CMA Thinker
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CMA Thinker

Overlapping Identities: Feminism and Cultural Heritage

By Paula Jackson, CMA Gallery Teacher and Illustrator

As a working artist and a new gallery teacher, I’ve had the privilege of being immersed in the expansive collection the Cleveland Museum of Art has to offer. Part of my role as a museum’s educator has included scouring the ends of Collection Online database and the important task of presenting diverse artists and perspectives to students.

Born in Japan and immigrating to the heart of Ohio at the age of four, I’ve always been drawn to making things with my hands. However, it was hard to find depictions of people who looked like me in the media or in the pictures I was consuming. I clung onto anything that felt like it was representative of my background — from iterations of Sailor Moon scribbled into the ends of my jackets or my picture books to the few paragraphs in my Art History 101 class about ukiyo-e prints, a genre of Japanese art which flourished from the 17th through 19th centuries. Literally meaning “Pictures of the Floating World,” ukiyo-e refers to a style of Japanese woodblock print and painting from the Edo period depicting famous theater actors, beautiful courtesans, city life, and travel in romantic landscapes. These led to fine-lined ink and gouache subjects I produce now.

I’ve always been aware of my presence or perceived lack of presence as an Asian American woman in a given room and within the art field. There is an underlying narrative in Western-centered feminism to “overcome your racial heritage” or that you can become a feminist “despite your background.” It has made me raise the question, Why can’t my heritage empower my feminism? I’d like to highlight two artists who have not only influenced my artwork but have also helped me reflect on the relationship I have with my own identity as an Asian American woman and artist.

Mayumi Oda is a feminist, environmental activist, and artist most popularly known as “the Matisse of Japan,” athough I believe she has earned her own title. Growing up in Japan, she was aware of the treatment of women in society. Similar to what women here in the United States and throughout the world experience, women were subjected to a male-dominated culture. Feeling stifled and displaced by the expectations that surrounded her, Oda sought liberation as a woman and to protect femininity. In the 1960s, Oda moves to New York City, where she was exposed to modern writers, artists, and musicians, as well as to activists and the various social and liberation movements. Years later, she found harmony at the intersections of her many points of identity: heritage, spirituality, motherhood, feminism, social activism.

Heavily influenced by her practice of Nichiren and Mahayana Buddhism and traditional Japanese printmaking, she renders her figures as goddesses and givers through life, not only through childbirth but also by caring about the life forms found in nature. By implementing traditional Japanese printing techniques, she was able to allow tradition to serve her, not bind her. Her subjects are both simultaneously powerful and soft. When referring to her artistic practice, Oda once explained the act of art as an embodiment, saying, “Your life is your own creation. I’m creating life through the process of art.”

In this piece Manjusuri and Sea Turtle, Oda portrayed Manjusuri as a shapely woman, as opposed to the traditional depiction of the Buddhist figure as the male bodhisattva of wisdom. This reflects Oda’s choice to represent her subjects as goddesses, as a way to see strength within herself. I am also immediately drawn to the unrelenting eye contact between the turtle and Manjusuri. Later in her career, she further pursued her passion towards environmental activism, exposing a Japanese-government operation to secure plutonium, and eventually founding Gingerhill Farm Retreat, a home and retreat used to educate others about sustainable farming. The flat graphic style is reminiscent of ukiye-o prints and decorative screens commonly found in her Japanese roots, but the bold colors and loose lines offer a more liberating and whimsical expression.

Similar to Oda, Yayoi Kusama was also an innovator of intersectionality in her work. As a Japanese woman with mental illness during the feminist art movement of the early 1960s, Kusama began creating phallic objects as a way to deal with her sexual anxieties.

“‘I began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust towards sex,” she recounted. “It was a kind of self-therapy, to which I gave the name ‘Psychosomatic Art.’”

In this piece, Baby Stroller, Kusama combined a baby stroller, paint, canvas, cotton, and steel. The materials associated with “women’s duties” — sewing, child-rearing — being juxtaposed with cold, hard metal, subvert the stereotypical ideas of femininity. The repetitive use of these subjects was a way for Kusama to express the desire to disrupt the oppressive male power that surrounded her at the time. By stuffing many phallic objects into the cart, almost comically, she transforms and strips them of their authority. Her concepts were even replicated by well-known male artists in her field, much to her frustration. Despite this, Kusama remained unrelenting in her fight to claim her position in the art world.

Mayumi Oda and Yayoi Kusama provide inspiration and strength for artists and women like me who grapple with the process of unpacking childhood trauma, sexuality, and marginalization, by finding empowerment through their intersections. These two artists have been able to carve out space for themselves in a world that tries to exclude them. I am thankful that Oda and Kusama have been sources of inspiration for my own art and Asian American female role models who have harnessed their cultural identity to empower feminism.

This is the final installation of a four-part series celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, during which the CMA is sharing AAPI voices and collection artworks and recognizing the diverse histories within these communities. Follow the CMA on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for more on AAPI Heritage Month.

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