Cultural Identification

Yohey Horishita Thesis Topic

Since feminism found art as another media to express their feelings and another platform to state their opinions, so many female artists have been a part of feminist art movement. There are several unique and delicate differences in the statement of feminism depending on artists’ cultural identifications, and it became obvious that the feminist artists have developed their own voice under the influence of their cultures. The more culturally female has been suppressed, the more the expression of their works display provocative and bizarre. Historically, Asian and African cultures and customs are highly male dominated, and it is quite interesting to see how Asian and African feminist artists display their belief. 

Fuyuko Matsui’s painting, Keeping up the Pureness, challenged a male audience to see her painting of a grotesque rotten female nude. It deeply shows that Matsui’s statement of childbirth and how Japanese women have been treated. Kenyan artist Ingrid Mwangi’s video installation, Splayed, showed the issue of polygamy by writing/cutting words of monogamy and polygamy on her arms by a blade.

I will focus on how Asian and African feminist artists accept their cultures, embrace it, and challenge it to the society.  

Thesis part 1.

            Many female artists have been a part of the Feminist Art Movement since feminism found art as another medium to express their feeling and another platform to state their opinions.  There are several unique differences in the statement of feminist artworks depending on artists’ cultural identifications.  It became more obvious that feminist artists have developed their own voice under the influence of their cultures.  To list up all traditional female roles would be painful process because they has been formed by the male dominated society, and has been seasoned by male desires.  Some of those have been washed away by the influence of modern concepts and philosophies; however, some of those have still existed under the name of cultures and traditions.  It is such a powerful act for feminist artists to physically visualize those unseen suppressions so that they can be seen.  The more culturally women have been suppressed, the more the expressions of their works are provocative and bizarre.  Historically, Asian and African cultures and traditions are known to be highly male dominated, and it is quite interesting to see how Asian and African feminist artists display their own beliefs. 

Splayed, 2004

            Traditionally speaking, marriage is still a major part of a partnership in female lives.  It still causes many conflicts and arguments between a traditional perspective and a modern perspective.  A video installation work by Ingrid Mwangi, Splayed in 2004 explains what this Kenyan female artist wants to say.[1]  Three-channel videos are played on three different plasma screens on a freestanding gold painted wall.  The center screen shows her face, the left screen shows her left arm, and the right screen shows her right arm.  These screens are placed in a triangular composition like crucifixion.  She uses a knife on her both arms to carve a word of “polygamy” on her left art, and “monogamous” on her right arm.  This Mwangi’s performance shows her emotional scars from her Kenyan father’s infidelity.  She was born in a bi-racial family as her father is a Kenyan, and her mother is German.[2]  Her facial expression is subtle.  It seems confused, painful, and sad.  The concept of polygamy and monogamy seems such a controversial subject to discuss in Africa because it’s culturally rooted and traditionally practiced for a long time.  Men can have multiple female partners if he can support them.  She describes her body as a canvas.[3]  In this work, she uses her blood as paint and her body as a canvas.  She juxtaposed her own experience with the situation of African women who live under the polygamy relationships.  She did not claim loudly since the performance is beautifully subtle regarding to her movement and expression; however, the concept and the action are highly strong.

Keeping up the Pureness, 2004

            Another major life changing situation for women is giving birth to a baby.  Women have an ability of giving a new life, and it seems like Asian women have given stress and pressure by the society because of it.  Fuyuko Matsui is known for her silk paintings done by the authentic Japanese silk painting technique, which was predominantly used by men. In her paintings, she often displays ghosts and grotesque figures.  Keeping up the Pureness, 2004 is a strong example of her voice to the society.[4]  A naked decaying female figure is placed on a flower field, and looks at a viewer steadily through her deadly eyes.  Her torso is wide opened and showing her internal organs including her uterus, and an embryo in her uterus.  How dose she challenge to the society?  She disagrees the way Japanese men see women.  Buddhism and Shinto philosophies influenced Japanese culture, and also to see it as larger scale, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism influenced a major part of Asian cultures.  These created highly male-centered traditions and customs among in Asia.  In The Japan Times, she explained how traditional Japanese paintings portrayed women by the male-centered perspective, and talked about her anger for the Japanese female situation now.[5]  Women have an ability to reproduce, and it should be celebrated not suppressed.  Male desires sometimes pressured women over the pregnancy in many ways, such as having a boy, a healthy baby, or forcing her to be pregnant.  Her paintings show the reality of women whether good or bad.  She uses a traditional technique to create a challenge to the traditional male-centered society.

