Posts Tagged ‘MFA’

I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it. – Kurt Vonnegut.

I do not know if it may just be the accidents of what I have and have not read – the echo chamber or confirmation bias effects – but, it has been very interesting in the last week or two to see a shift in the conversation, and I am very glad to see the conversation continuing. I hope that at least some of the protesters feel satisfied – they wanted a conversation, and they are getting one. Hopefully this can be a productive conversation, informing views on both/all sides, and representing some kind of genuine step forward, even if a very small one. I have certainly learned a lot, and further nuanced my views on such matters.

Here, I share a few of the articles and blog posts I have read in the last couple weeks, simply to share what perspectives have emerged. I attempted to inject as little as possible of my own commentary or positions, but I don’t think I was very successful at that.

One blogger, by the name of Keiko, on her blog Japanese-American in Boston, has provided by far the most detailed, informative description of the background of the “Kimono Wednesdays” activity that I have yet seen. It answers a lot of the questions I had had, beginning with who made the replica kimonos: they were commissioned by NHK, and made by traditional textile artisans in Kyoto, working for Takarazuka, a prominent and well-established theatre company in Japan which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

We are still seeing a number of posts emphasizing the offensiveness of cultural appropriation, and providing valuable insights into just how and why such things can be so hurtful to many Asian-Americans.

However, we are now also seeing many posts that stand in defense of cultural exchange, and critiquing the protestors, as well as the museum for retreating so quickly/easily. I have seen a great many really interesting FB posts and mailing list comments in the last week or so, but I will refrain from sharing them, because (1) I lost a previous draft of this comment, and simply cannot find all the relevant comments again, and (2) because most were shared in various private circumstances, and probably should not be re-shared without explicit permission from each and every one of the commenters I might seek to quote. So, there’s that. So, this addition will only include a sprinkling of some of the additional perspectives from the last week or two.

*Keiko of “Japanese-American in Boston” provides a thorough description of why she personally does not feel this is racist, “yellowface,” or cultural appropriation, and also discusses what would have needed to be different for this to be offensive to her, while also noting that there are a number of things the museum could have done better. In another, more recent post, she breaks down a number of Myths and Facts about Kimono Wednesdays and the Protests.

*Major art critic blog website Hyperallergic, in a post entitled The Confused Thinking Behind the Kimono Protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has been one of a number of voices recently emphasizing that the idea of getting a feel for the weight, the heft, the feel of a garment is not itself an act of “dressing up” as anyone, or any type, and that what was really key to altering the character of the event, and moving it into more problematic territory, was encouraging visitors to take photos of themselves in the kimono.

The Hyperallergic writer adds:

However, protesters have been too quick to use the term “racist” to describe this program. To suggest, as one commenter has, that this event is akin to visitors attending museums to see people from Africa in cages, is a mistake. To be racist is to employ or advance the rhetoric and (economic, social and political) practices of reducing another human being to a set of signs (within a certain pre-existing hierarchy) that are primarily physical features, and thereby dehumanize him or her. I do not see that happening here, particularly because the woman being mimicked is Camille Monet, who is signifying a type of ridiculous European posture vis-à-vis fascination with Japanese art.

More, there is a kind of megalomania at work here with protesters conflating Japonisme with stereotyped images of Asian-Americans. The Japanese are not the same as, nor should they be confused with Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese or Thai. The Japanese were a colonial power. In the late 19th century they willfully provided their art for Western consumption and consciously contributed to its circulation in markets fueled by exoticized fascination with the East.

Of course, it is important to remember that Japan engaged in such “cultural export” specifically within a context of desperately trying to prove their worth to Western notions of “modernity,” in order to avoid becoming colonized or otherwise exploited. I thank my friend Nick for reminding us of this; it is a point that is very much prominent in my mind when thinking of the Meiji period, in architecture, in politics, in imperialism, in court ritual, and in the World’s Fairs, as well as in painting, sculpture, ceramics, and so forth, but I am embarrassed to admit it didn’t occur to me to link that with textiles. So, the Hyperallergic commentary misses, a bit, on this point. But, still, this adds valuable nuance – not all Asian cultures are the same, and not all Asian-American experiences are the same. The kimono, Japan, Japaneseness, are particular, just like everything in the world is particular, and should not be painted with a broad brush, under umbrella notions of appropriation, racism, etc.

The Hyperallergic article concludes:

For me, the worst aspect of this debacle is that it feeds the notion that culture is a kind of precious object that may only be doled out to those outside the specific culture by those designated as appropriate cultural handlers. I do believe that culture is a precious resource. However in the view propagated by the Boston protesters, the emphasis for non-Westerners should be on guarding and regulating the representation of culture, instead of making it available in ways that are productive to a more profound understanding. …

… This was an opportunity to really engage the museum in a conversation around cultural appropriation and useful types of enhanced interaction and Japonisme. This chance seemingly has fled because of fear and the protesters mistaking umbrage for insight. We need to allow people to play with charged cultural symbols. This is how we learn. Museum visitors should not be learning the lessons of fearing an engagement with cultures not their own, even if they don’t get it right the first time.

To be sure, the museum absolutely could have done better, in a great many ways, to contextualize the activity differently, to discuss Orientalism and its impacts and implications more explicitly. It seems well-established at this point that, in this particular case, they really didn’t think about it sufficiently before doing it. And I am still unclear as to who was involved (European art curators, Asian art curators, Education), and to what extent. But, at its core, I agree, and I have read many others – top experts, with decades of experience in Japan and in the field of Japanese art – saying essentially the same thing, that we need to work to engage with one another, to talk and exchange and learn about one another, in order to move forward with greater understanding, and not to shy away from such exchange (or encourage others to refrain from such engagement) at the slightest hint of offense; we should find ways to engage in cultural exchange and experience in respectful and productive ways, and not shut down that discussion by compartmentalizing culture away – especially when it comes to something like kimono, which is not sacred, which is not traditionally associated with only being allowed to be used by particular groups; hula and feather headdresses would be a different story.

