, as well as a canon for that art history. On those rare occasions when Okinawan art appears at all in museum exhibitions outside of Okinawa, or in textbooks or course syllabi, it almost always takes the form of folk arts or decorative artstextiles, lacquerwares, ceramics – or, if you’re really lucky, you just might see discussion of the aesthetic world of the Ryukyu Kingdom more broadly, one drawing heavily on Ming Dynasty Chinese styles, in terms of the bold colors of Shuri castle, and of the court costume of the Confucian scholar-officials who peopled its government; not to mention ships, paintings, traditional Okinawan architecture otherwise… Or, you might maybe see something of far more contemporary work, political art, speaking to contemporary indigenous identity struggles and/or the ongoing protest campaigns against the US military presence. And all of these are fantastic and wonderful in their own ways. But, what you won’t see at other institutions, and what therefore makes these exhibits at the Prefectural Museum so exciting, is the fuller narrative of how Okinawan art got from one to the other – and the fuller narrative of everything that happened in between.

Right: Nadoyama Aijun 名渡山愛順, one of the giants of Okinawa’s early postwar art scene.

Having studied Japanese art under John Szostak, a specialist in late 19th to early 20th century “modernist” movements in Japan, I have something of a basic knowledge of the vibrant and complex developments of that time. As Japanese artists began to engage with Western “modern” or “modernist” art, and with negotiating their own place in the “modern”/”modernist” art world, many took up European oil-painting (J: yôga, lit. “Western pictures”), creating works that drew heavily upon and emulated – sometimes more closely, sometimes less – the styles, approaches, and themes of French Academic painting, Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and so forth, albeit while still creating works distinctively Japanese in their subject matter, thematic concerns, or otherwise. Meanwhile, other artists worked to maintain “traditional” Japanese painting – in traditional media, i.e. ink and colors on paper or silk, depicting traditional subjects, motifs, themes – and to adapt it to the modern age, giving birth to a movement known as Nihonga (lit. “Japanese pictures”). Both of these movements were also closely tied into issues of inventing a national identity, a set of national arts and national traditions, the creation of a canon of “Japanese art history,” and issues of performing modernity, proving to the world that the Japanese (1) can do modern art, and modernity in general, just as well as anyone else; that they are fully modern people and ought to be treated as respected equals, and that the Japanese (2) possess a history and cultural traditions that are just as noble, as beautiful, as anyone else’s.

The stories of this time in Japanese art history, of these movements in painting, and of parallel developments in architecture, textiles, ceramics, and countless other aspects of visual & material culture (or, aesthetic life), are beginning to be shared in major art museums, university classrooms, and elsewhere in the US, though they remain woefully under-discussed, under-known. Giants of Japanese art history such as Asai Chû, Kuroda Seiki, and Leonard Foujita; Ernest Fenollosa, Okakura Kakuzô, Kanô Hôgai, Uemura Shôen, and Maeda Seison; among many, many, others, along with the stories of their competing art schools, the development of the salon-style Bunten national art exhibitions, and so forth, remain almost entirely unknown even among the most regular visitors to the Metropolitan (for the example), the most devoted, cultured, informed, passionate lovers of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, or whatever. And I am most certainly eager to someday hopefully be granted the opportunity to share these stories with college students, museumgoers, or some other portion of the willing public.

But Okinawa has its art history story, too, and it is fascinating to see how these very same trends manifested in Okinawa at the very same time, in ways that sometimes closely parallel what was going on in Japan, and sometimes diverge, speaking to Okinawa’s unique, particular, cultural and historical experience. I sadly missed the earlier rotations of this Okinawa bijutsu no nagare (“the flow of Okinawan art”) set of exhibits, which would have covered precisely that period, from roughly the 1860s until the 1900s, as the Ryukyu Kingdom was abolished and absorbed into the newly-born modern nation-state of Japan, and as Okinawan artists first began to wrestle with the very same issues of tradition and modernity, Okinawanness/Japaneseness vs. the Western, and so forth, creating their own Okinawan version of the Nihonga movement, as well as oil paintings, and so forth. But, even in the rotation I did see, which begins around the 1930s and features artists and artworks up through the end of the 20th century, we see many of the same themes, and we see how they played out similarly, and differently, in Okinawa.

(More on this in my next post, coming up soon. Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Okinawan Art & History Part 2)

Thanks to the Ryukyu Cultural Archives for making the photo of Nadoyama, and so many other images easily accessible on the web, while the Prefectural Museum prevents one from right-clicking to either link to or save the images from their website. All images used here only for explanatory/educational fair use purposes.

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A typical scene in Nishihara. Just walking along the side of the highway, no shops at all in the immediate vicinity except for auto repair and the like…

As I wrote in my last post, Nishihara is… a new experience for me. Quite scattered and disparate in its layout. Just walking around the neighborhood immediately off-campus to the south, Uehara, I think I’ve counted at least five hair salons (for whatever reason), at least five car places (dealerships, garages, auto repair, motorbike shops, etc.), one fast food joint, plenty of real estate or apartment management places, a bunch of other random establishments, and zero bookstores. Zero cute cafés. Zero welcoming-looking restaurants. No supermarket that I’m aware of. Certainly no big box electronics store (or even a small one). I’m not even sure I’ve seen a cellphone store at all, in this particular neighborhood. On one day I popped off campus, thinking I would find, just something, whatever, to eat for lunch, and just make it quick and come back to my room to do more work. I wandered around for literally at least 30-40 minutes, getting further and further from campus, finding absolutely zero places that looked inviting – or even open – before I finally found myself at a supermarket (and still no appealing-looking restaurants), way off in another part of town entirely.

Now, granted, I do think that once I get a bit more settled in, and start to get more familiar with what’s available on each side of campus, in each part of the area, I’ll feel a bit better about all of this. After four years in Santa Barbara, I’m finally starting to feel that there’s really enough variety of dining, and enough to see and do otherwise – almost.

In the streets of Naha’s Tsuboya neighborhood. One shop after another, each inviting, each providing goods or services of real interest, like in a normal town.

But, still, I imagine you can understand why it was a major breath of fresh air to take the bus down to Naha, the prefectural capital, the other day. A city I’m familiar with, with lots of familiar sights, and just a real city, filled with things to see and do, all the resources you could possibly want. I was glad to discover that the bus runs relatively frequently, goes at least kind of late into the night (until 9:30 or so – thankfully not 6:30 or 7 as I’d feared), and takes only about half an hour. Looks like I’ll be able to get down into the city relatively easily and often. Thank god. Even so, I think next time around, the next time I find myself in Okinawa on a fellowship or a postdoc position or a sabbatical or whatever, I think next time it’d be super great to be based at the Okinawa University of the Arts – right below the castle, right in the city (more or less). I’m sure Ryûdai will be fantastic, in all sorts of ways, in terms of students and faculty and the library, and hopefully in terms of arts and events too. But, oh boy, how awesome would it be to live right there in Shuri? Next time.

