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“Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs,” an event my friends and I had been planning since last year, finally came to fruition this past February, and I flew back to Santa Barbara very briefly (from Okinawa, where I had been pursuing my dissertation research for a six month stay) to take part. Not quite a symposium or conference, but also not simply an art exhibition, “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” combined an exhibit of new works by MFA student Yumiko Glover with a series of talks by Yumiko, EALCS PhD student Carl Gabrielson, EALCS Professor Sabine Frühstück, Art History PhD student A. Colin Raymond, and myself, plus video interviews of all of us, conducted and edited by YouTuber / LGBT-activist Naoya Matsushima.

Now that the website is complete, I thought it about time to finally post on the blog about this.

The event was originally conceived as something of an “experiment” in graduate-student-initiated and cross-department / interdisciplinary events, which might stand as an example in incremental moves towards (1) greater interdisciplinary collaboration within the academy, (2) greater variety in the style and character of academic events, and (3) more student-initiated events on campus. Of course, few events I’ve ever participated in have ever been nearly as radical, or impactful, as we might imagine or expect or hope for them to be, and all of them, once they are over, are simply over, but I’m still rather proud of, and happy with, what we accomplished.

Yumiko Glover, “Tomoko vs. Mr. A” (2016). Acrylic on canvas, 77″ sq. Photo my own. (Sadly, I can’t seem to find any of my photos from that week, so I’m using photos from another art show.)

Yumiko’s artwork continues to get my gears turning – not only beautiful, and masterfully executed, but also wonderfully thought-provoking, containing or suggesting references in numerous different directions, to themes of contemporary Japanese social and political issues, but also anime/manga and youth fashion aesthetics, bubble-gum-bright pop colors, hyperreality and technofuturism – they are highly contemporary works, in modern media and techniques, featuring contemporary or even futuristic subjects (schoolgirls, metropolitan skylines, subways, cellphones, the digital world) but also while subtly referencing or even re-imagining / re-creating (mitate-e) classic images from Japanese art history, such as woodblock prints by Harunobu and Utamaro.

The exhibit opened on Sunday Feb 26, and on the Tuesday, three of us (Yumiko, Colin, and myself) gave brief presentations in Prof. Helen Taschian’s ART 1A: Intro to Visual Literacy class, in addition to all five of us giving talks in a more formal panel event the following day at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre. I could certainly appreciate how these talks at Prof. Taschian’s class might be seen as tangential, or incidental, to the overall project – and there have certainly been plenty of times that I, as a mere attendee to a “main event” panel discussion have not felt that the classroom visits and other activities I didn’t see constituted part of the main event – but, this time around, as a direct participant in this classroom visit, I really did feel it to be a part of the overall event, the overall experience. This has really given me a new appreciation for how it feels to be a visiting speaker, not just for one “main event” but for other things done in conjunction, and a new appreciation for appreciating the fullness of such events. Even with the talks being just tweaked slightly different versions from what we presented the following day at the formal panel discussion, the classroom visit felt quite different. A different audience, with different background and interests and perspectives. The Visual Literacy class itself provided a different context within which – building on their basic foundational knowledge of art & aesthetics acquired over just the past seven weeks of the academic quarter – we were introducing them to Yumiko’s work, to a brief sampling of Okinawan art today (my presentation), and to some issues and problems in thinking about contemporary art, through examples from contemporary Japanese art (Colin’s presentation). It felt really cool to be including a bit of Japanese, Okinawan, and Japanese/American art (or however Yumiko may identify/categorize her own art practice) into their Visual Literacy class. I don’t know how global (how US/Eurocentric or not) Prof. Taschian’s course is to begin with, but I definitely get a kick out of exposing students to non-Western examples as major examples of how we think about art, etc. American or European art – or particular standard canonical examples of non-Western art – need not be the default go-to examples. We are global citizens of a global world. Let us act like it. And talking about some of the biggest artists in Tokyo, and in Okinawa (or we might just as well have said Tahiti, Hawaii, or countless other marginalized, peripheralized places), plus works by someone like Yumiko Glover, using these and not more standard examples from a canon of Western (or non-Western) modern art, is a key element of doing that. Prof. Taschian’s class also did a walkthrough of the exhibit on the Thursday, along with a formal “critique” of Yumiko’s work by professors and grad students from the Studio Art program, and while I wasn’t able to be there for this part, this too is to my mind very much a part of the overall event, making “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” overall a fairly complex, extensive, event, and one I’m all the more satisfied with and proud of having been a part of.