Indeed, in fact, today as well there are a great many people in Japan and in the US – traditional textile makers, traditional dance experts, and so forth – for whom the kimono is the centerpiece of cultural outreach, encouraging foreigners to try on kimono and to engage in Japanese culture. And some of them have begun appearing in the gallery, staging small, quiet, counter-protests. It simply goes to show that neither Japanese nor Japanese-Americans are a monolith. One Japanese-American wrote in an op-ed piece recently, which I touched upon and linked to in my previous discussion, “To consider that the OK of one Japanese friend who likes your kimono doesn’t mean wholesale approval from all Japanese people, let alone Asian-Americans.” This is extremely valid and important, and indeed her entire op-ed piece is extremely thought-provoking, and sympathetic, and I encourage you to read it. However, these counter-protests, both in person, and on Facebook, blogs, and elsewhere, clearly show that the reverse is true as well – just because one, or fifty, or a hundred Asian-Americans are offended, doesn’t mean that all Asian-Americans find it offensive.

As a friend pointed out, one of the really key elements of offensive, inappropriate, cultural appropriation is when someone is practicing something incorrectly, and mistakenly believing they are learning or experiencing the authentic. This is highly problematic, as it perpetuates misinformation and misunderstandings; it perpetuates a skewed, incorrect Western imagination or understanding of “the East,” of Asian cultures, and worst of all it perpetuates Westerners believing themselves to be correct when they are not – and then acting upon, or passing along, that mistaken knowledge. But, not all cultural exchange is incorrect cultural exchange. Here are experts in traditional dance, in traditional kimono-making and kimono-wearing, encouraging people to engage in this, to learn about it.

As Japanese sources – newspapers, blogs, individual commenters – continue to express their confusion at Asian-American protestors’ reactions, many protestors and critics have dismissed the Japanese viewpoint as deriving from ignorance of the Asian-American experience, and of the politics of race/ethnicity/identity in the United States. To be sure, there is that to a certain extent. I saw it myself, as Japanese newspapers reported that protestors were describing the kimono-wearing event as “racial discrimination” (人類差別) or as “imperialist” (帝国主義), which many protestors were, but which misses the point entirely. One wonders what the popular Japanese conceptions of “Orientalism” and “cultural appropriation” are, if they mistake these accusations for being the same thing as “discrimination” or “imperialism.” No wonder they were confused – this is very clearly not a case of discrimination, or imperialism. Then again, one wonders what these protestors are thinking, to themselves also confuse Orientalist perpetuation of stereotypes, and cultural appropriation, with every brand of oppression under the sun, from imperialism to white supremacy. I have even seen some Tweets tagged with “#whitesupremacykills” or something to that effect, as if white people trying on a kimono for five minutes was actively killing anyone; as if this was problematic in precisely the same ways and for the same reasons as the Confederate flag, police violence against blacks, church burnings, and so forth.

Now, I would like to reiterate, as I did in my previous post on the subject, my sympathy for the protestors’ views and positions. These are extremely valid attitudes and emotions, stemming from as genuine/authentic a lived experience as could be, and I think these perspectives absolutely need to be considered in the conversation as it continues. However, what continues to annoy and frustrate me about the attitudes many are expressing is the complete disregard, and dismissal, of the authenticity and authority of cultural experts. A tenth-generation kimono maker from Kyoto may not have the lived experience of the particular ethnic/racial environment of the United States, but she’s not an idiot. She has grown up her entire life surrounded by the people who have been the center of kimono production in the world, for centuries, people who have centuries of inherited experience in thinking about cultural issues – how to make and wear kimono, how to respect traditions, how to maintain them, and also how to allow them to change, and how to encourage others to engage in that cultural experience respectfully and appropriately. If they can’t be said to have authenticity and authority to say that it’s okay for foreigners to wear kimono – that it’s not offensive to the tradition, that it’s not a violation of cultural context – then who can?

As a recent Japan Times piece indicates,

The reaction… from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono. … In fact, many in the kimono industry see growth in foreign markets as essential to the garment’s survival.

Meanwhile, both in Japan and in the West, many people of Japanese descent, from fashion designers to everyday sartorialists on the street, wear kimono in all kinds of ways, mixing it up, bringing it very much into the postmodern contemporary world. Kimono are, quite simply, *not* exclusive to particular traditional contexts. Manami Okazaki, Yohji Yamamoto, and Hiromi Asai are among those fashion designers seeking to bring the kimono out of its culturally-specific context into being “a modern form of dress that “is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”” This is a considerable step further, beyond what traditional arts practitioners, cultural exchange workshops, and the like are trying to do, and, frankly, I’m not sure what I think about this. But, this too is a valid, genuine position, coming from a place of authenticity and authority, and should not be lightly dismissed. Speaking of Okazaki’s book Kimono Now, as well as interviews with Yamamoto, Asai, and others, the Japan Times goes on to say that

those trying to modernize the kimono by ushering it into the fashion world — rather than preserving it strictly as a national dress — will likely be set back by the controversy surrounding the exhibition in Boston. … Okazaki is also concerned that the industry will suffer if Americans are scared to wear kimono lest they are accused of being racist. … “Absolutely no one (interviewed for the book) found Westerners wearing kimonos to be remotely offensive,” Okazaki tells The Japan Times. “(They) all gave me interviews because they wanted people overseas to share this culture.”

So, this is a complex issue, and I am glad to see the conversation continuing.

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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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Some great blog posts today to reshare with you.

*Hyperallergic has a great post today on What Happens When Museums Return Antiquities?.

In summary, numerous museums in the US and around the world have now returned artifacts to origin countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Australia and Mexico. Many other demands are still ongoing. Through this blog post I learned that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston just purchased a number of beautiful bronzes in 2012 from a private collector, which Nigeria is now claiming were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897. The Benin Bronzes are easily among the most famous instances of the looting of antiquities in conjunction with colonial(ist) violence, but the focus has largely been on the British Museum. Well, whether the MFA does end up returning the bronzes or not, I do hope I manage to make it to Boston to see them first – some of them are really quite incredible examples of the art of these people, the Edo of Benin/Nigeria.

