Returning finally to my previous series of posts talking about Okinawa’s postwar art history, we jump back chronologically a bit as we finally visit the second of the three exhibits I saw that day at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Okinawa no kôgei (“Craft Arts of Okinawa”), an exhibit put on in conjunction with the 80th anniversary of the Nihon Mingeikan, the leading Folk Arts Museum in Tokyo, discussed the Mingei (“Folk Arts”) movement, and the place of Okinawa in it, as the movement’s founder, Yanagi Sôetsu, traveled to Okinawa several times in the 1930s-40s, and took Okinawa’s traditional arts (along with those of Korea, Taiwan, and the Ainu) as representative of some of the greatest things modern Japan had lost. Sadly, the exhibit closed here in Okinawa on Oct 23rd. But more like it are going on constantly, I assume, at the Mingeikan in Tokyo.
Here, too, we have another set of stories to learn and to know, and then to retell. The biographies of Yanagi and his compatriots, Serizawa Keisuke, Hamada Shôji, Kawai Kanjirô, Bernard Leach, and others – their individual stories – and also the story of the attitudes/aesthetic/ideology of the Mingei movement, a story which I feel is all the more intriguing, all the more fascinating, for how problematic it is. One scholar, Kikuchi Yûko, has flat-out called the Mingei movement “Oriental Orientalism,” for how it romanticizes Okinawan, Korean, Taiwanese, and Ainu cultures, appropriating them, recrafting their narratives through the lens of Japanese imperial/colonial attitudes and interests, and so forth. Even as someone for whom ceramics, lacquerwares, and textiles have never been as attention-holding as paintings, I find the story surrounding it – this story of Oriental Orientalist aesthetic ideology, and so forth – really quite fascinating.
An unexpected treasure of this exhibit was a collection of many tens of photos by Sakamoto Manshichi, who traveled to Okinawa with Yanagi several times, and whose photos provide for us a window into the look and feel of traditional / prewar life in Okinawa – traditional fashions, hairstyles, architecture, cityscapes, and lifeways otherwise, which any sort of structural political/economic/social history would never be able to express. Images, artworks, culture, giving as close as we’ll ever get to a real, full, five-senses impression of what it really looked and felt like to be there at that time – what these people’s everyday world looked and felt like. I had not realized the extent to which, even as late as the 1930s, even in Naha and Shuri (the largest cities in the prefecture, and the chief political & economic centers), many people were still very much living in traditional architecture, and traditional clothing and hairstyles. I wouldn’t want to falsely leap to the assumption that these 1930s photos represent what it was really like 30 or 40 or 60 years earlier, in quote-unquote “traditional” times, as if nothing had ever changed. But, even so, at a time when Tokyo was already covered in cafés, jazz clubs, movie houses, moga (“modern girls,” the Japanese equivalent of the flapper), at a time when one might think it would have already been too late to hope to see photographs of “traditional” Okinawa, there it is: hugely valuable documentation of what things looked like before the island was so utterly devastated by the war between Okinawa’s two foreign invaders/colonizers: the Japanese and the Allies.
Uchaya udun, a no longer extant secondary palace of the Ryukyuan royal family, as seen in a photo by Sakamoto Manshichi. Public domain image from Naha Machitane.net.
And, among those photos, images of specific sites of great historical significance. If these buildings had survived, they would be among the most significant historical sites in the islands today, and among the key exemplars of traditional Okinawan architecture. The fact that these temples, palaces, and the like were lost is only the tip of the iceberg of what was lost in 1945, but to see them in these photos is really incredible – not just the outer faces, but various different views of the insides of many of these buildings… And, incredible just to think, just to realize, that all the way up until 1944-45, so much of this was indeed intact, simply surviving continuously (if not actively maintained) since the 19th century. In that sense, while Sakamoto’s photos of daily life – of everyday people’s homes and clothing – may be more truly indicative of a “modern” 1930s Okinawa, his images of Engaku-ji, Uchaya udun, and Sôgen-ji might be said to be at least somewhat reflective of the Kingdom era appearances of those buildings. His photos of Ryukyuan theater and dance, and of Yanagi & friends themselves are of course valuable historical documents as well. One can only wonder, if the island had not been devastated as it was in the battle, what it might look like today. Might Shuri look more like Kyoto, a decidedly traditional-feeling cultural space, as full of traditional architecture on the outside as it is full of traditional arts activities on the inside (behind closed doors), mixed in more naturally, more positively, with modern developments?
