Yellowface Is Such A Drag

24 02 2015

Orientalism, Drag, and White Supremacy at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco

By Majime Sugiru

Remember this?

2011:  ‘We’re a culture, not a costume’

CNN (2011): Campaign by students at Ohio State University to prevent cultures from being translated into stereotypical costumes (click for story).

CNN (2011): Campaign by students at Ohio University to prevent cultures from being translated into stereotypical costumes for Halloween (click for story).

Or how about these, in 2012, 2013, 2014?

2012:  Victoria’s Secret’s racist Sexy Little Geisha

Racialicious: Victoria's Secret Does It Again: When Racism Meets Fashion (2012)

Racialicious (2012): Victoria’s Secret Does It Again: When Racism Meets Fashion

2013:  Katy Perry in Yellowface

LA Times (2013) Katy Perry performs onstage at the 2013 American Music Awards held at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on November 24, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

LA Times (2013): Katy Perry performs in Yellowface at the 2013 American Music Awards. (Photo by Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

2014:   Air France’s racist geisha ads

Colorlines (2014): Twitter Mocks Air France's Racist Geisha Ads

Colorlines (2014): Twitter Mocks Air France’s Racist Geisha Ads

2014:  CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” in Yellowface

Time (2014): Dear, ‘How I Met Your Mother': ‘Asian’ Is Not a Costume

Time (2014): Dear, ‘How I Met Your Mother': ‘Asian’ Is Not a Costume

Time (2014): Dear, ‘How I Met Your Mother': ‘Asian’ Is Not a Costume

CBS TV’s “How I Met Your Mother” in Yellowface

And now, for 2015?
We give you the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco: photos taken at their “bold and bawdy” Courtesans, Cooks, Samurai, and Servants opening last Thursday, Feb. 19.

(Pixelated to protect the innocent).


 The exhibition is titled SEDUCTION and showcases art from the John C. Weber Collection.  The Asian Art Museum’s marketing department has outdone itself in hard-selling a show consisting primarily of premodern woodblock prints, scrolls, paintings, and kimonos as a “hotbed of hedonism and transgression,” as shown in this screen grab of the AAM’s website (taken on 10/31/14):

“Dive into this hotbed of hedonism . . .”

By contrast, when the very same John C. Weber Collection toured the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, it was titled simply “Arts of Japan” and encompassed a broad range of work that avoided altogether the AAM’s hypersexualized fetishization of the Asian female body, as shown in these screen grabs linked to their respective exhibition websites.

“Arts of Japan” at Museum of Fine Arts Boston: what, no courtesan?!

Weber Collection in Minneapolis: no mo’ “kimono my house”?

How does “Arts of Japan” get transfigured into SEDUCTION when it comes to the AAM?

The Asian Art Museum has a track record of Orientalist sensationalism, seen below, for example, in a similar contrast between the exhibition of the Hosokawa Collection in Japan, versus its reductively Orientalist conception at the AAM in 2009.

In Japan, this family collection of a former prime minister was respectfully titled, “The Lineage of Culture—The Hosokawa Family Eisei Bunko Collection”

The Lineage of Culture press release, Tokyo National Museum (pdf download)

The Lineage of Culture press release, Tokyo National Museum (pdf download)


Hosokawa Family Eisei Bunko Collection at the Okayama Prefectural Museum of Art

By contrast, here is the poster from AAM’s Vader-like take on the very same collection.

Lord It's the Samurai

Click the pic for our spoof:  Lord It’s the Samurai!

What we see emerging from these stark contrasts to museums in Boston, Minneapolis, Tokyo, and Okayama—and trust us, the list goes on—is a pattern of institutional behavior that sets the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco apart from its peers as exceptional.  Exceptional for a pathology of cultural violence, if you will, in its propensity to appropriate visual cultures of Asia for the production of what can be characterized as a sensationalist and essentializing racial discourse with real social consequences for the populations it is publicly funded to serve and (mis)represent (see p. 47 in this report, for examples of how museums “deny full citizenship to minorities”).

Different Year, Same Fetish — or The Return of the Repressed

The yellowface drag of the SEDUCTION opening takes us back more than a decade, to revisit the geisha fever of 2004.

Literally a white man's fantasy—written, directed, produced by white men—featuring Chinese actors as Japanese geisha.

Literally an Oscar-winning white man’s fantasy—written, directed, produced by white men—featuring Chinese actors as Japanese geisha—because all orientals look alike, or as Edward Said might have put it, “a collapsing of difference within a category of absolute difference.”

