The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts March 3, 2006

Cherry Blossoms, Kimonos, Fans
“Oriental” Exhibit at the Allen
Non-Western dress: Kimono page from Vantine’s “House of the Orient“ catalog, 1929.

“Performing Images, Embodying Race,” a traveling exhibit with curator Robert Lancefield, opened at the Allen Art Museum last Friday. The exhibit, organized by the Davidson Art Center at Wesleyan University, focuses on the various ways Westerners portrayed “Orientals” through visual and performing arts as well as other types of media.

Because all the material was collected for Lancefield’s Ph.D. dissertation in anthropology, there are an incredible number of artifacts. However, the exhibit is divided into categories and moves in chronological order, making the experience less overwhelming and easier to absorb. There is also an excellent write-up at the entrance explaining the fairly complex intent of the exhibit.

The exhibit starts with portrayals of “Orientals” in United States newspapers from the 19th century. The selected images consistently suggest an exotic “other” who is meek and submissive. As the exhibition continues, moving into later centuries, these stereotypes remain fairly consistent, with Asian women suffering the most exploitation.

Pictures meant to represent Asian women were quite frequently white women acting “Oriental” by dressing in yellow face and wearing kimonos — images of white women playing “Madame Butterfly” are some of the most appalling.

These pictures, along with the repulsion they arouse, are representative of the exhibit’s intentions: to show how such portrayals of Asians framed everything in racial terms and stripped Asians and Asian-Americans of authority over their own identity.

As an attempt to counterbalance the plethora of images that strip Asians of their social agency, the exhibit concludes with the art of two artists, Mayumi Oda and Saiman Li, both of whom were born in Asia but later moved to the United States. Though their pieces were examples of Asian art that did not focus on race and expressions of individuality, perhaps it was not the best way to conclude the exhibit.

These sentiments were prompted by the movie poster, “Big Trouble in Little China.” From the film made in the 1980s, the poster had very stereotypical images of Asians, particularly one of a “mystic” type with long fingernails and glowing eyes. Looking at the poster, it became apparent that barely any recent images and depictions of Asians are on display.

It does not seem sufficient that only one movie poster and the art of two Asians are meant to represent the whole time period from the 1960s onward. The inclusion of Li and Oda’s art do not address issues of contemporary Asian stereotypes.

Nonetheless, the exhibit is incredibly well organized, containing an incredible wealth of material for the viewer to contemplate as well as very helpful descriptions of the pieces within each section. It successfully demonstrates how American depictions of Asians and Asian-Americans from the 19th and early 20th centuries made credible false ideas about the “Oriental,” relegating them to the position of the “other” and refusing to give them individual voices.

The exhibit will be up through June 2006.


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