Finally, jumping forward once again, the museum was also showing at that time (earlier this fall), a solo exhibition of the works of Miyara Eiko (b. 1935), a prominent figure in the postwar Okinawan art world, still active today. I must admit I was completely unfamiliar with her name or her work before going to the museum that day, but according to the exhibition, she played key roles in the founding of a number of notable Okinawan artists’ associations, exhibitions, and so forth, and in particular in building a space for women artists in the postwar Okinawa art scene. I was excited to learn this history, to learn Miyara’s story, and also to see & learn of her works themselves, representative of one piece of the canon of the history of postwar Okinawan art. As gallery labels explained, this is the first exhibit of what will surely prove to be a great many, highlighting new acquisitions by the Museum, as they continue to work to amass an extensive and representative collection of Okinawan art.
As we enter the exhibit, we see Miyara’s “Song of the Bottom of the Sea” (水底の歌), a bronze produced in 1994 as a prayer or song for those killed in the Battle of Okinawa, including many who lie now at the bottom of the sea. It is a statue of a young woman, nude, with her hands in a gesture of prayer, and her eyes looking upwards. She leans forward on her tiptoes, as if leaning towards the gods, or towards a shrine, or the sea.
Right: Miyara’s Mina no soko, bronze, 1994. As the museum wouldn’t allow photos, and as to my amazement a basic Google Images search reveals no “free use” images of Miyara’s work whatsoever, I am using this image, which I found on the blog of radio personality Arthur Binard. Thank you, Mr. Binard, for sharing with us what so many other institutions wouldn’t.
Miyara moved from Tokyo to Okinawa in 1971, a year before Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty. I know little about the logistics and policies of entering or leaving Occupied Okinawa – during the period from 1945-1972 when the entire prefecture was essentially under American martial law – but I assumed this would be quite difficult. And, the exhibit tells us it was, but that even so, and even despite her husband being a known member of the Japanese Communist Party, they were somehow able to do it.
In Okinawa, as was surely the case elsewhere in Japan and around the world to varying extents, Miyara found that men held all the dominant positions in the local art world. Major art activities on the island, such as the Okiten prefecture-wide Salon-style exhibitions (akin to the Nitten, the most prestigious national-level juried art exhibition, except on a prefectural, Okinawa-wide, level), were all controlled by the art department at the University of the Ryukyus, and most if not all of the professors in that department – and most certainly the heads of the department, the most prominent or influential professors, etc. – were men. And it’s not just that they happened to be men, but that they were actively exclusionary of women artists, or of certain attitudes, approaches, or themes these women brought. Thus, along with other women artists in Okinawa, Miyara began organizing exhibitions of artworks specifically by women, in 1971, 1974, and 1975; as another significant step towards addressing the male dominance of the field, Miyara helped found the Association of Okinawan Women Artists (沖縄女流美術家協会).
Her own works, featured in this exhibit, include the one bronze, and numerous works on canvas. Miyara also made a career of doing watercolor illustrations for children’s books. Many of these related stories of World War II, and of the Battle of Okinawa in particular. One I picked up and flipped through told the story of the Tsushima Maru, a civilian ship, carrying Okinawan civilians – including many schoolchildren – which, while trying to take these innocents away from the warzone, was sunk by a US submarine.
In 1982, Miyara helped establish the Okinawa Art Peace Exhibition (沖縄平和美術展). Inspired to action after thinking about the Vietnam War – and about Okinawa’s role in that war as one of the chief places from which American forces were launched, etc. – Miyara led the exhibition with a philosophy of allowing anyone to freely exhibit their artworks, regardless of theme, an idea she associated with the power of peace. She writes that it was in Okinawa, especially, that an exhibit “crowned” with peace had to be shown (「沖縄でこそ平和を冠した美術展を開くべきだ。」). This first Okinawa Peace Exhibition in 1982 was shown at the Naha Civic Hall (那覇市民会館). Ômine Seikan, a major figure in the postwar Okinawan art scene, easily a member of the canon of Okinawan artists I discussed in my previous posts, served as chair of the exhibition committee. However, during the opening ceremonies, he found he was too choked up to say anything. And so, Miyara Eiko stepped in. This Okinawa Art Peace Exhibition continues today, having taken place now 21 times.
One section of the works displayed in the current exhibition (this fall, at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum) were from Miyara’s “Scorched Earth” (焦土) series. They show figures in long robes, their heads covered (are they meant to be Arabs/Muslims, perhaps? Unclear.), in many cases holding children, or holding bodies which are either dead or dying. The background is more or less featureless, yellow and orange, colors which somehow evoke (for me, anyway) a greater impression of the feeling of suffering.
