When I heard that the Boston MFA was launching a dress-up social media campaign called “Kimono Wednesdays” based on a painting by Claude Monet, that a group of young Asian American protesters asked them to stop, that the MFA did and apologized, I thought it was an open and shut case.
Then I read a piece in Hyperallergic criticizing the thinking and tactics of the protesters, and realized there was fierce disagreement over the protests and their political context. I see these protests through my research into Asian diasporic histories and my lived experience as an Asian person in this country, and would like to offer a different interpretation.
Here, as I see it, are the core issues:
Anyone has the right to don a kimono, but people of the Asian diaspora have the right to interrogate what that means within a social context, weigh that against our lived experiences, and find it inappropriate. In this situation, a large American arts institution encouraged people to don a kimono modeled after a painting by a European male artist and spread those images in order to generate publicity for the museum. The protesters decided that this was not cultural exchange, but the exotification of an object for publicity.
Someone who doesn’t embody an experience does not get to tell those who do when, how, or why to protest. Men don’t get to tell women when something falls under misogyny. Cis people do not determine what is transphobic, or how to speak on transphobia. It is the job of those outside that experience to listen.
The Boston MFA, Monet, and the people and ideologies who support them do not need their voices amplified. Monet is in no danger of being stricken from the Western canon, and the Boston MFA, with over a million annual visitors and $100 million annual operating budget, is doing just fine.
What needs amplification, in this situation, are the historical and contemporary voices of people of the Asian diaspora, as survivors of several centuries of American and European imperialism, forced migrations, labor exploitation, and genocidal warfare. We are not being “sensitive” here. We are fighting for our image, because the circulation of images is often linked to our survival.
When the US government forced Japanese Americans into concentration camps during World War II, it was very much under the logic that they were not full citizens and humans, but perpetual others. The way people were coded as Japanese, as alien, was visual: LIFE magazine published an infamous article “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese” with images. Pro-US military propaganda posters deeply exaggerated the features of Japanese to be alien, sinister. When we ask white people to give us back control of our image, and the markers of race, we are struggling for our livelihoods.
Another way to understand this protest is within the language of trauma. If you are Asian in America, you are told that Emma Stone gets to play a hapa and some random white guy gets to be the Last Airbender; you are told that you are culturally irrelevant but a useful tech person; you are told that you are going to be stopped for a “random check” at the airport because you look like a terrorist; you are told Vietnamese civilians had to be killed en masse because they were going commie.
When we walk into a museum or open our social media to see wealthy old white people putting on a kimono and smiling for a camera, it triggers a long history of memories like this. This alone should be enough to stop the event, and any discussion around it.
The Metropolitan Museum’s current Costume Institute exhibition is devoted to exploring how the “West has been enchanted with enigmatic objects and imagery from the East.” In museum exhibitions and auction houses, 19th-century “Orientalist art” is having a major resurgence. All of this work, of course, is more about whiteness and European-ness than it is about actual Asian people. To borrow Toni Morrison’s indelible phrase from Playing in the Dark: “the subject of the dream is the dreamer,” the body of the other becomes a site for the “revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity” in the white literary imagination. But as people who go to museums, it would be nice to feel like more than backdrops to your dreams, to feel like we were given space for dreams of our own.
To address the specific claims of “confused thinking” that the other article raised:
The art history, it turns out, suggests that Monet was trying to satirize the French fascination with Japanese objects and aesthetics in the 19th century. This doesn’t change anything about the present situation. What the protesters are railing against is the use of Japanese-ness and Asian-ness as a prop, both by Monet and the current “Kimono Wednesdays.” The kimono in question was stripped of its historical context first by the European gaze of Monet and second by a museum’s social media campaign. And though the reproduction kimono at the Boston MFA was commissioned by the Japanese TV company NHK, its use as a publicity prop within an American context troubles.
The article accuses the protesters of conflating Japonisme with Asian American identity. It is true that they are not the same. But there is a deep difference from saying that “all Asian experiences are the same” and someone of Asian descent choosing to self-identify as Asian American/Asian diasporic. The term “Asian American” originated in the late 60s as activists formed a movement for self-determination against the forces of racism, imperialism, and sexism. In 1982, when Chinese American Vincent Chin was murdered by a couple of white autoworkers because they thought he was Japanese and therefore stealing American auto industry jobs, it confirmed our suspicions: that a strategic political alliance of “Asian American” was a needed response to being grouped together by white supremacists. The very idea of Asian America is rooted in people choosing to create movements and protests under a unified identity. It is possible that “Asian American” is a tenuous coalition, and a holdover from another time — please let people of Asian descent decide whether that is true or not.
The article concludes by arguing that the protestors at the Boston MFA are acting as “cultural cops.” This entirely misses the power dynamics at play. The Boston MFA is one of the most well-funded, prestigious, and influential arts institutions in America. If anything, it is large arts institutions that act as cultural police by writing histories of our art, and deciding when and where and in what contexts art is shown. A group of protesters voicing their opposition are not “cultural cops,” but people speaking to a power system from the margins.
Protesting this particular use of the kimono is different from declaring a moratorium on all kimonos worn by non-Japanese. By all means, wear a kimono at home, study its history. The point is that no one has the power to make such a dictate on costume. But institutions like the Boston MFA do have the power to listen and learn from this experience; people outside the Asian diaspora do have the power to learn about our history; and we, of the Asian diaspora, have the power to assert our humanity through protest.