This time, I took the bus to Omoromachi, and if I remember correctly went first straight to the big electronics store – Yamada Denki – and picked up a five-meter-long ethernet cable, so I can finally use my computer (with internet connection) in bed. Relax while I simultaneously get shit done – shit like blogging; or, maybe, actual reading/research work. With no stores around that I had yet found near campus, none at all really outside of basic convenience stores, even something as simple as this took a real adventure to get. Then I was pointed by the Yamada Denki folks across the street to San-e, the big department store / shopping mall, where I was able to get a prepaid data SIM card. Still no voice function (which means no phone number – hopefully I won’t need to have a number to put down on forms or anything), but, I’m all set on data for the next month – thank god. One more thing down.

As it turns out, we /do/ have such things here in Nishihara, too, just not immediately near campus (so far as I’ve seen thus far) – I would later discover a San-e way down near the town hall (about a 45 min walk from campus), which though still pretty basic compared to what’s available in the totality of Naha City, is just sizable enough to provide for much of what I’d feared was only available in the city. Namely, things like prepaid data SIM cards.

The main lobby of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Clean, sleek, bright. I wish I could share with you photos of the actual galleries, but they don’t allow photos…

In any case, errands accomplished, I poked over to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Thought I was going to buy up some museum catalogs, maybe some other stuff. As it turns out, (1) the one catalog I was really looking for, from an exhibit only two years ago on Kumemura, is all sold out and gone, and (2) there weren’t really any exhibits up right now that I wanted to bother paying to see. So, I bought myself a little coin purse, to hold all the change that keeps otherwise falling through the holes in my pants pockets, and I moved along.

Before leaving the museum, though, I decided to go check out the rental galleries – outside of the paid areas of the museum, where groups or individuals can come in and rent out the space for their own use. The last time I was here, two years ago, these spaces were being used for an exhibition of college students’ artworks, from the Okinawa University of the Arts. Maybe like a BFA thesis / graduation show. I’m not 100% clear. This time, I happened to catch a one-day-only exhibition of Western Australian artists, organized by Peter Davidson. I feel like the name is really familiar – like maybe I’d come across his Okinawa work before already – but if I have, I still haven’t quite figured out why the name rang a bell. Maybe it’s just a really common name.

“Okinawa Study” by Peter Davidson. Image from Wild Swan Arts Group blog.

Spoke with Mr Davidson for a little while, and got to take a look at his paintings. They’re small, but wonderfully vivid and colorful. They really capture the richness of Okinawa, I think – the lush greenery, the orange of the roof tiles… It’s a shame that the photographs can’t capture the texture and vibrancy of these paintings. Makes them look so flat…

Skipping seeing any of the regular exhibits I’d have to pay for (and which I’ve already seen, and which they won’t let visitors photograph because they’re obnoxious jerks), I then went back to the monorail station and headed over to the Naha City Museum of History. I imagine I must have posted about this museum before – it’s a funny sort of place, very small, tucked away on the 4th floor of a shopping center in downtown Naha. But, despite its small publicly visible footprint, and small municipal sort of name (City Museum), the Naha City Museum actually holds numerous National Treasures in its collection, and is a major center of Historical activity, including not only extensive documentary archives & library, but also publications (e.g. city histories), and playing some major role in organizing the historical markers & explanatory plaques all around the city.

They have just two small gallery spaces, one where they show decorative arts, mainly – textiles, lacquerwares, and the like, often from royal collections, often including some National Treasures. I’ve seen the royal sword Chiyoganemaru in that space, and this time, they had a replica of the last surviving royal investiture crown on display. I was disappointed it was only a replica, but, what are you gonna do. In the other gallery, they started off with a bunch of various different things relating to the city’s history – maps and paintings of early modern Naha from the 19th century or so, and also a model of a section of downtown Naha as it looked in the 1930s. One of the few things in the gallery they explicitly said we could take pictures of.

And then, the rest of the gallery is what really rotates, thematically. Right now, 2016 is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Basil Hall to Okinawa – his accounts of his journey remain one of the more canonical accounts in English. So, they had a very nice display detailing his trip, day by day, with copies of his journal, including the beautiful color illustrations, and so on and so forth.

Shuri Castle, lit up in the twilight.

Finally, after finding some food and poking around the Heiwa-dôri shopping arcade for a bit, I headed down to Shuri castle. I had been planning to get back to campus already by that point, as I was nervous about getting back after dark, and because I was already pretty tired, already feeling I’d had a long day. But, I saw a poster for a special Mid-Autumn Festival celebration at the castle, complete with lots of classical Ryukyuan dance and music, and this just wasn’t to be missed. So I steeled myself up, and lasted out the day, and finally headed down to the castle around 6pm, only to find that because of strong winds and potential of rain, the event had been canceled. Boo.

On the plus side, though, I’d never been to Shuri castle before so late at night. It was beautifully illuminated, and I managed to catch a few good photos. Plus, there were very few tourists around, inside the castle, so I got to get some closer photos than usual of things inside – and to just enjoy it and have a quieter, nicer. time of it, without so many crowds.

And then, when that was done, just very easily caught a bus back to campus. Great to know I can do that whenever, from now on. All in all, a really great day in the city. Looking forward to more such adventures – the next time there’s a concert or performance or museum exhibit, or whatever…

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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Urashima Monogatari Scroll (detail), L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU. An amazingly rich, gorgeously painted object.

I’ve just come back from a workshop at Brigham Young University (in Provo, UT), where they invited grad students and professors to come and check out their library’s stunning collection of Japanese objects.

The objects themselves are quite incredible. They have some 400 items in the collection, which is roughly 390-something more than we have here at UCSB* … While some experts in such things may be able to speak to the rarity and exceptional quality of the items in the BYU collection, and how they compare to those at Harvard, Yale, etc., what was of much more interest to me was simply the objects themselves, the topics they covered, and their incredible beauty. Sure, it’s great to have a high-quality (tokusei-bon 特製本) copy of a Kôetsu-bon of the Noh play Tatsuta – an extremely fine and presumably quite rare example of one of the earliest forms of Japanese movable type printing, from the very beginning of the 17th century – but, for me, it was the lengthy, highly detailed, vividly colored scroll paintings of mining on Sado Island, as well as even more gorgeously painted scrolls of foreign peoples & ships, that struck my eye. How many universities have such wonderful primary resources for studying early modern Japanese mining? Or early modern Japanese attitudes / perceptions / conceptions of foreigners?

