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Posts Tagged ‘jewish diaspora’

*As you may know, the Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan, mostly associated with Hokkaidô. For about five weeks this past January to February, a small group of Ainu youths (along with an interpreter and a few supporters) journeyed to Aotearoa (New Zealand) to meet with members of the Maori community, engaging in cultural exchange and building connections. The indigenous rights / indigenous cultural movement among the Ainu is relatively young, gaining strength only since the 1990s, and the group was only formally recognized by the Japanese government as an indigenous people in 2008. These exchanges with peoples such as the Maori help the Ainu connect into a larger, global indigenous peoples movement, and help them consider and develop ways to maintain or revive their traditional culture, as well as ways to move forward, into a “modern indigeneity” or an “indigenous modernity.”

I contributed a small amount, Kickstarter-style, to help the project, and received this neat mukkuri mouth organ. Can’t seem to manage to play it properly though.

Having now returned, participants in the Aotearoa Ainumosir Exchange Program will be sharing their experiences at an event in Yokohama on June 1st.

*Colleen Laird, a good friend of mine, has had an article published in Frames Cinema Journal! It is entitled “Imaging a Female Filmmaker: The Director Personas of Nishikawa Miwa and Ogigami Naoko.” Admittedly, I have yet to find time to read it, but it certainly looks fascinating. Congratulations, Colleen!

*Gavan McCormack has published yet another article on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai debate, over at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Interesting and important to understand the details of the history, but, of course, none of that really matters – the debate isn’t really about history so much as it is contemporary national pride and related issues.

*Meanwhile, the ruins of a Buddhist monastery at Nalanda in India, are to become the site of a new university. The monastery is claimed to have been a thriving “university” in the 5th to 12th centuries, hundreds of years before the advent of the university in Bologna, Paris, Cambridge and Oxford. I appreciate the sentiment, the desire to de-Eurocentrize world history. But, still, I’m a bit skeptical. That said, congrats to Nalanda on a bit more public exposure for this marvelously impressive site, and best of luck with the new university.

*Finally, I have finally buckled and given in and started a Tumblr, which I’ve titled “byakko zatsuga,” or “white tiger miscellaneous pictures.” I’m really kind of surprised to discover that zatsuga doesn’t seem to be a standard term in Japanese art history at all. Look through woodblock printed books of the Edo period, and you’ll find tons that are, essentially, just collections of assorted random pictures. And the books have such a wide variety of titles, including terms such as manga 漫画, gafu 画譜, gashi 画志, gaden 画伝, ehon 絵本, zasshi 雑誌, zakkô 雑考, gakyô 画境, and gashi 画史… yet I have never seen any called zatsuga.

In any case, my blog posts here tend to be pretty long, as you might have noticed; the Tumblr provides me an opportunity to share pictures with a minimum of commentary, as well as quotes, videos, or the like, and most especially, while I will be sharing images of historical artworks, or items related to serious topics such as gender theory/feminism, it also provides me a space to share things a bit too silly or frivolous for this blog.

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I posted a while ago about an exhibition of Asian-American art being held at the National Portrait Gallery in DC, and lamented that I wasn’t going to be around during the two months it was going to be showing. Well, it turns out that I misread the dates – Portraiture Now! Asian American Portraits of Encounter” didn’t run for two months; it runs for a year and two months, closing Oct 14, 2012.

So, when I walked into the National Portrait Gallery / American Art Museum a week ago to see the Art of Video Games exhibition, I was extremely pleasantly surprised that I was going to get to see this great Asian-American art show. Sadly, I once again have no photos to share with you; but, even if I did, as is so often the case with artworks, there are significant elements of the experience of seeing the works in-person that just cannot be captured on digital film. Some of the pieces, such as Roger Shimomura’s Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, are quite large, and so have quite an impact by their size and scale. Others, such as Shizu Saldamando’s works, painted on bare wood, are so much more beautiful and intriguing when their varied textures are seen in person. There is something cooly beautiful about plain, bare wood, and as smooth as it may be, contrast with the sleek shine of oil paints and gold leaf brings out the slightly rough and matte texture of the wood.