Still, the exhibit itself (and gallery opening reception), and the panel discussion at the MCC, were the real centerpieces of the week. I am so glad to have gotten to do this in the MCC theatre. If we had gotten a classroom, that would have been fine, but doing it in the MCC made the whole thing just feel one level “higher” – classier, nicer, more properly put-together, in a sense. Yumiko talked about her artworks, how they were inspired in large part by her own identity and experiences, growing up in Fukuyama, Hiroshima prefecture (about 63 miles from Hiroshima City), and being Japanese, seeing how Japanese popular culture, media, everyday life, and national-level politics have developed over the last several decades. Yumiko’s works are not only about hyperreality and a colorful, pop-aesthetic Tokyo-urban landscape of everyday life infused with youthful energy, referencing or built upon a backdrop history of Japanese art tradition, but the most recent batches are also increasingly engaged in political commentary, against the renewed militarism and nationalism of the Abe administration and its supporters.

Sabine Frühstück and Carl Gabrielson then talked about that recent trend of rising militarism, particularly in terms of the imag(in)ed role or place of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces within Japanese life or Japanese society, the step-by-step shift of the JSDF from total non-involvement in warzones in the 1990s to increased engagement first in postwar minesweeping efforts in the Persian Gulf overseas construction efforts in Cambodia, and then later in an active warzone (although still not with combat troops – only medics, engineers, etc. etc.) in Iraq in the early 2000s, to now, since 2015, a formal reinterpretation of the Constitution newly adopted into law, which would allow Japan to deploy full-on combat troops not only in defense of Japan (or reaction to attacks against Japanese people or property) but also in response to attacks on allies.

Carl talked in particular about the way the JSDF is marketed to the Japanese public, as protectors of an idealized clean, honest, peaceful, prosperous Japanese everyday life – a very common trope throughout Japanese media – and as protectors who do so without any explicit or overt discussion or display of violence. JSDF ads include very little, if any, depiction of weaponry or action, at all, focusing very much instead on a more quiet, soft perhaps, dignified image of people – largely unseen, unheard, in everyday Japanese life, operating somewhere at a physical remove, a distance – who work to protect Japanese life from turmoil and threats. Even the threats themselves are not only not named, they are left entirely undefined: these ads don’t so much stir up “fear” (e.g. fear of Islamic extremist terrorism) as they do, arguably, perhaps, merely emphasize the goodness of what needs to be protected.

I next shared a glimpse, a sampling, of what I’d seen of Okinawan art in the preceding six months or so. I would say my main intention was twofold: (1) to just simply share something of my experience; even those who’ve spent more time in Tokyo, who know the Tokyo and national art scene better than I do haven’t been feet-on-the-ground seeing all this stuff in Okinawa right now, in 2016-17 as it happens. And (2) to try to contribute just a bit to combatting the continued US/Eurocentrism of our understanding and vision of the art world. This is the 21st century. We are global citizens, Let’s fucking act like it. Okinawa is a part of the world, no less so than California or New York or Texas, no less so than England or France or Japan or China. No matter how small, no matter how seemingly peripheral in one way or another, it is a part of our world, a jigsaw puzzle piece that is essential to a more complete vision of the whole.

Finally, Colin talked about how we understand art and aesthetic categories. In the aftermath of minimalism and modernism reaching (arguably) their limits, the movements having been played out to their fullest possible extent, now what? In our frenetic postmodern moment, when absolutely anything can be art, what now is (and is not) “Art”? Also, as we become increasingly interconnected into the global, just because we have access to seeing more art from around the world doesn’t mean we actually understand it in cultural and political context. It may actually be easier than ever before to think we do – seeing artworks from all around the world on the internet, and at a first glance thinking we “get” it, based on preconceptions about Japan. But, in truth, as Colin explained, there is historical, cultural, and political knowledge that is essential to understanding more validly, more deeply, more truly, what an artwork is referencing or pointing to.

Matthew Limb did an excellent job as moderator, guiding us through some important themes and questions at the end of the panel.

These were accompanied by the brilliant inclusion of a series of video interviews organized by Naoya Matsushima, projected onto the wall of the gallery. While five of us gave talks in UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre in a formal panel event on the Wednesday, that’s ephemeral – even more ephemeral than a one-week gallery show – and these videos, summarizing the main themes of our talks in a (hopefully) even more accessible manner than the talks themselves, brought those talks, those topics, more directly into conversation with the artworks.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with these folks, and to have such an event under my belt, keeping me connected into fields of Art and Art History, and to get to contribute to having just a bit more Japan-related events on campus, introducing our audiences to these various aspects of Japanese & Okinawan art and politics. I look forward to hopefully many more fruitful collaborations in future.