EDIT:These are not only aesthetically, stylistically, technically, masterful works, many of them in amazingly good condition, but they are simultaneously excellent historical works. They tell us something not only about the artist, or the cultural milieu, the way the endless rotations of landscapes & birds-and-flowers at so many of our art museums do; these are stunningly beautiful while also serving as a window into the history itself – the history of mining, of ships, of foreign relations. Boy, I so want to secure a museum job some day so I can put together shows of works like these.

Sado Kinzan (Sado Gold Mine) Scroll, detail.

Two things I found especially wonderful and incredible about this collection, outside of the objects themselves. One, Prof. Jack Stoneman and others are using the collection as an opportunity to teach BA and MA students, in a very direct and hands-on manner, how to handle such objects, how to examine them closely and use them as research materials, and how to perform research about them, i.e. gaining first-hand experience at bibliographic research, tracking down provenance, comparing extant examples to determine how rare or how high-quality your copy is…. all skills that are essential for anyone seeking to go into museum, library, or archive work (or, nearly so, I suppose, depending on the position and the institution), and valuable too for a wide variety of other career paths. I’ve interned at several museums, and have an MA in Art History, and I don’t think I have quite the experience, the practice, that these students are gaining. Plus, the professors at BYU are using these primary sources to teach students hentaigana and kuzushiji.

Second, Prof. Stoneman told us something about the history of the collection, and it’s pretty incredible. Most of this collection comes from a man named Harry F. Bruning, who collected a wide variety of things, and sold much of it to a David Magee, who then sold it to the university. As far as we know, Bruning never went to Japan – didn’t even speak Japanese – and so, with my apologies for saying so, I’m not sure that Bruning himself is quite as fascinating a figure as, say, Bigelow, Morse, or Okakura, who traveled and dressed in traditional clothing and more actively engaged with the artistic & cultural worlds of the introduction of Japanese art into the US, and of the introduction of Westerners into Japan…. What’s really fascinating about the Bruning story is the way that Stoneman began to track down information about the collection. While looking through reference books from BYU’s library, such as a 1931 hard copy print catalog of the Art Institute of Chicago’s holdings, he noticed prices and checkmarks and the like penciled into the margins. And he noticed the same marks, in the same handwriting, in a few other books from the BYU library. And then he found, by some wonderful expert searching, a ledger or account book, also in the BYU Special Collections, but not well-cataloged or labeled (simply because no one had really looked at it closely enough before), which it turns out was Bruning’s own ledger, a daily diary of things he bought, sold, or inquired about!! But, this diary doesn’t happen to have any Japanese materials listed in it, and further, while there is reason to believe Bruning compiled a highly organized and detailed list of his own collection before handing it over to Magee, that book, if it still exists, is yet to be found. Is it also in the BYU library somewhere? Is it in the possession, somewhere, of Bruning’s relatives? … In short, it turns out it’s not just the Japanese materials themselves (and a huge wealth of other materials, incl. Western sheet music) which were The Bruning Collection, but actually it would seem a whole ton of reference books, booksellers’ catalogs, etc., which have now become scattered across the library collections, and so it’s sort of a treasure hunt to find Bruning’s handwritten notes in books throughout the library, and to piece this back together.

Ryûkyûjin dôro gakki zu (Ryukyuans Street Music Instruments Scroll)(detail). A handpainted copy of the scrolls I saw at the University of Hawaiʻi Library (Sakamaki-Hawley Collection).

I find the whole thing quite encouraging, because it means that just maybe, depending on the institution and the situation there, I just might be able to find myself – despite not having a PhD in Art History, despite not being Curator or Librarian or Archivist – nevertheless getting to work very closely with a collection, researching it myself and/or working with students to use the materials to teach them, and to help them acquire research skills as well.

All photos my own. All objects, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

*As far as I am aware, within the Art Library’s Special Collections, not counting “Main” Special Collections, or what may be owned by the Art, Design, and Architecture (AD&A) Museum on campus.

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Or, On Dressing as an Orientalist

Right: “La Japonaise,” Claude Monet, 1876, MFA collection, 56.147. Image from MFA online catalog.

Well, if you haven’t heard about it already, there’s been some controversy this week over the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) offering an interactive gallery activity in which museum visitors can try on a replica of a costume kimono worn by Monet’s wife in one of the artist’s most iconic artworks. I have sat on this blog post for days, through upwards of 25 revisions, believe it or not, and the more I think about it, the more I’m not even sure what I think about it. I wrote pages and pages trying to cover every different side of this – and mainly, to cover my ass, in case anyone were to say “Oh, sure, you addressed X, but what about Y?” But, here, let me see if I can try to whittle it down to a more manageable size.

Here’s the basics of it, best as I understand it. I’ve read a whole bunch of blog posts & news articles on it, but it did very quickly get to the point where I just couldn’t keep up anymore. So, please do forgive me if I miss something. First, the MFA loaned the painting, Monet’s “La Japonaise,” to its own branch/sister museum in Japan, the Nagoya Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The painting then traveled around to a few other museums in Japan. The Japanese staff of the Nagoya museum, or perhaps one of the other museums, created this replica kimono, and this in-gallery activity where museum visitors could try it on. Then the painting, and the kimono, returned to Boston. I’m not sure how long the exhibit, or this kimono-dressing activity, have been going on, but sometime within the last week or two, controversy erupted over it. There have been quite a few blog posts, Tumblr threads, and most recently threads on a professional mailing list for scholars of Japanese art, while some small number of people have begun protesting within the museum gallery itself.

