On a plane to Chicago...it's only been 3 days since I got off a plane coming from Tokyo. It is not until now that I have the opportunity to sit down and reflect on the many things I learned from my trip to Tokyo.
First and foremost, let me say that the most important lesson was the need us as artists/activists to develop messages in our artwork that speak to broad audiences. This was something that took me some time to understand. As an artist brought up by the elders of the Chicano Art Movement, I have always believed that it was my responsibility to create art that was about my people. Considering that oppressed people throughout the world, people of color, poor people, queer people, third world people, are virtually non-existant in mass media and pop-culture, I have always wanted to depict these realities in my art. To use my art as a form of expressing, documenting, and capturing these stories...the stories of my mother who was an immigrant, the stories of my many friends who became lost in gangs and prison, the stories of my family living in their third world native lands being sucked clean by the US's economic policies. Therefore, my posters have been predominantly about domestic issues: Bush's war on the third world, the monopolization of mass media, the privatization of natural resources, the lack of funding for schools, the Chicano power movement, the Black Power movement. Even when I have developed posters about international issues, such as the suicide of activist and farmer, Kyang Hae Lee, at the WTO meeting in Mexico, the pieces have been en English and Spanish, and have framed the issue as a call for action: "Farm Workers of the World Unite! Smash the WTO!"
On the one hand, I see it essential that as a US-born woman of color residing in the US, I develop art that reflects the struggles of my people in this country. I also feel that in the name of internationalism, it is important that I also create art that speaks to a global society. The truth is that most citizens of the world are people of color and are living in poverty. We are sadly in a time where corporate culture has gone global to control decisions that are made about how people live their lives, where they live, what they eat, where they send their kids to school, what kind of water they drink. So the themes of self-determination, human rights, justice, equality, safety, access, racism and sexism are in fact universal.
In Tokyo, my art did not speak to the Japanese community the same way it speaks to people in the U.S., in Mexico, in Canada, even at times in Europe. For one, while some Tokyoites DO speak English, the words we use so often in our movements, were not relevant to them. For example, when I saw one professor looking at my piece about Kyang Hae Lee's suicide protest at the WTO meeting, I asked him what he thought. He asked me "What is WTO?" I told him that the WTO is the abbreviation for the World Trade Organization, the body that dictates the economic destiny of countries all over the world. I told him that the WTO is responsible for many of the harsh economic policies that plague the third world. I also asked him if he had heard of the death of Kyang Hae Lee. And he said no. In fact, every Japanese person I asked that night was not aware of this very important moment in history. I wondered if this had anything to do with the fact that I was in a completely other continent. Because in Mexico, Peru, and Canada, people know about the suicide death of Kyang Hae Lee at the WTO protests. I ended up wishing I had included Japanese in my poster. The WTO poster contains English, Spanish and Korean.
Another thing I noticed at the Tokyo opening for the show was people's indifference to the Bush posters. This I can completely understand. While Bush is the president of the most powerful empire in the world, the hatred we have of him does not reverberate in Japan. The Japanese prime minister, in fact, is very close and non-critical of Bush. The Japanese currently do not have their own military force. On the contrary, they rely on the protection of the United States military. When I asked my friend, Professor Shuzo Saito, about this, he responded that the Japanese view Bush as "America's problem." However, Bush is not only "America's problem", Bush is everybody's problem. One has only to think of how many people have marched all over the world with placards hating on Bush.
At that moment I realized that in order for the show to truly be effective, informative, and most importantly, a catalyst for change, there HAD to be messages about Japan's relationship to the United States. There had to be art about how Japan benefits from this war just as much as the United States. Those messages were absent. It was odd to me that the Japanese artists in the show did not include these commentaries/suggestions in their art. On the contrary, I noticed the messages were more about peace. I am not saying that society doesn¹t need messages about peace. I AM saying that it is the role and responsibility of artists who call themselves political, to raise questions about their government, to question the system, to critique the system, and ultimately, to expose the "emperor in his nakedness."
I firmly believe that the show would have been a hundred times more powerful in Tokyo, where it was hosted, had their been some pieces that reflected the politics of Japan. For example, one cannot turn a blind eye to the excessive reliance on plastic in a country where even an apple is packaged with plastic. One also cannot ignore that the Japanese stand alongside Bush in the war for oil, after all, Japan is a large oil consumer. Whereas countries like France refused to support Bush's war on oil, Japan supports the U.S. That issue alone should have been captured in a poster, but it was not.
