A weekly event in Boston intended to appeal to fans of painter Claude Monet has been canceled after protesters claimed it constituted “racist appropriation” of Japanese culture.
The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston hosts “La Japonaise,” a work by famous French Impressionist Claude Monet which shows his wife Camille dressed up in elaborate kimono while holding a fan. The work reflects an ongoing fad for Japanese fashion in 1870s France, as well as Monet’s own appreciation for Japanese art.
Wanting to appeal to fans of Monet, and support a temporary exhibit of works by Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai, the MFA began an event called “Kimono Wednesdays,” where visitors were invited to wear a replica of Monet’s kimono and take pictures next to the painting. The event was inspired by similar ones which were held in Japan itself when the painting went on tour there.
Protesters organizing on Tumblr blasted the events for inviting guests to put on “yellow-face” and “appropriate” Asian culture. They invaded the museum with signs declaring “This is racist/This Is Appropriation/This is Orientalism” and accusing the museum of allowing “dehumanization” of “foreign bodies of color.”
“Orientalism,” in the parlance of activists, refers to the allegedly patronizing, stereotypical, and racist attitudes Westerners take towards Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, which is often mixed with appropriation of certain cultural artifacts (such as the kimono).
“These activities serve to erase the oppression Asia and its diasporic population have experienced and continue to experience from the West and reaffirm that Asian culture is an exotic curiosity,” the Tumblr page Stand Against Yellow Face says. “Instead of broadening the understanding of how cultures influence each other, the MFA reduces Japanese culture to an exotified experience.”
Not wanting to fight the backlash, earlier this week the MFA announced it was cancelling Kimono Wednesdays four weeks ahead of schedule (the events were supposed to run through the end of July).
“The MFA’s mission is to engage people with direct encounters with works of art, and to be an inclusive and welcoming place for all,” the museum said on its website. “We apologize for offending any visitors, and… look forward to continuing the Museum’s long-standing dialogue about the art, culture and influence of Japan.”
Henceforth, the museum says, the kimonos will be displayed so that visitors can touch and interact with them, but not try them on.
The move has predictably upset those who say Kimono Wednesdays were not racist at all and offered a chance to appreciate Japanese culture.
“Any attention on Japan is a good thing,” Japanese teacher Timothy Nagaoka told The Boston Globe. “This painting celebrates the fascination that French Impressionists had.” Nagaoka staged his own small counter-protest at the museum, wearing a kimono and holding a sign that said “wearing a kimono does not make me a Racist or an Imperialist.”
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