Many (including the protestors protesting in person at the museum, judging from their protest signs – this is why I’ve never liked protest signs; no room for a properly nuanced argument when you make it all about slogans) have leapt to simply accuse that any wearing of kimono is blatantly Orientalist and racist, pointing to the long history of yellowface, of inappropriate Halloween costumes, of “Yellow Peril” political cartoons, Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan films, erasure of Asian & Asian-American presence by casting white people as Asian + relegating Asian(-American) actors to stereotypical roles, racist jokes, slanty-eyed thick-accented racist impressions, and so forth and so on. Some went so far as to tag their tweets #whitesupremacyskills, because obviously wearing a kimono for a few minutes is exactly the same as believing that all non-white people should be exterminated from this earth. Others labeled their one-way accusations of racism a “dialogue.” There has, indeed, been a long history of racism, appropriation, stereotype, and discrimination against those of East Asian descent in this country, and it absolutely does continue to go on, even among groups who really should know better. And the innumerable instances of this continuing to go on do, absolutely, continue to contribute to the Othering of those of Asian descent, to the perpetuation of truly harmful misunderstandings about their culture and identity. There is a lot out there in the world, in our society, to be very rightfully upset about. But not all Orientalism = imperialism = racism = appropriation = white supremacy. These are all very broad-ranging, complex, intertwining, overlapping things; they are not synonyms.

I think there is definitely an argument to be made that this is Orientalist and problematic. Yet, here’s the trick – a general hand-wavey “it’s about power structures” backed up by impenetrable post-colonial theory jargon doesn’t actually explain specifically how and why this might be offensive, or inappropriate. And a blunt assertion that “it’s racist, period, because, obviously,” certainly doesn’t.

Because not all racism, Orientalism, appropriation, is the same. All of it may be harmful, or damaging, but is it not the case that what’s important is the reasons why, and the ways in which it is problematic? I do not mean to veer into the over-wrought territory of saying that it’s the responsibility of the offended or the oppressed to have to educate the oppressor, because it certainly is not. It is everyone’s responsibility to educate themselves about other cultures, about racism and sexism and imperialism, by seeking out teachers, readings, and cultural experiences. It is everyone’s responsibility because if we, all of us, whites, blacks, Asians, all of us, do not work to better understand precisely why and how things are harmful, or offensive, then we will only continue to say and do hurtful things.

The unnuanced accusation – I won’t even call it an “argument” – is that wearing a kimono is instantly, automatically, the same thing as the classic example of the geisha Halloween costume, or its ilk. To wear a kimono is to pretend to be a Japanese person, or a geisha or courtesan, and to thus be appropriating that identity, and perhaps most importantly appropriating it within the context of performing it incorrectly, according to insufficient or incorrect understandings of the culture. To wear a kimono is automatically wrong because it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck – a duck that is wearing bad red and white face makeup and saying stereotypical things in a racist accent.

This goes back to what I was saying (and I think Ube Empress would agree, though I shouldn’t speak for her) in my earlier post, that every culture is different, and every case is different. And part of what makes this particular case so interesting is how it differs from the standard case. Frankly, I’m surprised that so few of the commentaries and conversations about this “Kimono Wednesdays” seem to acknowledge what I saw pretty quickly. (I will not take full credit for this – I believe I may have read this insight initially on a Tumblr post, which I cannot seem to find again. My thanks to whomever that was, for pointing it out.)

In Japan, where this “dress up as Camille Monet” thing began, it was just that – it was dressing up, not as a Japanese, but as a French woman, as Camille Monet – to dress up not as an “Oriental,” but as an Orientalist. In the context of this taking place in Japan, with an audience of museumgoers who are presumably overwhelmingly native Japanese, the issue isn’t really one of Orientalism, because Japanese people own the rights to their own culture, to be Japanese, to perform Japaneseness, however they choose. If permission is the key thing to avoiding inappropriate cultural appropriation,1 they, as Japanese, have the power to give themselves permission. In Japan, rather, the issue here is one of Occidentalism – of the Japanese romanticization of the West, and of Impressionism and late 19th / early 20th century Paris in particular. This is what causes Paris syndrome.

In Boston, too, it’s the same painting, the same kimono, the same gallery activity. Fundamentally, the wearing of the kimono in and of itself is therefore not an act of dressing up as an “Oriental,” but as an Orientalist, as the Frenchwoman Camille Monet. And, not only that, but, I don’t think that Madame Monet herself is dressing up as an “Oriental” either – she’s got a blonde wig on. She is either simply being herself, in a kimono, or, as some have suggested, it may be a satire, a critique, in fact, of Orientalism, in which case, she too, is dressing as an “Orientalist.” So, just to be clear, it’s not even the case that the museum visitor is dressing as Mme. Monet dressing as an “Oriental.” They’re not. But, still, here in Boston, dressing as an Orientalist has a different meaning than in Japan. Here, it is a reenactment and perpetuation of the Orientalism of the late 19th / early 20th century, something that is problematic in its own ways, but that is, I would argue, decidedly different from the flat-out racist thing that these protesters are claiming it is.

As I see it, really, the key problem with dressing up as an Orientalist (as Madame Monet) is that it connects us to – rather than distancing us from – the Orientalist attitudes of the past, and the rampant cultural appropriation and questionable collection practices which resulted. To be sure, the MFA, and indeed the field of Japanese art history, owe a lot to late 19th / early 20th century Orientalist types like Edward Sylvester Morse, William Sturgis Bigelow, John LaFarge, Denman Waldo Ross, and Ernest Fenollosa, who started the MFA’s collection – and those of the Freer, the Metropolitan, the Gardner, and so forth – bringing back shiploads of Asian art, and introducing it to the American audience as something to be appreciated.2 But, as some of the protestors and critical commentators have said, the museum needs to be doing a lot more to engage critically with that history, not sweeping it under the rug, and certainly not celebrating or perpetuating it.

Here’s a radical idea: how about, for once, a major art museum turns the attention away from strictly aesthetic or stylistic concerns (the beauty of the artworks), and actually uses the artworks to talk about complex cultural and historical issues? I’m not even saying the museum has to be hostile towards itself, towards its own history – though I’m sure that’s what some of the social justice protestors are looking for. There are absolutely ways to talk about Orientalism, in general, as a historical phenomenon, without it having to be a violent tear-down of your own institution. In fact, I was about to link to photos from the Met’s current exhibit, on the history of its own Asian art collections, as an example of how to talk about these things, but, I am disappointed to see (again) that they really don’t address the issue at all, and to the contrary are fairly self-congratulatory. One would think the 100th anniversary of their Asian Art Department might be a fine time to acknowledge how far we have come – not just in amassing a larger collection, which is what the labels mostly focus on – but in terms of changing attitudes, and increasing sophistication of cultural understanding and appreciation. But, no, apparently not so much. At least they have a Timeline of Art History article on Orientalism in Nineteenth–Century Art, but this, too, doesn’t quite cut to the quick, and paints over it in not-quite-negative terms. But, then, that’s a whole other topic unto itself – whether the detached, removed, reserved, academic voice should or should not be, instead, a more impassioned, boldly scathingly critical voice.