Above: One of the Benin bronzes, at the Metropolitan Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperallergic’s post provides a nicely balanced treatment of the issue, noting that in many cases, when objects have been returned, they have not had any dramatically negative impact on the displays – in fact, in many cases, it has brought some great positives. Many objects returned to origin countries were in storage to begin with, and in many other cases, these objects leaving the galleries have created opportunities for other objects already in the collection to be seen. Most museums have no more than 10% of their collections on display at any given time (and that’s a high estimate), and so there’s no danger of empty cases. Plus, the goodwill created by returning objects has allowed museums to forge new relationships with the origin countries, creating greater opportunities for special loans and traveling exhibitions.

Of course, there is also the other side of the debate, and the debate does still continue. As James Cuno of the Getty Trust, and Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan, have argued, calls for repatriation are less about rightfulness, culture, or history, and more about contemporary domestic politics within the origin countries, and political ploys to drum up nationalism. They have also pointed out the arbitrariness of the question of how far back in history we go – if the Ottomans brought artifacts from Lebanon to Turkey during the time when all of that was part of the Ottoman Empire, before there was ever an independent state of Lebanon, does that count as looting? And is there any moral obligation to return the objects?

The whole thing is complicated by the fact that, under US law, if a buyer purchases stolen goods in good faith, not knowing they’re stolen, he does gain legal title to the objects (imagine if someone came to your house and told you that your couch, your TV, your iPhone, whatever, were stolen, and so you’re under a moral obligation to return them; and you’re thus screwed out of hundreds of dollars); meanwhile, the law in most European countries states that when something is stolen, the original owner retains legal ownership, and no goodfaith sale can change that.

As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts, I still remain very much on the fence on this one. There are very compelling reasons on all sides, both in terms of morality or rightfulness, and also in terms of practical repercussions. Thanks to Hyperallergic for another wonderful post.

A brilliant artwork I saw at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) in NY in 2008. Sadly, I do not know the artist. If anyone knows, do let me know, so I can credit it properly, please.

*On a somewhat related note, another Hyperallergic post discusses a new proposed law in New York State which would protect art historians & authenticators from being sued if they incorrectly assess an artwork. As a closely related article on the Art Newspaper explains, scholars have increasingly been hesitant to say anything at all about an artwork, effectively being silenced by the looming potentiality of a lawsuit. So, this is interesting.

An interactive panel at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, helping translate and interpret classical Chinese.

*Finally today, Lindsay Nelson of “Adventures in Gradland” offers her thoughts on academic writing responding to recent discussions in the New York Times and New Yorker about the style and accessibility of academic writing.

My thoughts on the subject, in brief, are simply this: some writers, especially some of the biggest-name writers – I’m looking at you, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieau – are unnecessarily difficult to read. They do not explain themselves well, they do not say clearly and directly what they mean to say. They obfuscate. And even once their main idea is explained to you, it’s impossible to go back and find a choice quotable citable spot where they actually say it. BUT, most academics do not write like that. Yes, granted, there are jargon words we use, like discourse and performativity, but if you ask me, these are by no means employed in order to obfuscate, but rather in order to be clear and specific in what we mean to say. Regular everyday words can have a multitude of meanings – what do we mean by “performance” or “ritual”? In everyday language, we use those to mean all kinds of things, and we each have very different understandings of what they mean. But by employing jargon words, we’re able to much more specifically point to specific ideas, specific meanings. And, in truth, I believe that more people need to be more educated in the basics of feminist/gender theory, (post)colonialist discourse, (anti-)Orientalism, and certain other concepts. If we all were given a more solid basic foundation in these things in college, the majority of us would find academic writing a lot more accessible.

Anyway, I certainly appreciate where these critiques are coming from. But, let’s look the other way – we do still have the New York Times, among other publications, and most especially the Economist, which are still quite properly informative, dense with information, which don’t talk down to their readers. But so many magazines are becoming more and more a form of entertainment. Yes, the Internet age has brought a great many very informative, very well-written, and very properly intellectual blogs, such as Hyperallergic, and I do not mean to dismiss those. But, the big-name newspapers and magazines, like TIME, need to go back to playing a role in our society of really properly informing our citizenry. They need to stop trying to be more entertaining, more accessible, and need to go back to expecting, or demanding, that readers be okay with *gasp* being educated.

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I was fortunate this summer to get to see, up close, in person, at the Freer Gallery of Art, a painting by Kanô Hôgai (1828-1888) called “Hibo Kannon,” or “Kannon as Merciful Mother.”

Hôgai is often cited as the last master of the Kanô school; he painted both traditional ink paintings more or less indistinguishable from those of his predecessors, and was among the pioneers of the neo-traditional form known as Nihonga. This work was featured at the Paris Salon in 1883, and later purchased by Ernest Fenollosa, a major supporter of Hôgai, who in turn later sold it to Charles Lang Freer. The piece was so popular that Hôgai later produced a second version of the work, which is now held by Geidai (the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts). A third copy, produced by Okakura Shûsui (1867-1950), nephew of Fenollosa’s companion Okakura Kakuzô, and today in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, generally falls outside of the radar of discussions of this work. … It would be amazing to see all three together, but, alas, it can never happen, as the first cannot leave the Freer (in DC), and the second cannot leave Japan.

Left: Kanô Hôgai’s original 1883 painting, now in the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian. Right: Okakura Shûsui’s version, now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photos from the official online collections databases of the two institutions; I was going to use my own photos, but these are so much clearer and cleaner.

Martin Collcutt has written a chapter in Ellen Conant’s edited volume Challenging Past and Present, entitled “The Image of Kannon as Compassionate Mother in Meiji Art and Culture,” which addresses this work; Chelsea Foxwell has recently also published an article on the subject, included in the Dec 2010 issue of The Art Bulletin, and titled “Merciful Mother Kannon and its Audiences.”

Still, just looking at the original in the storerooms of the Freer, while thinking about the MFA version, and the Tokyo version, which I called up on my smartphone, I noticed for myself some interesting comparisons and contrasts.

(The following is adapted from my notes taken, more or less stream-of-thought style, as I stood in front of the object. Bear with me, please, as I fail to directly state my assumptions, and just describe how the object differed…)

Looking at the piece in person, it is dramatically different from what I remembered, which might just mean my memory is flawed. (Which is probably true to an extent; as it turns out, however, there are in fact major differences between the original Freer version, and the two later works, the one by Hôgai in Tokyo and the copy by Okakura in Boston.) The piece is overall darker and more drab than I had pictured it. Is this just the aging of the silk and fading of pigments? The gold of Kannon’s jewelery shines – I didn’t realize real gold (or some kind of gold pigment?) was used on this. I especially did not realize that gold was used for a stream of liquid poured down onto the baby.

