Blackface is commonly understood as an embarrassing blot on American race relations -- a gesture of disrespect in which white minstrel entertainers performed a highly specious vision of "blackness."
Most view 19th century American minstrelsy as a crude white approximation of black "style." But blackface historians such as Nick Tosches have suggested that some of minstrelsy's stars, like Emmett Miller, were acting out a misguided homage of sorts, the kind of whitey search for soul that is evident in phenomena ranging from Eminem to square white guys shouting appreciation for Halle Berry's pulchritude to show how down they are with the black thing.
Artist Iona Rozeal Brown also suggests there might be something more to blackface than racist parody if you look at the intriguing Japanese phenomenon of ganguro.
In ganguro, fashion-forward Japanese girls take a cue from the media's images of black Americans, covering their faces with dark brown makeup and adopting a style somewhere between Hello Kitty cute and a Shaft funk-a-thon of platform shoes and fur collars.
Brown was intrigued by the ganguro's wacked-out spin on "black" when she traveled to Japan and has created a body of artwork centered on this cultural fluke. The "a3" in her show's title stands for the invented term "afro-Asiatic allegory," which she uses to make a compelling connection between diverse styles of cultural "drag."
The exhibition examines both the Japanese adoption of African-American style and how African-American women appropriate Asian fashion. In her richly colored, slick graphic paintings that suggest Patrick Nagel's sexed-up illustrations, Brown shows African-American women wearing the kimonos and rosebud lipstick of the geisha combined with a more contemporary, sexually unapologetic gaze. Brown suggests that with the rage for sushi, anime, karaoke and rice rockets, a superficial pop culture idea of Japan has also taken root in American life.
But those works of black women in Asian drag are for the most part a pale comparison to the real meat of black on both sides -- a laugh-out-loud riff on 16th and 17th century Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which depict shy Japanese geishas and fierce samurai warriors sporting hip-hop style.
Working in a pleasingly timeworn, subtle color scheme, Brown does a ganguro number on the stylized gestures of those ivory-faced geishas. She covers their faces (their alabaster skin left peeking out at the edges) with dark brown makeup in the ganguro style, and adorns their kimonos with modern pop culture iconography like marijuana leaves or Gucci logos. Brown shows how black culture has in many ways become a global style transported across class, race and geographical lines.
Gone are the passive geisha poses, as these hepster geishas spin records on turntables or smoke a spliff, letting the smoke curl from their lips in hyper-articulated curlicues. Brown has a real eye for fashiony details, capturing the pooling-at-the-ankles jeans, Adidas sneakers, Erykah Badu headwraps, Kangol caps and rhinestone-embedded press-on nails of these funked-out geishas. There are label-queen geishas slugging Hennessey and decked out in Burberry plaid, and O.G.s sporting the same wild-eyed macho attitude and sneers of 18th century samurai.
Brown also makes a connection between the stylized sexual fetishes of the geisha -- the cupid bow lips, the alabaster makeup, the mincing walk -- and contemporary culture with its own fetishy trick bag. If such bizarre white skin and extreme female acquiescence can be fetishized as an ideal, why can't black be beautiful, too, as the ganguro girls seems to demand?
It is an art world cliche to say that our identities amount to a "performance," but dang if Brown doesn't make it so.
When will you be accepting applicants for the 2014 competition?
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