Artist iona rozeal brown – a “transcultural historian” – gave a lecture to Towson students February 9th about her Afro-Asiatic Allegory artworks.
She said that her early influences were a performance of puppet theater and especially of Kabuki Theater that her mom took her to see when she was a child. She was transfixed by the performance of a man dressed up like a woman and expressing the beauty and grace associated with a woman but with the physical strength of a man. Later she was exposed to Japanese art in the form of after-school television shows like Johnny Rocket, Ultra Man, and Speed Racer.
As she got older she became intrigued with Japanese youth who fancied themselves putting on Black-ness [known as ganguro] by wearing Afros and tanning themselves to darken their skin. She traveled to Japan and witnessed this
first-hand. She saw Japanese girls with tanned faces (which she likened to the black-face of Al Jolson), corn rows, and the “attitude” associated with black women. They were putting on the Black persona just as the Kabuki performer Bando Tamasaburo put on a woman’s persona. She also noticed that Japanese were fascinated with black-face art and objects like pickaninny dolls and Little Sambo statuettes. Brown’s reaction was to be offended that someone could “put on” Black-ness in these ways, although she knows the Japanese don’t mean to be offensive.
She asked the audience, “When Japanese kids do black-face and Afro perms, where does theater end? Where do they become offensive?”
Brown said her work is an attempt to give the Japanese a hard way to go for
adopting black-face; likewise she gives Blacks a hard time for lightening their
skin and straightening their hair so they are no longer natural. She said she
prefers to keep her natural hair and look and it’s bothersome when Blacks make
these other kinds of choices. She asked the audience, “Who is turning into
The Afro-Asiatic design is wonderfully apparent in brown’s work. She uses bold colors and flat areas to create her work similar to those in Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
In showing the models with part of their faces darkened and part whitened, she
is displaying the complexity she sees in the co-mingling of the two cultures.
Her favorite Japanese print artist is Yoshitoshi. In the painting “Smoky; A housewife of the Kyowa Era” we see swirling design elements which she reproduced in her similar work “Weave Attack.”
It was surprising to hear Brown say that she was offended by the Japanese
putting-on Black attributes, and yet she produces work that so beautifully
blands Japanese and African-American, even hip-hop, influences.
The work is on display at Towson University until March 2, 2012.