In the days following the opening, I was invited to lecture at a women's university called Aoyama Womens' College. In this lecture, I showed my posters and discussed the history of social movements in the United States. I discussed what it meant to be a person of color in the United States, and emphasized that what the Japanese see on American TV is NOT truly what our country is like. I also discussed the domestic repression that's happening in this country thanks to Homeland Security and the fear of "terrorism." When I was showing my poster about Media Justice, and discussing how the media in the US is controlled by corporate interests and how they bankroll Bush's career, they were shocked. At the same time, the professor who was translating for me said to me, "It is the same in Japan." This was an eye-opening moment in which I realized that the Media Justice poster was just as relevant in Japan as it was in the U.S. My challenge, would then become, to create a single poster that could work in the Japanese and American community alike. After returning from my trip, I have though of many themes that I would like to make into posters, with words in English, Spanish, and Japanese. Why? Because Japan is a part of the "first world" and we artists who travel to countries like this have the priviledge to see these societies with our own eyes. I believe that our political art should challenge "first-world" notions, and at the same time, support the struggles of repressed third world peoples all over the world.
If Japan is the "United States of Asia" then we should challenge is policies like we challenge the policies in the US. That's not to say that we should solely make art that speaks to a global community. On the contrary, I think that as people of color living in the United States our content should reflect domestic issues, domestic movements. But at the same time, corporate america has no boundaries in how they "sell" their messages, "sell" our culture (i.e. HipHop). Similarly, our art can be universal, with universal messages about consumption, about the environment, about reliance on oil, about control of the media. In the time I have come back I been studing about the history of Japanese imperialism all over Asia, a wrongdoing they have never admitted to nor apologized.
One idea I had was to take an exhibit of art by Asian American artists to Tokyo. There are a number of Asian American political artists that have developed art about the experiences of Asians in this country. One thing I was trying to explain in the workshop at the university, was how Japanese became "Asians" when they came to the United States...and therefore, how they are lumped up with immigrants from poor Asian countries such as Cambodia and Korea. This was a difficult concept to explain, so the idea of speaking through art sparked in my mind. Hmmmm...something to plan.
One more thing I must mention that really bothered me was to learn that people who are born in Japan do not receive Japanese nationality by birth. In the states, you are automatically a US citizen if born on US soil. This has many benefits. For one, to be the child of immigrants who is born in the US allows you to file a petition so that your family has US residency. Also, it is much easier for US citizens to criticize and confront their governments than it is for non-citizens, who would automically get deported if they so much whisper something anti-American. My cousin, who has lived in Tokyo for 13 years and lives there with his family, told me that his son was born in Japan but is not considered Japanese. Becoming Japanese is a whole "process," he explained. I was shocked at this, and it brings up issues of racial superiority to me. My cousin is 34 and he works 12-14 hours a day. When I questioned him on his extreme workaholism, he responded that in Japan, the average man works 10-12 hours a day. I saw this with my own eyes when at 12 at nite, as I got on the metro, I realized I was one of very few women on the train. Most of the passengers were men in suits. And the trains were pretty full.
From the tone of my writings, one may think I didn't enjoy Japan. But there's a lot about Tokyo that left me with the desire to return, and to stay longer. For one, I feel safe at night in the streets. Tokyo's crime rate is low, and assault on women is particularly low. After living in places like Oakland and Mexico City, I can appreciate what it means for me to be able to walk alone at night at 1 in the morning without being harrassed, followed or mugged. Also, the produce and the food in Tokyo is great! Everything was "oishi". I also very much admire the way the Japanese keep their spaces clean and neat. I hardly saw trash in the street. And after living in Mexico "Shitty", were so many places smell literally like shit (because of bad sewers), I can appreciate smart city/urban planning. Oh and one more thing, I did not see a single SUV. And SUV would not fit on the roads or the parking stalls.
Just posted! Eight Artists developed large wall pieces for the "Yo! What Happened to Peace" exhibit which opened this past Friday, June 10th at the Parco Museum in Shibuya, Tokyo.
Miho Sadoga, aka Erotic Dragon painted the face of woman in purple and gold hues. In her eyes, the woman has peace signs.
Estria Miyashiro painted a canvas piece entitled "Manifest Destiny" where he depicts five incidents of American imperialism/agression and repression: a shot of Abu Ghraib, a shot of the bombing of Hiroshima, a shot of a lynching of an African American, a shot of the face of a Native American who just had their land stolen, and a shot of a dead young Latino man bleeding to death in the street. In his piece, he links these five moments in history to Manifest Destiny. The term "Manifest Destiny" was the belief common in America in the early 1800s that it was the destiny or fate of the US to expand west to the Pacific Ocean. For many Americans, the belief had an almost religious intensity, and was often considered an obvious part of God’s plan for America’s future. It was with this feeling that settlers pushed west into Indian and Mexican controlled lands, confident that they were justified in doing whatever was necessary to spread the American flag and system of government. In other words, "Manifest Destiny" was a justification for imperialism, slavery, colonization, and violence as deemed necessary. People of color were commonly the targets in this push to colonize the U.S.
