Big in Japan is a phrase used to describe Western celebrities who have been successful in Japan. It was also a punk band from the 1970s, and it's been the title for several songs and albums.
Big in Japan was also the title and theme for the WAG's Art & Soul fundraiser. When a committee of volunteers representing businesses, professions and ethnic communities chose it, the goal was to celebrate Japan's rich culture.
In their designs, decor and marketing, they focused on art, architecture, film, music, martial arts and sports, fashion, and cuisine, highlighted by anime, kabuki, origami, karate, judo, sumo, irezumi, sushi, and yes, samurai, ninja, and the geisha -- all authentic elements of historical and contemporary Japanese culture.
The committee was also looking at contemporary perspectives and the interface with historical Japanese traditions, the West and Canada.
Popular culture in Japan not only reflects the attitudes and concerns of the present day, but it also is constantly linking to the past. Many contemporary films, television programs, music and video games came out of older artistic and literary traditions and traditional art forms.
Every year, Winnipeg's Folklorama puts together a festival that highlights the best of cultures and nations of the world. Participants dress up in the ethnic attire of their culture, and present through art, music, dance and cuisine what is the best of that culture and heritage. Art & Soul wanted to do the same with Japan -- but just for one night.
Today, Japanese anime is everywhere, perhaps rivalled only by the international influence of Japanese fashion and design. The revival of martial arts and related Japanese sports is filling community centres across the city. Irezumi, a form of body tattooing, has become hugely popular, particularly in Winnipeg.
It's hard to find an opera or theatre company in Canada that is not presenting a production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly or Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Katy Perry's recent "geisha" performance at the American Music Awards, while seen as controversial by some, betrays the good and the bad that can come out of a current take on an ethnic theme. Critics and academics debate the power and danger of cultural interpretation and appropriation, confirming there are many issues at stake. With the Big in Japan controversy, we saw good intentions turning into something bad -- and we stopped it.
When the Art & Soul committee first contemplated the theme, they consulted with members of the Japanese community and others whose work relates to this culture. But what started as an event based on cultural celebration turned into a discussion about what parts of a culture are appropriate to talk about, what parts are authentic, and what parts are targets for appropriation, misinterpretation and racism. And that's when the WAG decided to put an end to it.
We have never shied from controversial subjects; we support projects and dialogues that deal with difficult subjects, the most recent examples being Off The Beaten Path and Don McCullin exhibitions, and the Holocaust-era Provenance Research Project.
With the controversy surrounding the Art & Soul event, there were certain individuals in the community, including academics and activists, who saw this as an opportunity to bring attention to platforms related to their own work and interests, and issues in our society.
The WAG saw this as an opportunity for dialogue. Tweets and Facebook posts multiplied, and quickly there were calls to cancel the event. While many of the comments had little to do with the actual theme of the event or the aims of the committee; we still felt it was best to drop the theme completely.
The WAG does not support activity or commentary associated with racism in any form. Through the process, we communicated with those leading the charge against the event and sought their advice. These conversations, along with discussions involving WAG, led to the decision to cancel the Big in Japan theme. A media release went out along with an apology to anyone who might have been offended.
But the story doesn't end there. We hope there will be an opportunity for the WAG to facilitate more discussions about these issues, using the visual arts to help inform and lead the dialogue.
The WAG a dynamic place for people to exchange ideas within an environment centred on art and artmaking; and we are grateful to those in the community who stepped forward to voice their concerns and support.
What are the lessons learned for the WAG? Cultural appropriation is a topic with a wide range of views, but it's a topic that we feel should be addressed. Partnering with an official body that represents the culture, and giving a voice to their leaders, allows for authentic voices to be heard. The WAG can do better in this engagement as we strive to hold ourselves to the highest standard.
Finally, there is a new theme for this year's Art & Soul. It's Hot & Cold: 4 Seasons at the WAG. Given the kind of winter we've been having, I think it might be all cold!
Stephen Borys is director and CEO of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.