The baby does not float in the bubble as I had thought, but crouches upright on a bit of gold-rimmed cloud. The red ribbon seems more a real cloth wrapped around him, and while the “womb” idea may still be very much present, the composition makes sense without it. Is the bubble a bubble? If he’s not floating in it, then is it perhaps just an aura or the like? The bodhisattva, too, looks far more masculine, or more androgynous, less feminine, than I’d thought a “Kannon as Mother” would be.

The blue-eyed (!?) baby points downwards, looking up to Kannon as if asking something. What is this meant to convey? Something about caring about the world of mortals below? Or about desiring to go down there? Is the baby asking for Kannon to take action, or just asking out of curiosity and infantile naivete?

Ah. As I thought, now that I’m looking at it in person, the Okakura work shows some major differences from this Hôgai original. The overall composition is the same, but many details are different. A purple cloud behind the boy’s head more strongly implies the deep red fleshy colors of the womb, an association I remembered feeling quite strongly when looking at the Okakura and was surprised to not see as strongly evidenced in the Hôgai. In the Okakura, in addition, the boy does not point down, questioning as though asking a parent, but rather looks up, curious, surprised, or frightened by the bodhisattva, his hands clasped together (and not pointing). The red cloth wraps around him more completely here, its end not floating in the air as in Hôgai’s work, but seeming to emerge from within the purple, more closely evoking the idea of an umbilical cord.

Kannon’s mustache remains, and so the face and relative flat-chested body cannot be said to definitively look more female. But, whereas Hôgai left blank silk for the areas of Kannon’s exposed skin, now discolored as silk is wont to do, Okakura painted the skin in, a pale pinkish white, the more porcelain look of the ideal of womanly skin.

So, that’s it for the notes I took at that time. As I said, I have yet to read any articles about the production of these pieces, and so I don’t have any special insights into why these changes were made, or when and where exactly Okakura might have seen the Hôgai piece (though, given the strong ties between Hôgai and Fenollosa, and between Fenollosa and Okakura Kakuzô, and between Kakuzô and Okakura Shûsui, his nephew, it seems not unlikely that Shûsui was able to see the original quite close-up and in person). But, for now, for a start, I thought I would just share these observations. I hope you find them interesting… One of these days, maybe I’ll give it more thought and figure out something more to say about these intriguing works.

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I am still way behind on posting about exhibits I saw on the East Coast over winter break. Trying to catch up… but I realize I’ve lost my notes that I took of my impressions and thoughts while visiting this exhibit, which is only going to make the whole process that much more difficult, as I try to reconstruct those impressions from the photographs, and from memory.

Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a major Chinese art event not to be missed. It features ten new works by major Chinese artists inspired by the great treasures of the MFA’s Chinese art collection.* So, this is not just an opportunity to see amazing works by some of the hottest contemporary artists in the world today, but also to see some exceptionally, unbelievably famous Chinese paintings, and to see the way these contemporary artists have reinterpreted or reimagined the themes or compositions of the masterpieces of the past.

I had made the mistake of assuming it would be in the Asian Art galleries, and went there first. It’s a testament to how big a deal this exhibit is that it is being shown not in the Asian galleries, but rather in the new Gund Gallery for special exhibitions, right below the heart of the new expansion, i.e. right outside the new Art of the Americas Wing.

It was absolutely incredible to see the “Five-Color Parakeet” by Emperor Huizong – easily one of the most famous Chinese paintings, ever. Open up any good, thorough survey textbook of the history of Chinese art, and I can practically guarantee it will be in there. I felt like no matter how long I stood in front of that piece, it would be too short a time to pay it proper respects. Unless I end up working at the MFA (dream job!), I imagine it unlikely I will be seeing that painting again for a long long time, if ever. And yet, standing before it, prevented from really getting close enough to appreciate it properly, on account of the sheet of plexiglass that stood vertically between me and the painting, laid out horizontally on a pedestal, I just could not help but feel like I ought to be getting more out of this interaction. Here it is. A super super famous painting, by an emperor no less – a really famous emperor.

Seeing that work was incredible. But, even as I felt the desire to stand there and stare at it until something more happened, until some switch clicked and the super special experience I was waiting for happened, I knew I had to keep moving. I skimmed the rest of this “Masters” exhibition, wondering where all the rest of the treasures of the collection, not to mention the new works, were…. Certainly, the other works up were ancient, and famous, and masterful as well, but they were not any works I remembered having heard of (which speaks more to my ignorance than to anything about these masterpieces), and so I finally made my way to the Info Desk to ask and find out where Fresh Ink was.

I was pointed to a giant banner hanging over the stairs, reading “Fresh Ink.”

Each artist was introduced with a label like this one, including her signature, photos of her and her studio or process, quotes on the wall about her approach or attitude, a brief biography and summary of analysis of her work. Really a fantastic model that I think could be applied positively, productively, to most exhibits.

As soon as I hit the bottom of the stairs, boom, I got my first glance of “Fresh Ink,” and could see that it was everything “Chinese Master Paintings from the Collection” was not. It is an exhibit with some real design to it, with gallery-labels and an overall exhibit design custom-designed for this exhibition, in a super sleek, post-museum** sort of style. Rather than each piece being simply labeled with title, date, media, etc. and a brief description, we saw multiple labels for each piece, including photos of the contemporary artist with his or her signature and a brief biography, along with a brief discussion of the artist’s and curators’ thoughts and interpretations and ideas regarding the work. Other labels discussed other aspects of the piece, such as the art historical significance of the traditional masterpiece displayed alongside the new work, which served as the inspiration.

I was truly blown away by this exhibit immediately upon stepping inside. The gallery opens up in front of you, immediately presenting you with a very clear view of at least two new and contemporary works that, if you know your Chinese art history, immediately remind you of particular treasures from the collection.

For some reason, I had expected to see very conservative monochrome ink landscapes, the sort of thing that only the most expert of experts would recognize as innovative. I guess it was the “Ink” in the exhibition title. Instead, we see energetic, innovative, colorful (in some cases), incredible works using Western media (in most cases) and techniques to refer to classic compositions – really, my favorite kind of contemporary art.

