Geishas Gone Gangsta : Worshipping at the Altar of Style

Catriona Stuart Oct 6, 2004

A3 The Revolution: Televised, Terrorized, Sexualized
Caren Golden Fine Arts
539 West 23rd Street, Through October 23
Admission is free

Review by Catriona Stuart

Japanese teenagers worship at the altar of style. Forget Gaultier and Versace. Tokyo’s über-fashionable don everything from 18th-century chambermaid’s dresses and death pale skin to tiny plaid schoolgirl skirts with oversized slouchy socks and pigtails all in a relentless pursuit of “kawaii,” or cuteness.

In the late 1990’s, Maryland-based artist Iona Rozeal Brown stumbled upon another trend among Japanese and Korean youth: the “ganguro.” Literally meaning “blackface,” the ganguro would go to extreme lengths to imitate hip-hop icons like Lil’ Kim – tanning, perming, crimping, braiding, buying and bling-blinging their way to quintessential ghettofabulousness.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so the saying goes. But Brown wasn’t flattered. Instead, the painter and DJ of African- American and Cherokee descent found herself offended by the rabidly consumerist appropriation of hip-hop culture – a culture borne of historical struggle and strife.

Fascinated by the ganguro fetishism, however, Brown took the opportunity to try a little cultural sampling of her own.

In a running series of paintings that she calls Afro-Asiatic allegories (a3), Brown takes on the similar excesses of today’s hip-hop and 18th-century Edo Japan, commenting harshly on the commodification of culture.

Her latest 12-piece installation, a3 the revolution: televised, terrorized, sexualized, is on view at Chelsea’s tiny Caren Golden Fine Arts through late October.

In the vein of traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Brown paints larger-than-life images of geishas gone gangsta and kabuki turned KRS-1. Viewed from the street, her vibrant palette of yellows, teals and furry pink collars pops against the stark whiteness of the gallery walls. And while it may be the hues and texture that draw you into the world of these dark figures, the colorful kimonos that hang seductively from their wearers bare enough breasts to entice even the most disinterested passerby.

Like the ganguro, Brown’s geishas appear in blackface, their deeply bronzed color extending only as far as the hairline to reveal the skin’s lighter shade underneath. With spliffs in hand, sporting golden afros complete with black-power-fisted blow-out combs or tightly woven braids, her figures pose to show off their hip-hop finery: name brand gear, expensive diamond jewelry, and gold-capped teeth.

Brown’s over-the-top images come down harshly but sarcastically on the wholesale consumption of style.

Armed with only a mouthful of rotting teeth, her “woims” (read: worms, an acronym for weapons of mass spending) devour everything from Fubu T-shirts to a Burberry scarf. Lacking eyes, these amorphous green creatures are blind consumers of style without substance.

The woims crawl through the progression of her paintings and seem to coax forth the increasingly ostentatious displays of consumerism. In the beginning, a lonely few look on adoringly as one geisha curls her hair. But by the end, dozens of woims teem around another courtesan, peeking through her afro and inching up her hand as she gazes at her gold-capped teeth in a lacquered Japanese hand-mirror.

Though art isn’t required to be objective, Brown’s criticism is at times one-sided. While hip-hop has taken some of its own cues from Asian style, Brown said in a recent interview that, like kabuki, the ganguro’s imitation is like “dressing in drag.”

Fortunately, Brown doesn’t heap hiphop’s exploitation solely on the shoulders of fashion-forward Japanese teens.

In the final piece of her show, a3 bling propaganda #3, Brown places revered mainstream hip-hop icons in a Mao-era propaganda pose. With a slight smile, the illustrious leader, depicted as Russell Simmons, proudly holds forth a gleaming diamond necklace like a talisman. A crowd of famous faces line up behind Simmons, transfixed by the object in
a mixture of fear, desire and awe.

For the ganguro and their icons both, the caption just below the logo of Simmons’ tracksuit captures the essence of Brown’s message: “Bling is the white sun in our hearts.”

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