I, (Favianna Rodriguez), did a piece about how war kills women. The female figure represents the woman as mother earth, as the war kills not only women and children, but also drains the earth of valuable resources. In this piece, I wanted to depict the global community as a female figure, seeing that women are continuously left out of the dialogue and decision making when it comes to war.
Spectr, a Los Angeles based artist, did a depiction of a war tank being confronted by a goddess of peace. In an interview with Japan Times, Spectr said " Rascality and fun are a big part of why I do what I do. So when they came to me with the anti-war theme, I just started thinking about peace, and I wanted to make it fly, to make it fun and sexy but also address the issue of war. So I did an angel of peace appearing before these two guys in a tank. The soldier in front is in love with the angel, he sees her beauty, warmth and affection and is totally into it, but meanwhile the commander, who is of course locked into his power structure, is, like, 'Snap out of it, you're supposed to be driving the tank!"
Jun Takahashi, MadSaki, and Sasu: three artists from Tokyo, collaborated on a large canvas piece located at the entrance of the museum. The center colored female character is done by Sasu. Jun Takahashi and Mad Saki worked together on the left and right portions of the piece, using an elegant palette of black and white.
You can view these 6 works in progress and completed by clicking here.
We arrived on Sunday nite (June 5) to Tokyo after an 11 hour flight from San Francisco. Already here were John Carr, curator/artist of the YO! exhibit and Spectr, another participating artist in the exhibit. Both John and Spectr are from Los Angeles. The first night we were all exhausted from the trip so we hit up an Italian spot and called it a night.
Monday is when all the activity began. The exhibit opening was in 5 days and we needed to start prepping for the big night. Some of the tasks we had to do included doing inventory for the merchandise, bagging the posters that were going to sell and finishing the large canvas paintings. While this show consists predominantly of handcrafted posters, the Tokyo host crew through that it would be a good idea to include some large hand painted canvases. The artists that were invited to participate in this painting deal included: Spectr, Estria, and myself from the United States...and Sasu, Mad Saki, Jun Takahashi, and Erotic Dragon from Tokyo.
A group of us met at CWC offices in Daykonyama to go over logistics for the show. CWC is a artist agency based in Tokyo and New York. They were instrumental in making the show happen the first time two years ago in Spring 2003. They are the current producers for the YO! Show. For the first two days, we were bagging merchandise, buying art supplies, painting, and doing hard core outreach. On the way to our many missions, we took many photos so check out the Day 1-3 photo gallery which is on the left of this page. Gustavo Alberto Garcia Vaca, another one of the artists in the exhibit, was also joining us from Los Angeles with his wife Alma. Gustavo is in Tokyo for the fifth time!
Led on an outreach mission by Gustavo, we hit a street known as design central. One of the folks we visited was WARP magazine. WARP is a Tokyo-based urban culture magazine that features articles on folks such as Chaz Bojorquez, calligraphy/cholo-scratch master graff artist from LA. WARP magazine's Creative Producer, Toshiya Ohno, happened to be in LA when the YO! exhibit opened at the Transport Gallery. He did a write up on the show in his magazine back in 2003.
Next on the stop was Aoyama and Harajuku, where all the hipster youth kick it at. We hit up a dope cultural building/museum/cafe spot called Spiral. It seems like there is often something going on here – like film festivals, art exhibitions, etc. At the ground floor there is a record shop called Spiral Records, which is a small CD/record shop about 15 x 8 feet big. The store sells a very ecletic mix of music hand picked by a buyer who we met. His taste in music is off the hook, and he featured artist like: Meshell Ndegeocello, Common, Skatellites, Quasimoto, Fania All Stars...
My initial impressions of the places we visited was that it was a shopping extravagance. It was all about shopping and consuming and looking good. I noticed alot of the women walking around were sporting some bizarre fashion styles, definitely on the pricey side. The main street, Omotesando Dori, is lined with designer boutiques and upscale stores like Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. The Tokyo young people make a strong effort to emulate American fasion culture, blending it with their own Tokyo funk. In a sad way, I realized that the consumer mentality of "shop till you drop" is ingrained hard core into the culture here, particularly in the trendy areas of Shibuya, Aoyama, Harajuku, and Daykonyama. While the overall fashion sense here is impressive, one has to think about the effects of consumer culture on society, particularly among folks aged under 35. After speaking to some local folks, I have made the deduction that this is one of the strongest consumer cultures in the first world. At the same time, Japanese society is large apolitical. Art and counter culture is largely a commodity here.
That is why a show like ours is so important. Because through art, we are injecting politics into what is a largely an apolitical culture. In my next post I will talk about the events that occurred as we put up the show and the dialogue that resulted. Stay tuned....