Yu Hong – Spring Romance

Yu Hong’s piece is in Western paints and Western styles, in a form that couldn’t be anything but modern/contemporary – a single composition spread out across a number of separate pieces of silk, hanging more like banners than like hanging scrolls. Yet, walking into the gallery, I immediately recognized it as a reworking of the composition of “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk,” a rather famous 12th century handscroll painting attributed to Emperor Huizong, the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty, who also painted the parakeet mentioned above. Before even delving into any other aspects of this, the idea of a work on silk inspired by (based on) a work about preparing silk, itself also painted on silk, inserting women in modern fashions, depicted in modern/Western paints (oils? acrylics? I need to learn to be able to tell) and in a style unlike that of traditional Chinese works, holding up the ancient work on silk – these aspects alone put a smile on my face and have me enjoying the work.

The referential aspect of the artwork does not end there. Each of these young women is, in fact, a figure from another of Yu Hong’s works, each of them a friend or acquaintance, and each with a story to tell. As the labels in the gallery explain, the woman playing the flute, seen here in a detail of “Spring Romance,” had commissioned Yu Hong to paint her in commemoration of her pregnancy. We see also a friend of Yu’s, a novelist who had fallen off a building, and who asked Yu to produce casts, that is, plaster molds, of her healed legs afterward – Yu Hong herself is thus present as well, her hands covered in white plaster.

Li Jin – Reminiscence to Antiquity. Ink and color on paper, 2009. Album leaves mounted as hanging scrolls.

Li Jin’s piece at first seemed naive, amateurish, somehow. Sloppy. Like I could look at it once, think “ah, okay. Yup. Got it. Nice.” and just move on. But lingering for one moment longer, I began to see an incredible (anyone want to keep count of how many times I fail to vary my adjectives?) realism and density of color and form, and some real humor and parody in the details.

Backing up again, I love that he has created album leaves on hanging scrolls – a traditional format for very untraditional subjects in untraditional media inspired by, based on, referring back to, a traditional work.

I wish I could share with you all the pictures I took in the exhibition – there’s really just so much to see here, and so much to talk about. But, my posts are more than long enough as is, plus I feel that would be pushing the boundaries of fair use and such even more so than I already am. In any case, the exhibition is still up for a while, and the catalog should be widely available, if you would like to see more. Though the works look really watercolory at first, and I just sort of automatically therefore assumed them not worth a second look, I am glad that I did take a second look at them. Many of these album leafs are actually majorly accomplished, dense with detail and life-likeness, telling vignettes and/or sharing a great sense of humor or parody.

Based on a handscroll painting entitled “Northern Qi Scholars Collating Texts” and attributed to the great Tang dynasty painter Yan Liben (c. 600-673), Li Jin created a pair of handscrolls, and then also these album leafs / hanging scrolls, speaking to the less than serious attitudes these great ancient scholars seem to be taking. Though today we look back at the ancients and “paint” them, so to speak, in our history books and in our minds, as being of immaculate moral uprightness, and their compilations of the ancient classics of poetry and literature to verge on sacred, mythological events, in fact, even in a painting such as this – Yan Liben likewise being extolled as a paragon of virtuous, masterful Tang dynasty painting – we can clearly see the ancient masters having a raucous, drunken good ol’ time. So, Li Jin, as others (such as Wang Qingsong) have as well, seek to engage with this idea by reimagining such drunken and debaucherous escapades in a more contemporary (modern) context, or at least combined somehow with elements of the modern.

The handscrolls (not pictured here; sorry) were completed in Boston in 2008; when the artist returned to China he realized he needed to create further works on the same themes, completing the project by engaging with the subject not only in Boston, but also after having come home, those thoughts and ideas and thematics in mind, engaging with them in the different context of now being back in China.

Chinese art history, even moreso than the art histories of most cultures, is all about engagement with the past; traditionally, the only proper way to innovate in painting or calligraphy in China was to first master not only the styles of the masters of the past, but to truly engage with the spirit of those masters, and to then innovate within that tradition. Having these ten artists work with the treasures of the museum’s collection, and create new works inspired by the masterpieces of the past, therefore, is a most wonderful continuation of the spirit of that tradition, a most excellent fusion of traditional methods of developing the tradition and modern/Western-inspired media, subjects, and style. I am highly amused and entertained, and indeed pleased, therefore, to see that at least one of the artists spoke to the idea that these efforts to reclaim the past, in order to better gain insights into the present, which is essentially the central theme and purpose of this exhibition, and a major theme throughout Chinese art history, could possibly be less than successful.

Li Jin writes:

“How can people of today possibly know the thoughts of the ancients?
Mistakenly, they replace the old times with the new.
Li Jin lived in Boston in the spring of 2008, in order to pursue
A sense of antiquity…
But it was in vain.”

Fresh Ink is open through February 13th. I sadly did not know about it, and so will be missing out, but more contemporary Chinese works in the same vein will be up at the Harvard Museums through May 14, in an exhibit entitled “Brush and Ink Reconsidered.”

I could go on to talk about all the works in this show – they are each of them quite fascinating and beautiful. But I think I shall leave it for now. I hope you have the chance to see the show in person, yourself.

At the rate I’ve been going it will be a long time before my photos of this Boston trip are up on Flickr, but trust me, they will be eventually. In the meantime, please feel free to go take a look at my photos from Kyoto from last summer.

Upcoming posts will feature Japan Society’s exhibit “The Sound of One Hand: Zen Paintings by Hakuin Ekaku,” as well as a post on the 33rd Annual University of Hawaii Graduate Students Art Exhibition, up now, featuring some breathtaking work by my close friends & “cohort”/colleagues/classmates. Thank you for reading!!

*To be accurate, one work is by a Chinese-American artist, inspired by a Jackson Pollock. The rest are by Chinese artists, inspired by Chinese artworks from the collection.
**Post-modern is, of course, a term super-laden with meaning. And as I am hardly an expert at modern art terminology, I’ll leave that one alone. Suffice it to say, I identified the design aesthetic of the exhibition as something which felt, or tasted, very forward-looking, very contemporary, very new and sleek, precisely the kind of thing I wish we saw more of.

