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.
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(Pixelated to protect the innocent).

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It is as if the queerness of drag is somehow imagined to give ethnic drag a pass on racism.
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 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):
webpage

“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_okayama

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 (strikeout on 3/14/15, cf. Nick’s comment below) 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?








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