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It feels good to be getting into the theatre again. It’d been a long time (unless I’m forgetting something…) since I’d seen a theatre production, and I really do miss my friendship & involvement with the Theatre department at UH.

Blue, Black, and White is an original play by Donald Molosi, a graduate student here at UCSB, who, now that I look him up online, is apparently a very prominent rising star among young artists from Botswana. I won’t bother sharing a list of his awards and accomplishments here, but they’re easy to find online. The play tells the story of Sir Seretse Khama (1921-1980), first president of independent Botswana. He is known not only for leading the country to independence (in 1966), and to relative prosperity, but also for his then (and still?) extremely controversial marriage to a white woman, Ruth Williams, in 1948, at a time when the formal policies of apartheid were first getting underway in South Africa, and when segregation and the racial attitudes underlying it was very much the norm throughout much of the Western world and its colonies. The play suggests that interracial mixing and equality was much more common, or stronger, in Bechuanaland even before independence than in many other parts of southern Africa, and that after independence, under Sir Seretse, it became even more tolerant (especially in comparison to neighboring South Africa, infamous for its formal Apartheid policies). If this is true, it’s really remarkable.

Tonight’s performance, directed by Haddy Kreie and starring a cast of all UCSB undergraduates, was an ensemble version of the play, previously performed as a one-man show by Molosi himself; the play is still a work in progress, but even as is, it’s really quite well-done, nuanced, multi-layered, powerful and meaningful.

The play is told through multiple layers of storytelling, and each actor plays multiple parts. It is a story of a classroom in Botswana, where the teacher is teaching her students about Sir Seretse Khama; as part of her lessons, she and the students dress up and play parts and act out key moments and events in the life of Sir Seretse. But then, within that “role playing,” there are also sections where Lady Ruth Khama, sitting with some of the Ba-Tswana women, answers their questions and tells them stories, for example, about how she and Sir Seretse met. It is easy to forget sometimes that a given scene is meant to be a memory, a story being told, or that it’s supposed to be the schoolchildren playing parts. But that’s good – all the scenes feel real.

As each actor takes on multiple roles, changing gender and race as well, and often putting on accents, there comes the obvious, unavoidable question of race in the casting. I’d rather not say too much, because it is a very touchy subject, and anything said about it must be phrased very carefully. My apologies if I am not careful enough. But, as the cast, director, and playwright explained, this works for them on multiple levels. One, colorblind casting helps embody the interracial, anti-segregation message of the play. Two, the diverse background of the actors (white, Asian-American, Latina, etc.), even as they play Black Africans, helps, perhaps, subconsciously, highlight the ethnic differences within Botswana – in American discourse, we may see “Black” as a single group, just as we all too often also gloss over the great ethnic & cultural diversity within “white” identity, but, in Botswana, as in most African countries (and elsewhere in the world), there is a strong sense of ethnic, cultural, tribal differences, e.g. between BaTswana, BaKalanga, and BaSarwa (‘ba’ being a prefix in Setswana denoting a people; ‘se’, similarly, is a prefix denoting a language. Thus BaTswana means “the Tswana people,” Setswana, “the Tswana language,” and Botswana, “the Tswana country.” I learned these things today.). Finally, that for the actors, taking on all these different roles helped them to understand and to embody the different racial/ethnic/cultural identities in the story, and in the racial/political issues the play addresses. I suppose in the end, if it’s alright with the great, award-winning Batswana playwright Donald Molosi, who am I to say otherwise?

Speaking of “tribes” or ethnic identities, I thought it very interesting, and valuable, the way that Molosi introduces some criticism into his own narrative, acknowledging the choices he is making, and the presence of alternative narratives. The story he tells is a romantic and nationalistic one, emphasizing the Batswana people and Sir Seretse in particular, elevating him as an individual, as a founding father. The playwright shows his awareness and recognition of the problematic nature of this narrative by having one character, one of the schoolchildren, Frank, frequently ask questions such as “why do we learn only about Sir Seretse? Aren’t there other important people whose stories deserve to be told too?” Frank also says at one point “my uncle says we aren’t to use the word ‘tribe’.” I thought these interjections among the most valuable and powerful critical elements in the play. It is a play about recovering one’s history, one’s identity, and telling the story of one’s own people, of one’s own country. But, even while doing so, it is important to recognize that an alternative story, a counter-narrative, can also be dominating, can also be silencing of other voices, and can also perpetuate discourses (such as the use of the word ‘tribe’, or not, and what connotations it has within your culture, and your own national narrative). The teacher attacks Frank each time, yelling at him and punishing him for challenging her narrative, her curriculum. This kind of forcible enforcement of the curriculum takes place in classrooms all around the world.