All photos taken myself. No one is to blame for the poor quality but me (and perhaps Apple; they looked soooo clear and sharp on the iPhone screen, but then when I uploaded them…). The artworks themselves are of course copyright the respective artists; gallery labels etc are copyright Museum of Fine Arts, and no claims of creative property are made by me here. Purely using photography for “personal non-commercial purposes”, pseudo-journalism, fair use in so far as I can justifiably argue so.

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Years ago, I interned at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for a short time. At that time, the American Wing expansion plans were in an early stage, and a major exhibition of Chinese contemporary art was likewise in the very first planning stages. So, visiting the MFA a few weeks ago to see both the Chinese contemporary exhibition “Fresh Ink” and the newly completed and opened American wing was a visit a long time in the making, so to speak, and one I very much looked forward to. (Sadly, in the end, I did not give myself enough time to take my time and take it all in properly.)

It’s not just a new wing — really, this comes as the cornerstone or culmination of a major overhaul and redesign of the museum. Some very significant portion of the museum (75%?) remains more or less untouched, but the entrances and general expected visitor path through the museum have changed completely, and that makes all the difference. The West Wing entrance, through the parking lot, which was the main entrance for years, as long as I can remember, is now blocked off. I think it may be still used for school groups and the like, but where there used to be the main box office, a large coat room, and the like, is now a more or less empty foyer with nearly blank white walls, feeling, along with the café, museum shop, and auditorium which it connects to, like a distant corner of the museum, considerably isolated from the center of the action.

The front entrance in the center of the Neo-Classical facade, facing the street, long quite secondary, is now the primary entrance, with a brand new box office to the right, where one of the main galleries of Egyptian artifacts was. To the left of this front entrance, the South Asian galleries have been shrunken and relocated to make room for a gift shop, and the corridor leading into the otherwise largely unchanged Asian Arts section has been given new glass doors and otherwise been dressed up.

The new courtyard, looking back towards the new visitors’ center. (No shots of the visitors’ center itself; sorry.)

A large room at the center of the museum has been converted into a major visitors’ center, with a large, flashy information desk, and a number of tables and seats for relaxing, meeting up, or planning your next steps. This has been there since at least a year and a half ago (Summer 2009), if not earlier… except that now it looks out onto the brand-new Carl & Ruth Shapiro Family Courtyard, a glorious glass-walled, large, airy courtyard filled with natural light and an expensive-looking café.

In my courses at UH, we have discussed the discursive implications of museum layouts, and how even today, many museums’ layouts can still be interpreted to subtly imply or reflect Orientalist or Euro-centric (American-centric) attitudes. Think about your local museum, or any major museum you’ve been to. Which cultures’ art is displayed in the greatest places of honor? Which galleries are most immediately available and visible upon entering the museum, and which ones are hidden away in basements, in the far back corner, or in otherwise removed and distant parts of the museum?

The MFA, like the Honolulu Academy of Arts, has long addressed this problem by attempting to balance the Asian and Western wings on opposite sides of the main front entrance. Walk in the main front entrance, and it used to be that India was on your left, followed by China and Japan as you moved deeper into the museum in that direction; Egypt was on the right of the entrance, followed by Greece and Rome. This is of course hardly a perfect solution, as this still implies a rather elitist and old-school view of the hierarchy of cultures and arts, barely changed from the Victorian ideas which served as the foundations of the first museums. In fact, I would argue quite strongly that there can never be a perfect solution, and that no matter what the arrangement / layout may be, it will always be interpretable as perpetuating this or that discriminatory or otherwise politically incorrect discourse. It’s just an ineviability – we try, we do what we can, but such discourses are by their very nature unavoidable and ever-present.

The stairs and glass windows of the new Arts of the Americas galleries. Paul Revere welcomes you on the ground floor, to exhibits on colonial New England, while a contemporary sculpture in steel(?), visible from here in the courtyard, marks the modern/contemporary section. Native arts are in the basement, out of sight from here.

That said, it is hard to ignore the fact that, while this balanced East/West dichotomy may remain at the entrance to the museum, standing in the new courtyard, the new center of the museum, all the art overseen by the “Arts of Asia, Oceania, and Africa” department, or, as one friend put it, “the department of the art of non-whites,” is off in an other part of the museum, the older part, a part that feels distant and removed from this bright, shiny, new, exciting expansion.

Imagine you’re the stereotypical museum visitor. You’ve just arrived and, as the designers/planners intended, you go straight to the new visitors’ center, pick up a map and talk to the staff about what’s going on today and what’s to see. You’re beyond that balanced East/West entranceway now, and are starting your exploration of the museum facing the new courtyard. Ancient Egypt is to your left; the Arts of Europe to your right. And, straight ahead, stretching up four floors, in grand style, as if it were the culmination of all arts of humankind, is the Arts of America Wing.

(Though, I will certainly grant them major brownie points for having the big temporary exhibits gallery, below this main courtyard, be a Chinese art show at the moment, and not one of Western art.)

The Native North American Arts gallery

Yes, granted, the MFA received lots of positive press for its revolutionary idea to incorporate Native American, Mayan, Aztec, Inca, Caribbean, and Central and South American arts into an integrated “Arts of the Americas” Wing, something that I gather no major museum has ever done before. But, even so, the Native American arts are still in the basement, the contemporary American artworks up on the fourth floor, reaching up towards the sky. My father made the excellent observation that objectively, scientifically, none of this really necessarily means anything; but, nevertheless, it is widely accepted among art historians and others specializing in theory and discourse of this sort that these kinds of things do have certain discursive implications. Yes, sure, it makes sense to do things chronologically, from pre-Columbian to post-contact, to Colonial, to 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. But in the process of doing so, I am sorry to say, you are reproducing hints or implications of the same discourses of indigenous peoples being frozen in the past, or lacking in history, that are at the center of the colonialistic/Orientalist attitudes that have been attracting criticism for decades now…


I felt terribly rushed, unfortunately, in my visit, as I didn’t make it out to the museum until 1pm or so, and they decided to close early, around 4pm, on account of the Snowpocalypse. So, I really did not get to explore and investigate and engage with the new galleries as I would have liked to, but really only managed to touch the surface, run around and get a glimpse, a taste.