*Sigh*. In any case, this is my key point for the post. Museumgoers at the MFA are (or were) not dressing up as a Japanese person, not as a geisha, not as an “Oriental.” They were dressing up as Camille Monet, as an Orientalist. And that’s problematic, but in different ways, for different reasons, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.

Let us be critical of the museum, let us be critical of the decision to do this, but let us be critical for the right reasons, pressuring the museum to work harder to properly contextualize things, to more directly address the history of Orientalism as intimately intertwined with the institution of the museum itself, to more clearly distance the museum today from that history – to make a real change and not paper it over. Let us be critical in a way that addresses the issue at hand, and does not confuse the issue, or distract from the issue, with over-generalizing, unnuanced, all-inclusive accusations of “racism.” Let us be critical in such a way that all involved gain a better understanding of what is harmful, and what is not, and for what reasons, and in what ways, so that we all can move forward towards making real change, not only in how we behave, but in how we think about it, so that we understand on a deeper level what to recognize as racist, and what to recognize as not racist, in order to have a deeper, better understanding of what to do, and what not to do, in future.

Any institution, and all the more so in our PR-driven society, will succumb to pressure, to efforts to shame them. The Museum quickly stopped the kimono activity, and Walmart and numerous other retailers pulled the Confederate flag from their stores. But do they really know why? Have they genuinely changed their attitudes, and their understandings? Or are they liable to just commit similar offenses again?

The front facade of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Jan 2007. Photo my own.

I would also like to point out that this is not simply a matter of the museum, as a monolith, being woefully disconnected from the community, elitist, or whathaveyou. I have no inside knowledge of conversations or politics within the MFA, specifically, but, as a curator at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum wrote, relating to a similar controversy,

museums are more concerned than ever with numbers
of visitors and revenue generated from exhibitions
(increasing “the gate” of a show), and that this
impacts the work of curators in complicated ways:
As public museums, we have a dual duty to
encourage our public, woefully underinformed
in their education about Asia, to look
at unfamiliar works of art from foreign cultures,
and simultaneously to advance the
field of art history. As you can imagine,
these priorities sometimes clash. The Asian
Art Museum’s marketing department apparently
got the reins on promoting the gate,
calling the exhibition, “Lords of the Samurai”
(too close to “Lords of the Dance”), and
putting a Darth Vadar-like image on the
poster. The promotional video was cute and
silly, and fairly insulting to the whole idea of
the samurai.3

So, for whatever it is worth, let us not simply shame the museum, either as an individual institution (the MFA) or as an institution in general (all museums, the very concept of the museum). Let us have a conversation about the problems within the museum industry, about how and why the messages and presentations created by curators’ scholarly expertise – challenging harmful stereotypes and standard narratives, introducing nuance, and above all, being sensitive to complex issues of race, ethnicity, gender, etc. – so often get compromised by Education, by Marketing, by Trustees & Donors, and what steps can be taken to fix this. Maybe it’s just my own bias, based on where I come from, but I generally prefer the sympathetic approach to the antagonistic one, to give people the benefit of the doubt, to work with them to make it better, rather than working against them to tear them down, an approach which generally only creates further tensions and rifts.

—-

Kimono hanging up on a clothes rack, in a folding screen painting of a conventional Japanese theme known as Tagasode, or “Whose Sleeves?”. Is it ever okay to wear kimono? Why or why not? Object owned by Metropolitan Museum; image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

So, now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the kimono itself, and why it is (or isn’t) problematic. If trying on the kimono is an Orientalist act, or, worse, racist, then in precisely what ways is it harmful? What stereotypes is it perpetuating?

(1) Because it’s being taken out of its proper cultural contexts.

Okay, so, in what ways is the kimono sacred, or reserved for only particular occasions or uses? In many cultures, there are particular garments which are to be worn only in religious contexts and not secular ones, or the other way around, or only for this festival or that occasion, only at certain times of the year, and wearing them outside of that context is at best odd, and at worst, culturally or religiously offensive. Or, they are to be worn only by men, or only by women, or only by people of a certain class or caste, because of beliefs about spiritual power, spiritual purity & pollution, or because of belonging or association with that particular group. This is a serious concern for museums like the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), and indeed for all museums with extensive collections of objects from indigenous cultures from around the world, in particular. Museums like NMAI in Washington, and Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, store sacred and profane objects in separate places, have only female staffers handle certain objects, and only male staffers handle others; certain objects should only be handled by members of a particular tribe or nation. And conservators work closely with Native specialists to allow the objects to be rubbed with oil, consecrated with ash, or whatever the Native practice may be, while also looking to conserving the object’s physical integrity, to prevent physical damage, so that it can be kept for posterity, for study, and for sharing with museum audiences. When the Bishop Museum held an exhibition welcoming back to Hawaiʻi two statues of the god Kū which had not been seen in the islands since the 1820s, they worked with Native Hawaiian elders to have the proper ceremonies performed, to have the statues treated appropriately, and, during the course of that exhibition, photography was not allowed in the gallery, out of respect for the gods.

The Lakota feather headdress is another such item, of powerful cultural specificity and sacredness. As Jennifer Weston writes, “While ceremonies varied among the diverse plains tribes who produced these headdresses, most involved specific prayers and actions, often relating to EACH single feather.” A gallery label at the Metropolitan Museum’s recent Plains Indians exhibit explains that it is a mark of bravery, leadership, and political rank, with each feather representing a distinct honor earned in war, an honor not earned by Pharrell. Similar beliefs hold for Tahitian maro ura and Hawaiian feather cloaks and headdresses, which are believed to be imbued with the mana of their previous wearers, and of major events they have seen, and are not only restricted to the use of the elites (chiefs or monarchs), but are in some cases believed to be quite dangerous – the mana of the chiefs of the past is quite powerful, and could kill you.

Then there are things like a priest’s collar, which are not (so far as I know – I’m not Christian) really sacred in and of themselves, but are symbols of a rank or position, and should not be worn willy-nilly by anyone who hasn’t earned that position. Māori tattoostā moko – “tell the story of the wearer’s family and tribal affiliations, and their place in these social structures. A moko’s message also portrays the wearer’s genealogy, knowledge and social standing.” And so, someone from outside the culture, for whom the moko does not have that meaning, and who does not possess a Maori genealogy or social standing to represent, should not be wearing moko. In Ming and Qing China, the wearing of dragon robes featuring dragons with five-clawed feet were reserved for the Emperor alone. I don’t know what goes on in China today, but, historically, within the culture, that would have been a major no-no.

