Geishas Go Gangsta

The image is familiar enough from Japanese woodblock prints: two women in casually erotic disarray, kimonos slightly askew. One tips her head back into the hands of the other, who is working through the thick hair, her plump fingers and sloe-eyed expression revealing a lazy intimacy.

But instead of an elaborate geisha coiffure, the woman seems to be putting in … braids? And there's none of the stark-white makeup favored by the beauties depicted by Utamaro and other ukiyo-e masters; both women are in blackface. Dark foundation covers their bodies, save for the creamy border of their natural skin tone right around the hairline.

Artist Iona Rozeal Brown's first solo Washington, D.C., show at the G Fine Art Gallery draws almost entirely on her hybrid fusion of 17th- and 18th-century Japanese prints with modern-day American hip-hop culture. In traditional, Edo-period ukiyo-e, the outsized personalities of Kabuki actors, geisha, and low-ranking samurai dominate the depictions of the vibrantly sensual, seamy “floating world” of the pleasure quarters. In Brown's appropriation of the art form, however, Japanese subjects put on a different show. Slathered in the accoutrements of a blinged-out culture, they perform an uneasy yet dynamic homage to art forms, attitudes, and postures that are definitely more African American than Japanese in origin.

Brown's “a3 the revolution: televised, terrorized, sexualized” was born out of the artist's fascination with teenage Japanese “blackfacers,” who would tan themselves; bleach out, kink out, 'Fro out, or cornrow their hair; and put on the pimp-daddy stroll and all the loud jewelry they could in efforts to transform themselves into hip-hop figures like Run-DMC or Lil' Kim. The “afro asiatic allegory” of “a3” took shape after Brown visited Japan and immersed herself in blackface communities. The resulting artwork is a mind twister -- a Japanese art form appropriated by an African American artist to comment upon the Japanese appropriation of African American cultural images.

In Brown's paintings, scowling men, smoking doobies, are covered with tattoos; the women are covered in collaged-on pictures of jewelry and work picks through Afros as round and yellow as dandelions. One lovely sprawls out in a swirl of fabric, a lipstick-stained flute of the trendy drink Hypnotiq in the corner; another grapples in a lusty embrace with a gold-chain-draped man gifted with the huge, rippling endowment familiar to those who have viewed erotic ukiyo-e, or shunga.

Blackface culture in Japan spiked at the same time as another Japanese trend, when round-cheeked Okinawan singer Amuro Namie made a sartorial splash with her bleached hair, tanned skin, micro-miniskirts, and enormous platform shoes in the mid-'90s. I was living in Tokyo at the time, and I couldn't go anywhere without bumping into the acolytes of Amuro's bizarre chipmunk funk. Even though this look was called “ganguro,” or “blackface,” Amuro's followers seemed curiously deracinated in contrast to the hardcore blackfacers for whom achieving African American “blackness” -- in skin tone and in their perceptions of the more elusive forms of attitude, coolness, and stance of African Americans -- was a clear goal.

Brown's art reveals a certain ambivalence about the blackfacers and the way they both seem to celebrate and consume, in a context-free void, the trappings of hip-hop culture. In tapping into the ukiyo-e aesthetic, Brown finds a deep vein of commonality between traditional Japanese culture and the hip-hop nation. The floating world was a rapture of celebrity, art, ostentation, and personality-as-performance, a bawdy low-culture realm that has since been transformed into a cornerstone of traditional Japanese high culture. Hip-hop artists here enjoy the same fierce cultural cachet, just as they are scorned by some (and revered by others) for being too “street.”

At the same time, Brown reveals how her blackfacers' appropriation is only skin-deep; she takes care to reveal the true skin tone of her blackfacers. Eyeless, fanged, toothpaste-green sea-cucumber-looking creatures carouse in some of the pictures -- Brown calls them WOIMS, or “Weapons of Incoherent Mass Spending” -- seeming to egg on the Japanese subjects toward more clueless, cultural gluttony. In one quartet of paintings, the WOIMS appear on their own, desperate to topple a bottle of Hypnotiq, a critique that suggests that the Japanese are merely falling prey to a materialism already being perpetrated by hip-hop culture's purveyors.

Although the portraits crackle with a sharp energy, the installation sometimes suffers from the same superficiality Brown seems to be critiquing; after the novelty of the juxtaposition of two differing forms wears off, the social-commentary aspect feels a bit gimmicky and shallow. Brown's work echoes the conception of Japan as a free-floating, postmodern “empire of signs” hodgepodge -- which it is and isn't. She's chosen a medium that has little resonance for Japanese blackfacers, who are far better versed in Mary J. Blige than in Kabuki verse, and, as a result, viewers don't get a clear sense of the blackfacer phenomenon. Why are these teens embracing secondhand cultural artifacts and behaviors? What does this phenomenon say about ethnic identity in Japan, a country that likes to tell itself that it's homogenous? What does the donning of hip-hop drag by Africans in Japan (and, perhaps, in a place like Ivory Coast) say about power dynamics and the slipperiness of cultural performance? In the bigger picture, why is hip-hop culture considered so vital, so cool, so enticingly naughty and dangerous?

Although her work is, at this stage, more provocative than piercing, Brown's paintings have a rare wit and humor about them, an openness to examining complex social phenomena that can lead to fascinating art. Should she turn her gaze upon the domestic hip-hop realm -- a world in which she is clearly expert -- Brown may find ample opportunity to explore similar issues in more depth: the appropriation of Asian symbolism and style by black hip-hop artists, or, conversely, the meteoric rise of a rapper like the Chinese-American Jin.

She may well have to turn her sharp eyes on something new anyway; although she intends to return to Japan this year, the trend train has moved on. Ganguro is beat these days. The new new thing? All things Korean.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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