The Asian Art Museum cashed in on Hollywood’s white man’s fantasy with a blockbuster exhibition of its own.

Just like Hollywood: not only is she not a real geisha, she's not even Japanese.

Just like Hollywood: not only is she not a real geisha, she’s not even Japanese.

Whereas Hollywood cinema is the stuff of fantasy, this city-owned, taxpayer-bailed out civic museum, located in a metropolitan area home to one of the largest Asian populations in the US, is endowed with the unparalleled public trust and respect that come with its status as a putative site of knowledge production.

What kind of racial knowledge is the AAM producing in 2015 when they fetishize “Arts of Japan” as the “bold and bawdy” “hotbed of hedonism” of SEDUCTION?

It would seem to not only violate the civic museum’s charter of stewardship—to serve the cultural health and welfare of its communities—but also belie the eloquent words of the AAM’s own director, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004 in reference to their GEISHA exhibition, “The basic reason for the show was to debunk the myth that geishas are prostitutes.

The AAM's Orientalist fantasy writ large. GEISHA: Perpetuating the Fetish.

The AAM’s Orientalist fantasy writ large. GEISHA: Perpetuating the Fetish.

That’s the thing about Orientalism:  it’s not just that it’s made up of white lies, or that yellowface is not just a harmless glitch in the illusion of post-racial multi-cultural color-blind harmony in diversity, but it is indeed integral to and constitutive of a socially, culturally, and economically structured way of life called white supremacy.

Andrea Smith’s Three Pillars of White Supremacy (2010).

It is only natural to think that a museum that refers to itself as “The Asian” would historically be an Asian-run organization, but on the contrary—and unlike, say, the Mexican Museum—what’s one thing that the AAM’s Chief Curator, head of Communications & Business Development, head of Education & Public Programs, Curator of Japanese Art, event programmer, burlesque and belly dancers, and performers in yellowface all have in common?Politics of Cultural AppropriationHow do Asian visual cultures “get owned” as the property of whiteness?

How does racial privilege structure Western museal discourse on “Asia” in ways that parallel the colonial genealogy of area studies in what has been termed the “missionary positionality” of US-Japan bilateral narcissism?

How does that raced missionary positionality inform the AAM’s gendered production of Asia as hotbed of hedonism in SEDUCTION, and whose hedonistic urge is the AAM really projecting?

Why is the Asian so white?

SF Queers Come Out for #BlackLivesMatter

25 12 2014

On Christmas Eve morning

FB Event Page:  Queers Come Out for #BlackLivesMatter (Pix, video, media links and more)

Twitter: @SFQueers4BL  Media coverage: Hoodline, sfist


Holding space at Octavia St. off-ramp/on-ramp to Highway 101.  4.5 minutes of silence.

Holding space at Octavia St. off-ramp/on-ramp to Highway 101.


Speaking the names of those murdered by racist police violence.



Marching to Castro and Market



Castro and Market Street

Castro and Market Street, final destination.

Happy Holidays!  #MillionsMarch Oakland Court House 12/13/14

Happy Holidays!

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga @ the Asian Art Museum

4 04 2014

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 01

Last night I went to check out #WhitePeopleDoingYoga at the First Thursday event at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga is an installation by *Pardon My Hindi / Chiraag Bhakta.
On view from March 28th – May 25th.

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 02

#WhitePeopleDoingYoga 03

Kudos to the museum’s education department for exhibiting Bhakta’s project, which is showing in the Education Resource Center in conjunction with the feature exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation.  While I couldn’t find much information about the project on the museum’s website, *Pardon My Hindi posted a video and artist statement here.

Chiraag Bhakta

Click for more on Chiraag Bhakta

Artist Statement

This piece is a reflection of my personal relationship, as an Indian American, with yoga and its migration to today’s Western context. I call this piece #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, the hashtag symbolizing the commercialization and commodification of a culture.

Not too long before moving to the Bay Area seven years ago, I began to collect grassroots-level meditation and yoga ephemera from the 1960s through the 1980s. During that era, particularly in the Bay Area, yoga started making a big impact on Western culture. I became interested in how yogic practice was being mined and commercialized; how the South Asian face of the discipline was being removed in the branding and portrayal of the practice and culture. Today, an online image search for “yoga” mainly returns images of white people in various poses, followed by images of dogs and cats doing the same.