But, at the same time, that doesn’t mean the garment is “sacred.” It doesn’t mean that having the wrong person handle it or wear it is spiritually polluting or destructive, just that it’s associated with a particular group, with the perquisites of that office or lineage. Each of these things has particular meanings, particular contexts outside of which they should not be worn. I am sure there are plenty of cases, too, of certain garments that should not be worn outside of a funeral, or outside of a wedding, not to mention special foods, things that should never be placed on the floor, things that should always be placed vertically, things that you can put on the floor but should always step around and not step over – the cultures of the world are incredibly diverse.

So, in what ways is the kimono (as a garment type in general), or this kimono in particular (its design invented by Monet), like a religious or sacred garment, or an object deeply traditionally associated with only particular contexts or only particular classes or clans of wearers?

It’s not. The word kimono means, literally, “something you wear,” and historically just about everything that Japanese wore in every context was kimono. Today, of course, kimono are not nearly as common as they once were, and outside of traditional performing arts and certain other specific occasions – graduation and weddings, for example – it is quite rare to see men wearing kimono. But, Japanese women (and sometime men) do sometimes wear kimono as part of regular youth fashion on the streets of Harajuku, or as part of their everyday wardrobe in Kyoto. Men and women both wear yukata to visit Tokyo DisneySea, as well. Now, admittedly, Madame Monet’s kimono is much more lavish, reminding me of that of a geisha or courtesan, or just a wealthy samurai or merchant wife – it’s not a summer festival yukata. But, in what contexts is a kimono not only out of place, but offensively so?4

As this post on Tumblr so informedly explains, this is actually not a geisha’s kimono, nor that of a courtesan, nor that of a commoner/merchant or samurai. It is a costume kimono, one made explicitly, originally, to be a costume. So, that, first of all, eliminates any considerations about it being offensive because it’s taken out of context – this is not, for example, a bridal kimono being worn inappropriately outside of a wedding, or a Shinto robe being worn in a secular context, by someone who is not a proper Shinto priest – and it also complicates the issue of whether or not this constitutes dressing up as a geisha, or as a courtesan. When the kimono itself doesn’t even belong directly, properly, to the culture, but is an Orientalist invention, does that make the whole thing better – because it’s not being taken out of context, and not used incorrectly or inappropriately – or worse, because it’s perpetuating misrepresentation of the culture? Both? Neither? I don’t know.

(2) What stereotypes is this perpetuating? How does this (mis)represent the Japanese people, or their culture, as being [insert stereotype here]?

Since the museum is not encouraging people to dress up as a geisha, or a courtesan, or as a Japanese person at all, but rather to dress up as Camille Monet, or, to dress up simply as themselves (the museumgoer him or herself) in a kimono, I think it’s fair to say that the museum activity is not, innately, one of perpetuating any stereotype at all. If a museum visitor chooses to behave in a certain way while in the kimono, making slanty eyes or saying racist things in a stereotypical accent, that’s their fault. And maybe the museum staff should have seen that coming, and maybe they should have headed it off at the pass. But, inherently, I don’t think that’s what this gallery activity is, or is meant to be, at its core. Remember, this activity was invented at the Japanese museum. For the Japanese people, wearing kimono is not a special occasion or a special opportunity – to have simply trying on kimono in the museum as a special activity is not something they would ever do. But, wearing Mme. Monet’s kimono? That’s a different story. Try on Mme. Monet’s kimono, and pretend to be an elite 19th century Parisian lady.

(3) Okay, but it’s still appropriation, right?

Yes, it is still appropriation, and it is still problematic. One person I spoke to about it emphasized the idea that this “Kimono Wednesdays” dress-up photo-op contributes to, or encourages, the idea of kimono, and of Japan/Japaneseness more broadly, as accessory. I had not thought of this, and I think it’s a really important and valid point. This is why I don’t wear kimono, or Chinese scholars’ robes (cool as that would be), out in public, outside of any particular context in which it might be more appropriate – because I would feel awkward, because it’s not my culture to claim, and perhaps more so than that, because it’s evocative or reminiscent of the Orientalists of time past. But, this I guess is the key point – if I did dress in kimono, just out in public, I still would not be pretending to be Japanese, perpetuating stereotypes about the Japanese, or using something (the kimono) in a sacrilegiously inappropriate cultural context. But, I would be evoking an association with *Westerners* of the past with whom I should not want to associate myself, because of the appropriation they committed, and the racist, Orientalist, and/or paternalist attitudes that go along with that.

In a sense, this is perhaps the dictionary definition of “cultural appropriation” – we are a culture, not a costume, and our culture is not yours to pick and choose from, like a cultural grab-bag, to just use whichever elements you want purely for aesthetic purposes, as decoration. This type of appropriation is, essentially, what Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, and the like are guilty of in their appropriations of kimono and so forth. They are not dressing as geisha, or as some stereotype of a Japanese person, and then misrepresenting that identity, or perpetuating that stereotype. They are not slanting their eyes and speaking in a bad accent. They are not dressing as a Japanese woman and then, as that Japanese woman, being passive or subordinate, seductive & exotically mysterious. They are merely dressing as themselves, in cultural elements appropriated without proper permission or authority.1 And that is wrong enough, problematic and offensive enough, in itself.

Come get your picture taken with Mr. Freer, and pretend to be an Orientalist just like him, traveling the world, romanticizing and exoticizing foreign cultures, buying up their cultural treasures. Fun, and adventure! Photo my own.

So. Finally, finally, to wrap up. I trust Mia Nakaji Monnier when she writes that “when I tell you that I’m offended, as protesters told the Museum of Fine Arts, that’s not a superficial, knee-jerk reaction, but one that comes from that deep, raw place within me where all those intangibles about culture live.” I have no doubt she is being honest, that her pain is genuine. I quite liked her piece in the Boston Globe, which gives her personal perspective as a mixed-race Asian-American, and I encourage you to read it. It really made me think. I sympathize with her terribly, and I think she is right, that as the title of her piece says, this controversy should “spark deeper conversation.”