Zhang Chun Hong, who I don’t believe I mentioned in my previous post on the exhibit, is represented by a series of works in charcoal on paper hanging scrolls. Each depicts the long, flowing tresses of an Asian(-American) woman, combining the aesthetics of traditional Chinese ink painting with an astonishing idealized realism, in the individual fine strands of hair, and careful attention to how light reflects off of it. One of these pieces, titled My Life Strands, is meant to suggest the twists of one’s hair as symbol or metaphor for the twisting path one takes through life, from youth into adulthood. Another is titled Cyclone, a reference to Hong’s current base of operations in Lawrence, Kansas; though we may joke about Kansas being the middle of nowhere, the University of Kansas, based in that same town of Lawrence, along with its on-campus museum, are actually known as a major center for studying Asian art. In fact, Roger Shimomura, another artist featured in this exhibit, is also based in Lawrence (and teaches at U of K).

A massive series of photos by Korean-American artist CYJO takes up the entirety of the corridor (for the length of the exhibit; other exhibits lay beyond). Her KYOPO Project consists of over 200 photographs, each depicting a Korean-American individual, simply standing in front of a plain, simple background. Each is accompanied by a short statement, excerpted from interviews with the individual, commenting on their personal relationship with their identity as “Korean-American” or “Korean & American.” Each photo individually is a rather plain piece, but in aggregate they provide a fascinating glimpse into the incredible diversity of the Korean-American community(ies) and complexity of individuals’ identities. And, of course, as one might expect, what these people relate is perfectly translatable to the experience of any one of us. It’s about the specifics of the Korean / Korean-American circumstance, sure, but nearly everything here is equally applicable whether you’re Greek-American, Vietnamese-American, or Armenian-American. All of us have a side to our identity that’s “American,” that makes us feel at home within an American cultural context, i.e. when surrounded by other Americans, yet which sets us apart as different when in the land (or culture) of our ancestors, whether it be Peru, France, or Korea. And all of us have a side of ourselves that sets us apart from other Americans, and which makes us feel at home within the specific cultural context of our heritage, whether that be in Chinatown, at a Russian Orthodox Church, at a Japan Society event, or at a relative’s quinceañera.

There was a time when my biggest wish was to be as “American” as I could. When looking different first became a source of rejection, in some ways I rejected my heritage. But now that I’ve grown and started to raise my own family, I feel an undeniable sense of gratitude to my parents and the values they worked so hard to instill in me, values shaped by a country half a world away. I’ll always be grateful to America for being a place where part of what it means to be a proud American is the ability to be openly proud of being Korean.

I wish I had taken more notes about individuals’ lives and messages, but I remember some of the general trends. I read about people who felt extremely close to their Korean identity, and others with more or less no connection to Korea. Many resented their parents for not being able to speak better English, and had little interest in Korean culture when they were young, thinking it strange, embarrassing, old-fashioned, or just plain lame insofar as that American popular culture was the very definition of “cool”; it was only when they were older that they came to appreciate the Korean side of their heritage and identity. Many regretted not speaking Korean more fluently, or lamented how being Korean-American means always being thought of as “Korean” when among [non-Korean-]Americans, being seen as “American” when in Korea, and never really fitting in in either place. These are stories that I think many of us can relate to; the stories of the many people pictured share many common threads, collectively weaving together a colorful picture of the Korean-American experience. But, there was great diversity as well. Some were blond; some were adopted. One gentleman was, if I remember correctly, African-American, but adopted and raised by white parents in Korea, making him, actually, much closer to Korea as his home and as his culture than many of the Americans of Korean descent raised in the United States. Korean-American Esther Park Goodhart is a comedian, and Hebrew teacher at four different schools, and describes herself in her statement as “Queen of the Jews.” And Jun Choi spoke about being elected mayor of Edison, NJ, a beautiful example of the diversity and ideals of America, in how a young Korean-American man can be elected mayor in a primarily white/black/Hispanic city with no sizable Korean community. (Edison was 1.63% Korean according to the 2000 Census.) I imagine that if I were more involved and connected with Korean-American communities, I might recognize more prominent figures amongst those featured here, but as is I was excited to see Greg Pak and Daniel Dae Kim.