After a few hours in the Chinese galleries, I entered the Arts of the Americas Wing in the basement. Presumably, you’re meant to enter at the ground floor, where Paul Revere welcomes you to the section for the arts of colonial New England, but nevertheless, there was an entrance there in the basement, and a rather prominent one; it’s not like I came in through a weird back side secondary entrance – I just want to be clear about that, so you understand the context of my next statement.

Upon entering this brand new, much lauded American Art Wing, my first impression should have been “impressive.” But it was not. It was “confusion.” I appreciate the discursive and political desire to blur or eliminate the boundary between “American Art” and “Art of the Americas,” by juxtaposing, for example, the Native American gallery with the maritime art (read: model ships and paintings of ships) gallery, but really, more than anything it just feels disjointed and confusing. Sure, there is a logic to that juxtaposition – these are the ships of exploration, the ships of colonization and conquest that chronologically and thematically mark the end of the Pre-Columbian Era and the Pre-Columbian civilizations. But, while the Native American gallery may itself be organized logically into sections for Plains Indians, the American Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, etc., the juxtaposition of this with “Embroidery of Colonial Boston” just does not seem to work.

Say what you want about the value of discursive thematics – such as the juxtaposition of colonial and colonized – but as a museum visitor, trying to find my way to certain works or certain periods by looking at hints in certain rooms (similar, or dissimilar? too early, or too late?), I feel totally lost.

If you’re going to shove all the Arts of the Americas all together, why not shove all the Arts of Asia together? Does that really make less sense?

The desire to include contemporary works mixed in with traditional ones in the Native American gallery is an interesting one. It is certainly something we have discussed ad nauseum in my excessively indigenous-cultures-oriented Museum Studies course in Hawaii – the desire to combat Orientalist discourses by showing indigenous peoples as not frozen in the past, and as possessing a vital, active, contemporary presence and membership in fully modern society. Yet, I could not help but feel that their inclusion shifted the feel of the entire exhibit such that it felt like it was entirely an exhibit about contemporary culture, and how contemporary Native life today relates to or engages with history and tradition. This sets it apart sharply from the rest of the American Art (that is to say, the colonial and US art), which is more explicitly historical.

Right: “Raven Steals the Moon”. 2002. Preston Singletary (b. 1963, American – Tlingit). 19.5 x 6 in. Blown glass & sandblasted design.

Looking at the contemporary pieces more closely, I find one that I quite like. “Raven Steals the Moon” is a fine example of a contemporary piece that fits right in, feeling right at home among more traditional artifacts. It reflects that traditions, or at least some knowledge and appreciation of traditions, is still alive. It feels to me precisely like the Pacific Northwest Native American equivalent of Nihonga or Neo-Nihonga paintings in Japan – assuredly modern, but at the same time very much reflecting an awareness of, a knowledge of, an appreciation for, and a continuation from, historical traditional art forms.

By contrast, abstract oil paintings that refer more to contemporary politics, to suffering under colonialism, imperialism, conquest, etc etc seem terribly out of place to me – confrontational and accusatory. As politically incorrect as it may be for me to say it, I cannot help but to look at these stereotypical images (horses, buffalo) and wonder just how much true connection they have to these native cultures, and how much they are simply being used, deployed, employed, appropriated for political purposes. It feels cheesy and forced, like you’re trying to claim a heritage already lost. Unlike Singletary’s piece, which seems to reflect genuine knowledge and genuine tradition, these appropriate Orientalist stereotypes as if they were the real thing, the real Native American identity, worn proudly though it is hardly the real thing.

But enough about discursive matters, politics and Orientalism, post-colonial theory and all that. Running out of time, I flitted through two more floors (missing the topmost contemporary art floor entirely), and have only a few more things to say. Number one, simply an observation that the doors to the new wing click when opened, like they’re not just hanging there but have an actual fully closed position. It seems a longshot as I sit here typing it, but at the time it seemed to me quite logical to infer that perhaps this was part of an improved conservation system – the doors close completely, for climate control. Or maybe they don’t. It was just a thought.

Video screens and a few vitrines at the Behind the Scenes exhibit. The screens face out towards a huge bank of windows looking out over the Fenway, and a couch is provided for you to sit and relax, look out the windows, and take a break. All of this is around the corner and on the opposite side of thick walls from the main American Art exhibits – a quiet spot to get away from the crowds and the lights for a moment.

Also, hiding around a corner, facing out the windows, away from the main exhibits, is a small set of exhibits entitled “Behind the Scenes.” You cannot imagine how excited I was to discover this. Firstly, it’s just a wonderful, brilliant design decision, creating this very cozy, quiet space where one can study, or just sit and talk, get away from the crowds for a minute, and stare out the window, mere feet away from the gallery but totally removed from it.

And I *love* the idea of a behind the scenes gallery at a museum. Maybe I’m in the minority, maybe it’s my interest in museums to begin with that makes me hardly the typical visitor. But I am fascinated by the idea of them sharing how the museum staff decide what to collect and to obtain (i.e. what to accession), sharing how the new galleries were installed (beautiful photos and videos relate this on a series of video screens), and granting the visitor a glimpse of conservation issues, problems, decisions, policies, and processes. What to do with a chair that was nearly destroyed in a house fire but which would otherwise have been a fantastic artifact of 18th century New England colonial furniture styles? Is it fit for display? Do we risk risky conservation efforts? What do we do with a painting that was restored, with 20th century museum staff “correcting” or “fixing” details such as a hand by painting over it? Do we un-restore it back to a more original form that betrays the poor condition of the work but reveals more of the original forms and shapes?

I had hoped to return to the MFA the following day, to more thoroughly, slowly, engage with the gallery, explore it and give more thought to it and to other exhibits, but I was ruined by the Snowmageddon which struck the Northeast that night (Sunday 12/26 into Monday 12/27). I look forward to going back in the summer, though the Chinese exhibit “Fresh Ink” will be long gone by then…

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe has put up a beautiful mini-site full of graphics and short articles about the planning and creation of this new wing. It does, apparently, though, require registration to the website, which should be free. I am hoping to at some point go through these materials and put together a more serious and organized blog post about the expansion, since there really is so much material to work from here; but, I’m already behind on things I want to post about, so we’ll see…

All photos taken myself, at the Museum. With the exception of the photo of “Raven Steals the Moon,” from the MFA’s online catalog.