Sperm, 2006

            Sperm is another example of birth related work by a female perspective.[6]  It is an installation art and was performed by Xiao Lu, a Chinese female artist, in 2006.  It displays a temperature control machine to freeze sperm she was to collect from her male participants and audience, twelve empty bottles for placing the sperm, and a rack for the bottles. The planed process of handling the sperms would be taken place under the medical regulations which is ruled by specific temperature requirements to eliminates poor quality sperm, kill all possible bacteria, and prevent HIV infection.  Initially she planned to get an artificial insemination during her fertile period each month by using the collected sperms, but no male participants was willing to do.  She explained the concept of the work as a mixture of biological pregnancy and emotional pregnancy.  The energy of life juxtaposes sperms and an egg, and the spirit of life juxtaposes a sexual intercourse between a man and a woman.  Men and women meet physically and emotionally, then that whole action brings a new life.  It causes new responsibilities and obligations between them, and that she is pointing out.[7]  The freedom of women happens from leaving the responsibilities with men.  In this work, she eliminated two major facts of life using mechanically scientific procedure to reproduce life; therefore, she can eliminate the responsibilities and obligations for men.  Men loose their needs and abilities to play the role of father or lover for neither their female partners nor their children.

            As a part of a short conclusion for the thesis part 1, it is obvious that feminist artists challenge the male dominated society. Mwangi expresses how traditional concept affects women by using her blood and body. Matsui paints to challenge men to see the reality of how women decay physically but emotionally. Lu breaks the concept of partnership by eliminating a physical intercourse and emotions to get pregnant, so men cannot take over her. They all corporate shocking factors to challenged the society.

[1] Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter, “Splayed,”
[2] Rebecca Dimling Cochran, “Raw Acts Gracefully Posted: Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter’s Social Performance,” Art Papers 35, no. 3 (June 2011): under “In The Three-channel Video Installation Splayed,”
[3] Emmanuel Mwendwa, “Artist Turns Her Body Into Canvas,” Standard Digital News,
[4] Fuyuko Matsui, “Keeping up the Pureness.”
[5] Emily Wakeling, “Fuyuko Matsui Finds Vitality in Decay.” The Japan Times, January 12, 2012,
[6] Xiao Lu, “Sperm.”
[7] Li Xinmo, “Reinterpreting Xiao Lu.” Bald Girls, November 14, 2011: 28-33.


Cochran, Rebecca Dimling, “Raw Acts Gracefully Posted: Ingrid Mwangi Robert Hutter’s Social Performance.” Art Papers 35, no. 3 (June 2011)

Fuyuko Matsui, “Keeping up the Pureness.”

Wakeling, Emily, “Fuyuko Matsui Finds Vitality in Decay.” The Japan Times, January 12, 2012,

Xinmo, Li, “Reinterpreting Xiao Lu.” Bald Girls, November 14, 2011: 28-33.

Part-II: The Works of Yayoi Kusama and Kara Walker

            The Part-I tells that the feminist artists collaborate their cultural identities with their artistic abilities to let out their own voice to the society, and they make various challenges to the society with the female point of view.  For part-II, the spotlight is focused on the works of two female artists, Yayoi Kusama and Kara Walker, to examine different kinds of feminist art.  The artists’ childhoods and personal experiences are equally a major sound of their voice, and their works show how the artists have overcome from their traumatic events or historical events.

Yayoi Kusama

The Anatomic Explosion Happening at Alice in Wonderland Statue in Central Park, 1969

            Yayoi Kusama is one of the feminist artists who are influenced by their own unique background.  She was born in a middle-class Japanese family in1926.  Kusama’s personal later life was affected by a damaged relationship of her parents, the Japanese female mannerism that her mother taught her in an abusive way, and the Japanese sex education that she received.  The marital infidelities of her father caused Kusama’s traumatic idea of sex because her mother lat Kusama to spy on him when he was having some intimate time with his lovers behind his family.  Kusama explained that the main reason for having naked images and bodies in her works and the naked happenings is overcoming the bad experience.[1]  She performed her happenings using her own body and other bodies in public places, such as parks, museums, discos, and event venues.  Like The Anatomic Explosion Happening at Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, 1969, she normally uses naked bodies as canvases and paints her signature polka dots on them.  Her polka dots are a symbol of natures, such as the sun and moon, so a body covered by polka dots is able to return to the nature.  To cover a naked body with polka dots suggests a deconstruction of the identity, and at the same time, it is a re-identify of the subject by the polka dots.[2]  That is her way to see a visually traumatic subject, and it is certainly one of the forms of the feminist art because she overcame the traumatic subject caused by a man.