CYJO’s installation reminds me of a video on display at the Center for Jewish History here in New York as part of an exhibition on the history of Jews in New York (until Dec 31, 2012). In it, we see interviews with a handful of members of the community sharing their thoughts on what it means to be a New York Jew. Personally, I thought this video, and indeed the whole exhibit, fascinating, though I wonder how many others would. Korean-Americans are perpetually seen as different, as immigrants, and while that in itself is a problem that I believe many of the artists in “Portraiture Now!” address, I do think that this makes the Korean-American experience an interesting one for many people. I don’t want to get into the discourses of the “model minority,” or the touchy political complexities of how Koreans might be viewed (in general / stereotypically) in American society, i.e. those things that make Korean-Americans, perhaps, a perfect group to show in this exhibition. But, I really wonder, if this series of photographs depicted Jewish-Americans rather than Korean-Americans, what kind of attention would the (Jewish-American) artist receive? What kind of response would the exhibit receive? Would it even be shown? This may be controversial, but I have a sense that people think the Jewish story has already been told, or that because we are (most of us) white, that our story doesn’t matter, or that we don’t have a story, or that purely by virtue of being white we are either not immigrants, or that we are part of the privileged minority and thus can’t be considered a “minority.” Then, too, of course, there are all the complexities added in by the political controversies regarding Israel, and the complex of anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews having too much power, too much money, too much influence. I don’t know how far anti-Korean sentiment might go here in the US, but I do know that there are whole swaths of society that would react negatively to the suggestion of anything asking them to identify with Jews, or to think the Jewish story worth hearing, or to think the Jewish story an integral part of the American story. … I see the connections. I look at Korean-American stories and think of my own stories. But as much as I would love to see an exhibition addressing the diversity of Jewish-American identity in this same way, I don’t think it can, or would, be shown, or would receive as positive (or at worst, neutral) a response as it being done with Korean-Americans, as part of an exhibit of Asian-American art. What do you think?

“Portraiture Now! Asian American Portraits of Encounter” shows at the National Portrait Gallery at Washington DC’s Gallery Place / Chinatown Metro stop until October 14, 2012. Admission is free.
More about this exhibit, here, within the next couple days.

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When I was in London, I came across a lot of amusing or interesting placenames. Thinking it funny that this says “Old Jewry,” and very clearly not “Old Jewelery” (or “jewelry”), and that it’s right around the corner from a street named “Poultry” (not Poultry St, or Poultry Ave, but just Poultry), I took a photo of it. And forgot about it.

Then I came across the photo again, today, and decided to look into it a little. Not much, I must admit; I haven’t exactly done my research here, and for that I apologize. But, according to Wikipedia (woo… boo… whatever), this was in fact the center of the medieval Jewish ghetto in London. I knew that the Jews were expelled from England at some point (turns out it was 1290, under Edward I), and not formally allowed, let alone invited, to return until centuries later (1657, apparently, under Cromwell). But I guess I never gave too much thought, or just never knew, when it was that Jews came to settle in England in the first place, or to what extent.

Wikipedia tells us that there are no solid records of a Jewish presence prior to the Norman Conquest, though many scholars believe it likely that Jews may have entered England with the Romans. Following his Conquest of England, William of Normandy apparently invited Jews to come and settle in England, and went further, granting them freedom to move about the country, to buy and own and sell property, to swear oaths on a Hebrew Bible rather than a Christian one, and certain other freedoms and powers.

It would seem that a so-called “ghetto” in the area around Old Jewry was the chief Jewish neighborhood in London in early medieval times. Other streets / place-names in the area bear similar Jewish-related nomenclatures. It is believed that a burial ground on/near the nearby Jewen Street was the only one the Jewish community was permitted to maintain as a Jewish burial ground; ironically, a few Christian churches in the area take their names from the streets, and thus come to have names like St Lawrence Jewry.

Though I may focus on Japanese history most of the time, I of course cannot help but be curious about, and intrigued by, the histories of my own people. An exhibition at the Center for Jewish History here in New York, on the history of Jews in New York City, was also quite interesting. The small exhibition began with some incredible artifacts from colonial & Revolutionary-era New York, including a printed & handwritten bill for the costs of construction of a Jewish synagogue, Shearith Israel. The Spanish/Portuguese Shearith Israel still operates today. The exhibition leads briefly through the 19th and 20th centuries, and ends with a series of videos in which different members of the community answer the question “what makes a New York Jew?”

We very rarely hear about Jews in mainstream history classes (and not without good reason – you can’t cover each and every minority in every period of history in every part of the world), and it is easy to grow up thinking that maybe there weren’t any Jews at all in medieval England, or Revolutionary-era New York, but there were. And in countless other times and places besides, each with their own sometimes quite fascinating stories.

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