I am ashamed, horrified even, at some of the things I used to believe, and used to do, within this vein. But, that’s what education, and experience, especially international and intercultural experience, are all about. We learn, and we grow. We learn to understand that the world is an immensely diverse, complex, nuanced place, that things can have a multitude of connotations and associations, many of them innocuous, and many of them harmful, and that extreme views on either side, which form massive umbrella categories, accusing everything of being racist, or defending everything as not – not to mention the inevitable ad hominem attacks – stifle that conversation, and prevent anyone, on either side, from learning, from growing. We need to have a conversation, therefore, that spurs thought, consideration, for these complexities, so that we can, all of us, learn better what offends us and why, what offends others and why. We need to talk about precisely why and how a given thing is damaging, or hurtful, so that we can learn to understand one another better, so that we can understand why what we do is sometimes hurtful, so that we can try to do better in the future.

We all need to work to improve our own.understandings of why and how these things are hurtful and damaging in a variety of different ways, in order to better understand one another, to feel sympathy, to understand what not to do, and perhaps most importantly in order to understand what we can do – what forms or modes of cultural engagement are appropriate, are comparatively unproblematic. To do otherwise, to seek to expunge anything and everything that even vaguely resembles racism, to some people, even if not to others, is terribly stifling, in this increasingly globalized world, where intercultural understanding, and not compartmentalization, is so needed.

And despite the fact that I’m being hypocritical with this long blog post here, I think we need to have this conversation in person. Sit down with someone else, and work it out. Discuss it in person. Hear them out, line by line, not page by page, post by post, and talk about it. How about this? What about that? The conversation will be constituted not in rants by one side, and rants by another side, but by a mutual exploration of the various aspects and multiple permutations of this complex topic. And through such a conversation, one’s ideas, one’s perspectives, can change – and you can change others’ attitudes too – so much more than by simply laying out your thoughts as I am hypocritically doing here, and just sending it out to the Internet, inviting excoriation in return.

There is a whole complex of things I have not addressed here. That does not mean they are unimportant, or irrelevant, or that I am intentionally ignoring them. I have tried, in this rather lengthy post, to focus in on one aspect, one set of points, simply so as to not make the post even lengthier than it already is. One could write entire books on this subject and still never cover all the nuanced different aspects. And that, in a way, is essentially my point. So, here is one opinion, on one aspect, one view of the controversy. There is certainly a lot more to be said, on other implications, other sides of this massive issue, and I hope you won’t take this as my final definitive word. These are just some thoughts I had, as of this week, and I may in fact think differently, based on reading more. I hope you, too, might think differently after reading other perspectives, too. Thank you for your understanding.

—–
(1) Going back to Prof. Susan Scafidi’s definition, quoted by Ube Empress: “Cultural appropriation is taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include the unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
(2) Incidentally, it’s kind of irrelevant to this argument, but let’s not forget that there were plenty of Japanese engaged in this too, both at the national level, and as private art dealers, who were quite eager to promote Japanese art to Western audiences – from export art and the World’s Fairs, to figures like Okakura Kakuzô and Hayashi Tadamasa.
(3) Hollis Goodall, “A museum curator’s response,” weblog entry, quoted in Morgan Pitelka, “Should Museums Welcome Parody? Lords of the Samurai: The Legacy of a Daimyo Family,” Early Modern Japan, 2011.
(4) Can I ask also, and I mean this sincerely, not trolling, when cultural outings on field trips for study abroad groups, in Japan, involve dressing up in kimono explicitly as an act of cultural engagement explicitly, specifically, for foreigners, how is that different from doing it in the United States? What makes the cultural authority of the Asian art curators of the Museum of Fine Arts, for example, some of them of Japanese descent, and with extensive experience both in Japan and in studying Japanese art, who have quite literally dedicated their careers, their lives, to studying Asian art and sharing it with the public, so much lower, so much less authorized to authorize such dress-up, than, say, a Lions Club in Japan? I’m not saying there are specific right or wrong answers, but I am saying this is the conversation that needs to be had.

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One of the reasons I’m excited to be home for the holidays right now is because there is so much of great interest going on at the Met. Two exhibits in particular struck my fancy, and I am so glad that I was able to be here to see them.

First, the Met’s first major show of contemporary Chinese art, entitled simply Ink Art. Though dominating the main Chinese galleries, I thought it a quite fun and interesting move that the show also spills over into all of the other Chinese spaces in the museum’s Asia wing, with contemporary pieces interspersed among traditional and historical artworks. I walked into the first of the Chinese galleries – which features massive Buddhist wall painting and sculpture – expecting to have to keep my eyes open for signs, or simply to ask, where the Ink Art exhibit was. But, as soon as I walked in, there they were – a set of stunning scrolls hanging from the ceiling, in bold, bright, mineral pigments (below), and another set, in monochrome ink on paper streaming along one wall. Each uses traditional formats and media, a link to history and tradition, rather than a break from it, as they address new, modern, contemporary subjects. All too often, we tend to see history as broken into two parts – the historical or traditional, and the modern or contemporary. But, even as people throughout history, whether in Song Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, saw themselves as “modern” or at least as “contemporary” – even as they saw their own lives as “now” and the past as past – they addressed what for them were very modern, very new, very “now” topics and issues, in forms and styles and media which developed directly out of the traditions of the past. Ming Dynasty painters addressed the issues of their times, what for them were very contemporary issues, in modes and styles of the Song and Yuan, in inks, in birds & flowers, in mountain landscapes on scrolls of silk and paper. Can we not today do the same? Must we throw out the traditions of the past to produce things as utterly and completely “new,” different, “modern” as possible? Why should it be seen as so radical that we, in 2013 as in 1013, address the issues and topics of “contemporary” Chinese society in ink painting?

Above: Crying Landscape by Yang Jiechang, ink and colors on paper hanging scrolls. Right: Gu Wenda, I Evaluate Characters Written by Three Men and Three Women

Curator Maxwell Hearn and his team have truly done an outstanding job choosing works for this exhibit. So many of them are by big-name artists, who I was quite excited to see – it’s a great feeling to feel you’re looking at works by Ai Weiwei, Gu Wenda, Xu Bing. Weeks or months or years from now, I can say I’m familiar with those artists; I can say I’ve seen those works. And, fame or name aside, they are truly great works. Not trying to be international, pan-cultural, or acultural, not trying to blend in with the global “modern art” scene, these works engage directly with Chinese identity, culture, history, tradition, and do things uniquely Chinese while at the same time no less cutting-edge, no less modern, than what any Western artist is doing. And they are so much deeper, more multi-layered, more meaningful for it. To name just one example, a work by Gu Wenda features large Chinese characters written in a grid, in black and red on white paper. Each character is covered by a large X or O, a typical technique in East Asian school culture for marking correct and incorrect work. And, as the gallery label explains, in this particular work, the criteria for why each given character is marked right or wrong is left quite unclear, evoking resonances of Cultural Revolution era censorship and re-education. It’s a work with a (relatively/somewhat) overt political message, but not so stark that the message overrides the traditional referents (like traditional calligraphy, but quite untraditional as well) or general aesthetic appearance.