Donald says that the public school curriculum in Botswana remains very much a colonial curriculum. It teaches a version of history that is heavily Eurocentric, including, he mentioned, the Russian tsars and the German unification of the 19th century, but nothing, incredibly, about Botswana’s own history. This, I was very surprised by. Not that I know anything much at all about African history, but while places like Hawaii and Okinawa still struggle (to varying degrees) to be allowed to teach their own histories, rather than, or in dialogue with, the national narrative, I had always assumed that independent countries like Botswana – especially countries so newly independent, with such a history of colonization – would have already done away with the colonial curriculum, and might in fact have, arguably, gone too far the other way. How many countries in the world teach the hagiography of their national founder above all else, enshrining him? There are the stories we tell ourselves (and our children) about Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, and there are the stories told about Mao Zedong and about Kim Il-Sung. What stories are told about Kemal Ataturk or Jomo Kenyatta? That Botswana not only does not idolize Sir Seretse in this way, but does not even tell his story – or that of Botswana’s history at all, so we are told – is really surprising. After my engagement with Hawaiian and Okinawan issues in various venues during my time at UH, I did not have to be told, but Donald made it all the more clear, speaking quite explicitly during the talk-back after the show, about the discursive impact on one’s identity, one’s self-worth, one’s worldview, to be taught to associate history with the Other – that only the Other possesses History, and that the Botswanan Self does not possess History (see Edward Said, classic element of Orientalist attitudes of the static, non-developing, ahistorical non-Western Other), or does not possess a History worth knowing, remembering, or retelling. This makes Molosi’s telling of this story all the more important.

As always with these sorts of things, I find that I have a handful of different points or themes I want to touch on, but not necessarily a particularly organized way to bring them up, to lead from one another, or to lead into any kind of conclusion. While the play is less polished than some I have seen in Hawaii – and that’s perfectly okay, as it is, after all, a lab theatre student production, and still a work-in-progress – I think that in some ways, it actually works better than some of the more professional pieces I’ve seen on issues of identity, race, nationalism. Molosi’s play is uplifting and heartening, and does not attack the audience for their beliefs or attitudes, but rather educates them, the key thematic points being well-woven into the story, into the characters, without banging anyone over the head with them, and without any of the characters being one-dimensional stereotypes.

This issue of recovering history is a central one for many indigenous peoples and others struggling with post-colonial situations. I can see, I would love to see, a similar story told for Hawaii, or for other peoples, recovering the history and telling a story that people should be proud of, while at the same time, not really attacking another people, and, being self-critical. Those interjections by Frank were a small part of the entire play, but they were crucial in helping the play acknowledge and portray multiple viewpoints, the subjectivity of any and all versions of history, and the political motivations or biases behind any and every version of history. It is of great importance, of course, that histories be recovered, and that peoples learn stories about their history, and the great figures in their history of whom they can be proud. But it is all too easy to get caught up in myths, to be led to think that questioning the narrative is a betrayal of one’s identity, of one’s community, or that elders and practitioners of the traditional arts are the ultimate authorities on truth. I would love to see a play that tells the story of King Kalakaua or Queen Liliuokalani, whose stories absolutely deserve to be told, but which might contain just a few lines of “But, teacher, what about Kamehameha and Kaahumanu? Aren’t they important too?” or “But, teacher, what about the ali’i adopting Christianity? Isn’t that a betrayal of our gods, of our indigenous culture?” and being shouted down by the teacher who only wants the one version of the narrative to be told and retold. By including this sort of complexity and self-criticism in his play, Molosi makes this work so much more powerful, meaningful, and impactful.

As much as I may miss the more regular opportunities for engagement with Asia-Pacific-American issues in Hawaii, it was a most welcome pleasure tonight to get to learn something about Botswana, to see these same issues, or similar issues, in a very different context. My warmest thanks and congratulations to Donald, Haddy, cast and crew!

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