Another of Miyara’s works, entitled 「オモニ幾星霜」 (roughly, “Mainly, Many Months and Years”) and painted in 1996, caught my eye with its deep blue composition. A woman in blue robes, resembling to me perhaps the Korean hanbok, stands in the lower right corner of the composition, her face rendered only in greys. The entire rest of the piece is merely a blue background, shifting in tone, growing darker towards the top, and interrupted here and there by stretches of red. I find this piece a very interesting combination of abstraction, juxtaposed against this depiction of a woman. What are we supposed to think is the theme, or the setting? Just the blue and the red, alone, abstractly, attracts interest – and I don’t normally go for abstract works. It’s a beautiful, cool, relaxing, blue, but shot through with red, like anger, like blood. How does this artwork make me (the viewer) feel, is I suppose the question the artist may be wanting me to be asking. I don’t even know the answer. Is the blue and red supposed to represent, perhaps, the memories or emotions of the woman?
My notes from the exhibit cut off there. But, as I said, this is the first of what is intended to be a long ongoing series of exhibits of the museum’s newest acquisitions, introducing visitors to the ever-growing, ever-changing collection, as the museum continues its efforts to obtain more Okinawan art, and to become ever moreso the chief collection of Okinawan art in the world, the chief center for the exhibition and study of that art, the chief center for the construction and dissemination of the standard narrative, the canonical story, of the history of this art – a history, a story, that is dreadfully, woefully, sadly unknown out in the wider world.
The Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Photo my own. The Museum is starting to get a lot better about allowing photography in the galleries – on the History side – but they still have a long way to go, towards allowing photos on the Art Museum side, if they want people to be able to spread and share the story, the beauty, the importance, the wonder of Okinawan art with others.
All in all, to conclude this whole series of posts on that one busy day at the Okinawa Prefecture Museum, there is something terribly exciting about seeing these exhibits, and feeling that even simply in attending the museum and seeing them, I am somehow a part of this storytelling, this narrative-writing. Though I am only a visitor, I am witnessing the construction of the Okinawan canon, and of the standard narrative of Okinawan art history, as it is being written. These are *the* exhibits where that is taking place, and this is *the* museum that is doing it. Much like the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, this is the one and only leading institution leading the charge in telling this story – in amassing a collection and using it to tell a story which, while we likely can’t say it’s never been told before, is certainly being told in a more fully coordinated manner now. All canons are false, and no narrative can ever be truly definitive. Canonization is terribly problematic in its own ways. But, still, in our teaching and in our research, we have standard narratives of Japanese art history, of Chinese art history, of European art history, to build upon, to critique, to work against; something to work to revise. Okinawan art history doesn’t have that yet – the Prefectural Museum is doing this very exciting work right here right now, as we speak, and by visiting the museum, we get to witness it, in the making. And that’s a really exciting thing, something you won’t get to see at the Metropolitan, the Boston Museum, the Freer-Sackler, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, LACMA, the Seattle Art Museum, or at many other places. All of these are excellent top-notch museums, and I absolutely love visiting them; I love them for what they are and what they do. But, I have a hard time feeling that any of them are really the one singular place – more so than any of the others on this short list of American museums – in functioning as the one and only leading institution leading the way in any one particular thing, let alone in recovering and telling the stories of their peoples; none of these museums are the one and only leading repository of not only objects but also of experts, expertise, and authority on a single culture, as places like the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Bishop Museum are.
As I walk through the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or the Bishop Museum, I find myself feeling a certain kind of feeling of “good luck!” “hang in there!” “Chibariyo~!” A feeling of encouragement towards the staff of this museum as they embark on this project that is so personal and powerful and meaningful for them, as Okinawans, creating something for their own people, to promote their own history to the world. It’s a feeling akin to that which I felt in meeting Kamalu du Preez, Interim Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, briefly, at the LACMA opening earlier this year. A kind, energetic, young person, who is also a key member of a team (a staff) working to do this thing, recovering, safeguarding, sharing, the treasures of the history of her people, the Bishop Museum as one of the chief voices unto the world of what Hawaiian history and culture is (was), its beauty, its importance.
And a place like the Okinawa Prefectural Museum feels welcoming to me, in a weird way, despite the fact that I’ve only ever been a visitor and that it’s exceptionally unlikely I’ll ever be staff of any sort. Perhaps it’s simply because I’ve visited so many times, and so it feels familiar. But perhaps it has something to do with the notion that I fear I will never be “art historian” enough for any of those mainland US museums – that the staff see me as a “historian,” as an outsider, and so long as they’ve got Columbia & Harvard PhD students explicitly in Art History primely placed to get internships or entry-level positions in those institutions, I’ll continue to be left out in the cold… whereas, as an Okinawan Studies scholar, as someone who is more a specialist in Okinawan Studies than nearly anyone else in the US-centered academic world, I can allow myself to feel a bit more “insider” here. I may not ever be staff; I may not even get to know, or get to be known by, the staff for some time yet. But even just as a visitor, just by going to the museum, I am learning things about Okinawa, witnessing exhibitions, that 99.99999% of Americans have never seen, and I can be the one to share it with them – in English, in a museum, gallery, book, or college classroom closer to home.