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At some point, I don’t remember when, I sort of lost interest in Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Though I pride myself on being able to recognize and distinguish a Kiyonaga, Harunobu, Torii, Utamaro, Sharaku or Utagawa at a glance, all in all, they are more similar – all reflecting the ukiyo-e style – than they are different, and I guess I was just struck by a realization that there’s not that much to talk about stylistically, and that if I were to specialize in prints, I could potentially become quite tired of them quite quickly.

Now, none of the above is necessarily true. It’s just sort of a thought I had. There are of course stylistic differences that one can appreciate and study and talk about.

Visiting the MFA a few weeks ago, I was reminded what it is I love about prints. I was at the time in the midst of reading James Cahill’s book The Lyric Journey. He discusses Chinese ink landscape paintings, and Japanese ones of a very particular time and style, discussing at length their lyrical quality or lack thereof, and how some painters, in some schools, in some periods, were far more successful than others in achieving this quality (the others, for the most part, weren’t trying, and in fact heavily criticized the former group for valuing such a depiction). Looking past the actual scene depicted to the way it is depicted, the composition and balance, the use of brushstrokes… I just couldn’t get it.

And so, there I was in the prints gallery, looking at the labels and the way these images are approached, discussed, described, and I was instantly reminded of what it was that made me fall in love with these prints to begin with, during my internship at the MFA. Maybe it’s just the particular approach of Sarah Thompson, MFA Asst Curator of Japanese Prints, not something inherent in the prints themselves, nor perhaps the approach common or popular in the art world at large, but ukiyo-e prints, moreso than paintings or other formats, lend themselves to an approach that focuses not so much on style, but much more on what is being depicted. It is through ukiyo-e prints that we can gain, and deploy, an encyclopedic knowledge of sumo wrestlers, kabuki plays, actors, and characters, geisha and courtesans, fashions, famous places, and, of course, artists and publishers.

With a painting, arguably, it’s all about interpretation of the style, much more so than what is depicted. Sure, the subject does enter into it, as does the biography of the painter. But for the most part, it’s really about the stylistic decisions made by the artist, the abstract forms, compositional balance, and all of that, the brushstrokes, and the overall feeling or impression or impact the work makes. And one can easily grow too specialized in painting, itself.

Right: The actor Nakamura Shikan IV as the wrestler Tomigorô from the series “A Modern Suikoden” by Utagawa Kunisada, 1861. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 11.29906

Prints, by contrast, cater to the diversity of my interests and to my inability to remain interested in any given topic for too long, flitting as I do constantly from one thing to another to another. It is through the study of prints that we are able to satisfy our desires, our interests, our tastes, for everything from kabuki to courtesan fashions to the architecture and layout of Edo. In looking a painting, we might become frustrated or bored with our inability to really see, and appreciate, the stylistic decisions and compositional balance and all of that. But in looking at a print such as this one, we are learning not only about prints and their style and their production in the early 1860s, not only about Toyokuni III (aka Kunisada) and the Utagawa school, not only about how heroes and stories were represented in popular visual media, but also about the Suikoden, the character Tomigorô, and the actor Nakamura Shikan IV themselves.

Above: “Oniwakamaru and the Giant Carp,” by Totoya Hokkei, c. 1830-1835. Surimono print. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 11.20613

Here is a print by Totoya Hokkei, depicting Oniwakamaru. Rather than only appreciating it for its style, for Hokkei’s compositional decisions, and for the glorious way mica or silver or something is used to give the water a sparkly shiny quality, we can look at it and say “Ah, Oniwakamaru! I know him. That’s Benkei as a boy. The same Benkei who later fights Yoshitsune on Gojô Bridge in such-and-such a print and such-and-such a play; the same Benkei who we see in the kabuki play Kanjinchô. I’ve seen him played by Nakamura Hashinosuke III and also by Kataoka Nizaemon XV…” And you can draw connections. You can use the prints as a jumping-off point to learn about history, legends, and stories, such as those surrounding Benkei, and from there, you might investigate and learn more about Yoshitsune, the great legendary general to whom Benkei was a loyal retainer, and about the historical and less-than-historical stories about him, the plays that feature him, the actors who have played him and in which ways, all while remaining in and never straying too far from the world of prints.

I have myself already learned to recognize a number of actors’ crests, and crests of major kabuki theatres, as well as recognizing certain characters and plays by the costuming. I look forward to the day I can recognize different ranks of courtesans by their clothes and hairdos, and be able to identify the different hairdos (e.g. the Shimada), and to date depictions based on that (e.g. the Shimada was only popular from X year to Y year).

Unlike ink paintings (which, do not get me wrong, are beautiful and fascinating in their own way) which only provide a limited glimpse into the world of Edo period painters, prints provide glimpses into a far wider, broader, range of aspects and elements of Edo period history, popular culture, and city life. And it is for that reason, combined with my preference towards encyclopedic knowledge, that I love a prints exhibit that can really highlight the actor Kikugorô V, the legendary warrior Shi Jin, the popular novel Suikoden, the courtesan Hanaôgi of the Ôgiya, and the Noh play Hagoromo, along with Edo period methods of law enforcement (punishment), the popular practice of tattooing a lover’s name on your arm, and the existence of carnival-like presentations of life-size dolls or mannequins dressed and positioned as legendary heroes as an attraction in the streets of Edo, all in the course of an exhibition nominally about tattoos in ukiyo-e. Were this an exhibit of ink paintings, we might learn a lot about ink paintings, and might see some truly stunning works, but we might not learn much at all about anything outside of the world of ink paintings.

All images copyright Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I was going to use my own photos taken in the galleries myself, in accordance with museum policy which allows photography for personal and non-commercial purposes, such as this blog is, but thought that the museum might appreciate its collections being depicted in the most positive light – i.e. better quality photography than my own. If the museum would prefer that I use my own, poorly lit, somewhat blurry photos, or no photos at all, to illustrate and discuss its beautiful collection, please let me know and I would be happy to oblige.

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