Above: Ai Weiwei, Map of China; Right: Xu Bing, Book from the Sky

I enjoyed, too, a map of China by Ai Weiwei made of pieces of wood re-purposed from Buddhist temples, showing that China is made up (literally) of its past, of its traditions, and that even when one perhaps cannot see the traditional influence or traditional origins (wood is wood, and you’d never know this was from temples if not for the gallery label), it’s still there. Xu Bing’s “Book from the Sky” was also installed – easily one of the most famous, most iconic works of Chinese contemporary art (1980s to present), it was a great privilege to get to see this in person, after seeing it so many times in books, in lecture slides, and online.

And, finally, I really quite liked how the museum incorporated works into the rest of the Chinese galleries. Scholars’ rocks in steel and rubber took up positions within the otherwise quite traditional-feeling space of the Astor Court Chinese garden, and a plastic sculpture of a Qing dynasty dragon robe stood alongside a collection of actual Qing dynasty robes, with each of the contemporary pieces clearly labeled with the Ink Art logo, and nicely juxtaposed against the traditional objects to which they refer, or upon which they draw.

Chinese contemporary art remains among the most vibrant, most interesting, most culturally & politically engaged contemporary art scenes in the world. I am so glad to have been introduced to it by Prof. Aida Wong, and to have gotten the chance to see so many wonderful exhibits of it in recent years, keeping me always discovering new works, my enjoyment of these artists and what they do growing every time.

Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC through April 6, 2014.

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Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

*The British Museum is now showing its first great exhibition of Shunga – early modern Japanese erotica. I’m a bit surprised it took this long for there to be such an exhibit; but, then, I can understand why it should be controversial. It’s a shame, really, that these images are so graphic, since they are undoubtedly some of the most lavish Edo period woodblock prints and illustrated books. Gold, silver, mica, thick expensive pigments, embossing…

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

One of a number of less explicit, but certainly gorgeous, works specially on display in conjunction with the exhibit is a 1780s painted folding screen depicting women of the Yoshiwara.

Turning to the somewhat related topic of the preservation of traditional culture, when we talk about such things, we often talk about fears of the disappearance of theatrical forms such as kabuki and Noh. Declining audiences, declining interest, leads to not enough revenue to keep it going, and so on. And, for many arts, it’s not solely a matter of loss of audience (customers), but also, diminishing numbers of people interested in pursuing the art itself. Kabuki still seems quite strong, to my eye, but this remains a concern there, as well as in Noh, and in many other performance forms. But, one thing which often goes overlooked is the “smaller” but still highly essential traditional arts involved in creating and maintaining costumes, set pieces, musical instruments, etc. I know from my own limited experience in Hawaii, that while we are certainly concerned about continuing to have dance/choreography teachers, and shamisen players, in coming decades, we also need to be concerned about the very niche specialty knowledge of maintaining and styling the kabuki wigs. Our resident specialist in Hawaii, Bandô Jôji (George), has studied formally with kabuki experts in Tokyo, and is a proper wig & costume expert in his own right; but he is getting up in years, and has no successor. These, I get the impression, are the arts we need to really watch out for. As Diane Durston discusses in her book Old Kyoto, the number of expert makers of traditional umbrellas, buckets, and the like is dwindling dramatically. The bucket maker she mentions in her book, Tomii Hiroichi of Taruden, eventually ended up selling chiefly only to movie studios.. and when he passed away, he had no successor, and the operation, the last truly traditional-style bucket maker in the city, closed up shop for good. I wonder where Kabuki gets their buckets from, when they need new ones?

So, even with Kabuki seemingly relatively strong, I think these concerns are quite valid within that realm as well. Even if there are still theatres, and plenty of actors, musicians, costumes & costumers, stagehands, etc., what happens when the tradition of producing, for example, the tortoise-shell hair ornaments for courtesans’ wigs, dies out?

Two of the courtesans’ wigs, complete with hair ornaments (kanzashi), from the 2011 Hawaii Kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword.” Photo my own.

These hair ornaments are traditionally made by hand, with subtle but important differences in design to be appropriate for different characters, and in particular forms that are particularly good at remaining in place despite actors’ exaggerated movements. As a recent Asahi Shinbun article explains, many of the craftsmen who produce these ornaments have no successors, and there are fears of the art dying out. Master craftsman Takahashi Toshio is quoted in the article saying, “If the ornaments I currently have become unusable, no more will be available.” Learning of this situation, freelance writer Tamura Tamiko established in 2009 an organization known as Dogu Labo for Japanese Traditional Performing Arts, or 伝統芸能の道具ラボ, which has since then been raising funds and otherwise working to help support these specific arts.

This year, the organization has entered into a partnership with a manufacturer of eyeglass frames – another object traditionally made from tortoiseshell – which has now put its industrial machines to work producing plastic replicas of the traditional hair ornaments. From the tone of the Asahi article, this really seems to be a sort of savior for meeting demands for such costume elements. In addition, however, Dogu Labo is seeking to hire interns or apprentices to learn the traditional skills of how to make stage props, hairpins, and the like, in order to keep the tradition alive.

On a somewhat related note, speaking of kabuki, a film has been discovered depicting an amateur kabuki performance & party involving Mishima Yukio, Edogawa Ranpo, Ishihara Shintarô, and Kobayashi Hideo. Sadly, beyond an image of Ishihara as Sukeroku, the brief news article doesn’t tell us much more, let alone contain an online version of the video. But, still, quite a find.

A Korean ritual seal associated with King Taejo (1683), on display now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea. An example of the very same type of object, but otherwise unrelated to those seized by customs and returned to Korea in this news story. Photo my own.

Finally, for today, Archaeology.com reports that a number of Korean royal seals, taken out of Korea by a US Marine in the 1950s, have been recovered and returned to Korea.

Though I may not be a Korea specialist, through my studies of Okinawa (Ryukyu), I have come to appreciate something of the impact of the loss or destruction of so much of Ryukyu’s royal accoutrements, and thus their great importance and moral/cultural value. And, having seen a number of royal seals at the Asian Art Museum recently (In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art is still up until Jan 12! Go see it!), I can personally attest to the great beauty and power of these objects.

A very nice story of Korea recovering some precious artifacts. A very different story from those we sadly see so much more often, in terms of Korea and disputes over artifacts.

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