HONOLULU — Masami Teraoka was just nine years old growing up in Japan when he saw a strange sight on the horizon: two suns, one from the east and the other from the west. It was the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II.
Now 81, Teraoka has become a contemporary artist known for creating strange, absurd sights of his own — merging traditional fine art styles and techniques with modern themes. His works can be found in over 50 public collections worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Modern, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in DC.
Teraoka’s first major series after coming to the US from Japan in 1961, McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan and 31 Flavors Invading Japan, examined the expansion of American consumerism culture worldwide with Ukiyo-e woodblock print images of Japanese geisha tripping over hamburgers and devouring ice cream. In the 1980s, he broached the AIDS crisis in a series of paintings featuring frustrated samurai and geisha wrestling with condom wrappers, literally blue in the face. It was Teraoka’s goal to shed light on AIDS at a time when doctors and politicians were covering up or avoiding conversations about the disease in the public.
Recently, Teraoka shifted his art style to create The Cloisters, triptych altarpieces in the style of religious Renaissance and medieval art, confronting topics such as Monica Lewinsky and the Clinton impeachment, clergy sex abuse scandals, artistic freedom in Russia, and the threat of nuclear war. While his past works may have evoked the likes of Utamaro and Hokusai, Teraoka’s new art draws from Brueghel and Bosch: giant, graphic murals featuring contorted figures including Pope Francis, Vladimir Putin, and the geisha Momotaro, in passionate, disturbing scenes.
At times, Teraoka seems like he’s hitting you over the head with the obvious associations in his work. But his subjects are so rampant in the collective public eye —from news headlines sensationalizing political sex scandals to giant billboards advertising fast food — that a loud approach seems fitting.
In March, Teraoka teamed up with Pussy Riot choreographer Viktoria Naraxsa and costume designer Masha Kechaeva for an experimental performance of Shakespeare’s Tempest at the Honolulu Museum of Art School. Currently, Koa Gallery in Honolulu is presenting a retrospective of Teraoka’s career as well as new work by the artist.
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James Charisma: Where were you in Japan when you saw the atomic bombs being dropped?
Masami Teraoka: I grew up in Onomichi City, which is in Hiroshima Prefecture. But my sister and I were evacuated to the next town because Onomichi was a middle-sized city and thought to be targeted by air raids. It wasn’t because I think it was too close to an American POW camp. We would see them while going to school and we would say, these people are so tall! And blue eyes.
All the kids liked the MPs because they were friendly, they gave us chewing gum and chocolate. My dad used to say that we are all humans. Wars are only between governments; we don’t really have to be fighting each other. That was his philosophy, so I think he made it comfortable for the Americans to visit. My mom used to cook potato chips. When she gave some to the Americans and they ate them, we couldn’t believe it. When I came here, I learned everybody eats potato chips.
JC: You seem fascinated by junk food. You have an entire series dedicated to ice cream and cheeseburgers. What inspired that?
MT: After I came to America in 1961, I met this girl who asked if I heard of hamburgers and I said no, so she cooked some for me. It was delicious. So when everyone was talking about McDonald’s, I tried their burgers but was disappointed because they were tasteless. Later, I had gone to Vancouver and saw so many [Golden] Arches. I thought, oh no, they’re invading Canada too? And Japan. Eventually I knew they were going to invade all over the globe but I didn’t want America to bring such a lousy hamburger worldwide.
This was during the flower child generation where everyone was recognizing their own background. So I thought if I was going to paint, why not paint in the format of my cultural identity? So that’s what I chose: ukiyo-e woodblock print style. My series, McDonald’s Hamburgers Invading Japan and 31 Flavors Invading Japan, was because I knew that American capitalism is so invasive all over the world, I didn’t want hamburgers to wipe out ethnic cuisine or Disneyland to be all different levels of culture. Another series is New Views of Mount Fuji Series/La Brea Tar Pits, which is about what a businessman might bring back from America to sell in Japan: La Brea Tar Pit as Disneyland.
JC: Your work has always tackled issues of the various eras, from AIDS in the 1980s to the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Is response to your work usually positive or is there ever backlash?
MT: I would say that 95 percent is positive, only a few people have actually complained to me. It’s all based on fact, so not even the Catholic Church can accuse the work of being incorrect. And the attitude I have is that I’m not interested in making something easy just to please my vision. I’m interested in what’s going on regarding individual liberties and freedom of creative expression. I’m trying to express anything related to human rights.
One of my triptychs featured Monica Lewinsky and the Bill Clinton impeachment trial. I depicted one of the lead investigators in the mural — Kenneth Starr — and I actually had a chance to meet him at an ACLU event. I told him I painted him in the piece and he said he was interested in seeing it. So I showed him a folded, four-page brochure of the composition while he was standing there with his wife. He was amused. He used the word “extraordinary” and I had to ask my friends what that meant because my English wasn’t that good. I was so happy to hear that because if he didn’t like my painting, he could’ve told the security guard to arrest me and I could still be in prison.
JC: How did you connect with Pussy Riot?
MT: My primary gallery director in San Francisco, Catharine Clark, gave my Ascending Chaos book to the manager of Pussy Riot at a performance. I was interested in their group and where they were coming from because I think we share thoughts about human rights, gay rights, same sex marriage… I later contacted Viktoria [Naraxsa] and asked if she’d be interested in coming to Hawaii because I was working on a Pussy Riot-themed exhibition. She said yes, when? This was maybe three years ago when that dialogue started. It took a long time to get to the March performance.
JC: Sexuality plays a huge role in your art. How does it influence you?
MT: Human sexuality inspires me. When you start going out with a new partner, you let go of preconceived ideas and attitudes to get to know that person. If you don’t fall in love and get to know someone on a sexual level, you miss this opportunity to open your mind to different individuals and cultures and ethnicities. It’s a window for learning.
JC: What are you learning about and focusing on now, in your latest works?
MT: One is North Korea. The way I see, their leader is a crazy, spoiled boy. But he can still actually wipe out the Earth. And that means all our education about humanity and everything won’t have any relevant meaning. Two suns … it’s nonsense. With an imminent nuclear threat, nothing makes any sense. Everything becomes nonsense.
Masami Teraoka continues at Koa Gallery (4303 Diamond Head Road
Honolulu) through November 9.