This project is not about the individual pieces in my collection, but the overall voice that is put out in front of us, which is overwhelming and suffocating to me. After you go through the exhibition Yoga: The Art of Transformation, you will notice a sharp turn as yoga enters a new level of commercialization in the West. The $27 billion yoga industry in the U.S. has rebranded a complex and rich discipline to make it easier to sell “yoga” as a line of products. Brands like Lululemon and Nike have started appropriating and trademarking phrases, postures, and clothing—aligning and embedding themselves in our understanding of yoga. Simultaneously the South Asian face and voice are relegated to an exotic caricature—cartoons, adoption of South Asian names by Westerners, mystical creatures, Hindu gods. One archival study of the health and wellness magazine Yoga Journal found that over the course of two years “there was never a South Asian person on the cover, and less than one percent of content contributors were South Asian.”1

The act of selectively choosing what works in popular Western contexts, while ignoring aspects of yoga’s core philosophy and historic practice, is telling. It shows an ironic attachment of one’s ego to a desire for ownership over an ancient practice of material denouncement that emerged from an altogether different, South Asian, tradition.

In the end, I feel compelled to draw parallels between the current state of yoga and the industrial colonization by the same dominant voice that now adds another conquest to its collection. Meet the new founders of Yoga™.

—Chiraag Bhakta

1 Roopa Singh, Esq., Archival study for the South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America, SAAPYA

#WPDY totebags available at

#WPDY totebags available at

Meanwhile upstairs in Samsung Hall, mostly WhitePeopleDoingChanting


Halloween Tortillas for City College

2 11 2013


The Great Tortilla Conspiracy screen printed edible art onto tortillas at the Halloween Rally to Protect City College at Civic Center in San Francisco on Thursday.


Tortilla art by Brian Lei, a CCSF student. Screenprinted tortillas are heated and served as free quesadillas.


Hundreds rallied in support of City College, which is threatened with losing its accreditation, despite its exemplary record of educational quality. The city attorney has sued both ACCJC accreditation board over its well-documented conflicts of interest and political bias, and the the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges for lack of oversight. However, Mayor Ed Lee has largely remained silent. CCSF brings the city $300 million in annual revenue while serving a student population that is 70% people of color.


One half of the Great Tortilla Conspiracy: Jos Sances (left) and Art Hazelwood. (Not pictured: Rene Yañez and Rio Yañez). Read more about the Great Tortilla Conspiracy and tortilla art history here.

Health Classes for the Masses, by Art Hazelwood


Superman inspects Art’s work.

“PRIVATIZATION = DEATH.” Scott Tsuchitani (your author) had the honor of serving as the Conspiracy’s guest artist for the second time (see first time here), and submitted three designs, shown here and below.





The Problem with Miss Saigon

15 10 2013

Via Racialicious
The Ordway Still Doesn’t Get Sexism and Racism (The Problem with Miss Saigon)

By Mai Neng Moua

Racism didn’t end with the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  The Ordway would never open a show about the “romance” between Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemmings.  The Ordway would never dream of mounting a play about the “romance” between a Jewish prostitute and a Nazi camp guard during World War II.  It would never open a show with actors and actresses in blackface performing a minstrel show.  The Ordway would find such shows racist and sexist.  The backlash in all those cases would be, justly, brutal.  Miss Saigon is exactly that with an Asian visage.  It’s not beautiful, it’s not romantic, and it’s not tragic in the tradition of Shakespearean drama.  Miss Saigon is racist and sexist.  The Asian community will continue to speak out about Miss Saigon because institutions such as the Ordway still don’t get it.

Read more

Miss Saigon With the Wind

13 09 2013

Miss Saigon With the WindBy Ricardo Levins Morales, originally posted at Opine Season:

I would like to invite the leadership of the Ordway Theater to a panel discussion on why I didn’t consult them before creating this poster and why they should be grateful for the extra attention it brings them. Of course that discussion will not affect my already developed plans to circulate the image as widely as possible, but at least it shows I’m listening. I may not actually be available to attend the panel discussion itself (I have a prior commitment to distribute some artwork as widely as possible). It might be best for them to have that discussion among themselves, in any case. Readers who feel motivated to do so are welcome to circulate this image in their online communities. Doing so might encourage that discussion to take place – and art is all about encouraging discussions.

Readers who have don’t know what this image and comments are about (the Ordway Theater’s return production of the racist blockbuster musical Miss Saigon) can check out this anti-review by Sheila Regan and this overview by David Mura.

Student Art Action at UC Berkeley

10 09 2013

Monday, Sept. 9 in front of Dwinelle Hall.











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