Infinity Net, 1985

            Kusama’s traumatic personal events were not only caused by man, but also by woman as well.  Kusama’s mother was a successful businesswoman who operated an authentic seed factory that has carried a history of over100 years, and she was highly strict on Kusama about the mannerism of Japanese woman.[3]  Kusama was oppressed and abused by constantly being told that she had to behave appropriately, could not paint, would have to get married to a man from a rich family and be a housewife.[4]  Her mother even took away Kusama’s paints and canvases to abandon Kusama’s artistic abilities and her hallucinations, so Kusama would follow a traditional role of Japanese women.  Kusama came to New York in 1957 just because it was the only way to escape from her family and study art.  Her first large-scale painting after she moved to New York City, Infinity Net (c.1985), is the beginning of her permanent style of art, “Obsessional Art” that she calls.[5]  Reputation is the major element of her works, and it is interesting point of view for one to see a feminist connotation of traditional women’s house works.  It is well controlled of reputation, but there is somehow a danger of obsession in her works.  The endless waves of polka dots, patterns, and colors are visualizations of her hallucinations.  This is another way for her to overcome the mental illness and bondage of the traditional female education.

Accumulation No.1, 1962

Accumulation No.2, 1968

Compulsion Furniture (Accumulations), 1964

            Even though she has a traumatic experience of sex, sexual contents are often to be seen in Kusama’s works.  Her sex phobic caused by the Japanese sex education is also an important part of her works.  She started working on sculptures in 1962, Accumulation No.1, and then it became Sex Obsession Series. Numerous phallic-like protrusions painted white cover the entire surface of an armchair.  A famous photo-collage piece of Accumulation No.2 is a couch covered with phallic-like protrusions, and Kusama lays on it in nude painted the polka dots.  She poses like a pin up girl, and provocatively looks at the camera.  This series of protrusion covering goes on not only associating one object, but also the entire space, such as Compulsion Furniture (Accumulations) in 1964 and Infinity Mirror Room (Phalli’s Field) in 1965.  Kusama explains that these phallic-like protrusions come from the psychosomatic work of her fear of sexual vision.[6]  The sex education she received from Japanese schools promoted that sex is dirty and should be hided, and that made her phobia over the sex.[7]  Again, she overcame the sex phobia in covering object around her with the numerous phallic-like protrusion sculptures.

Kara Walker

            On the other hand, Kara Walker has another way to conquer her heritage.  This African-American female artist, Walker is known for her large-scale tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes pieces.  She was born in Stockton, California, and grew up in Stone Mountain, GA. She says that her experience moving to the south was terrifying because of the racial standard still existed in the south at that time.[8]  She saw the contrast of Black and White in her early age, and she became being true to her heritage as an African-American.  She is not afraid of showing such a dark stain of American history to her audience, and telling the story in well-structured and informative ways. 

My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, 2008

My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love, 2008

            She explores racism and sexism along with the simple contrast of black cut-paper and white wall in her exhibition, "Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love: Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War As It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart” in 2008. It is composed by four elements of fictions, and showcasing the sexual violence, such as a racial oppression and a sexual oppression.[9]  Even though the figures are all silhouettes, it is obvious for one to know the difference of racial features through the profiles.  Many silhouettes are provocative like two babies dropping out of between little black girl’s tights, and a slave master killing a baby with his knife.  This is a part of darkest history of America, and she expresses it through no filter. Her works are illusion of the past events and nothing else.  Walker says, “It’s a part of African-American woman artist, but it’s about how you make representations of your world given what you have been given.”[10]

            Both Yayoi Kusama and Kara Walker overcome how women were treated in the past. In personal level, Kusama had gone through so many traumatic events by her family based on the behavior of her father, the sex education, and the traditional aesthetic of women’s role that her mother preached. Kusama collaborates her negativities and mental disorder with her artistic abilities to overcome, and she found the way to visualize her hallucination world using reputation and obsessive patterns. Kara Walker takes the simple black and white contrast to express deeper emotions of African-American history, which causes extremely provocative and barbaric images. Her narrative cut-paper pieces show how she stands on her heritage and accepts the racial past.

            Some artists take action to straightly challenge to the society with the shocking images, like Fuyuko Matsui, Xiao Lu, and Ingrid Mwangi. Their attitudes are more aggressive and visually recognizable feminist art. On the other hand, Yayoi Kusama and Kara Walker understand where they came from, and what the dark side of their pasts. They overcome the issues of traditions, cultures, and histories. In Asian and African cultures, it is obvious that the more culturally women have been suppressed, the more the expressions of their works display provocative and bizarre. In conclusion, the feminist artists’ cultural identifications are deeply effective on the appearances of their works.

[1] Helen Sumpter, “Interview: Yayoi Kusama,” Time Out London, January 25, 2012, under “Yayoi Kusama was born in 1929 in the city of Matsumoto,” (accessed November 3, 2012)
[2] Bree Richards, “Yayoi Kusama: Performing The Body,” Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever: 1, (accessed November 4, 2012)
[3] Grady Turner, “The Artist’s Voice Since 1981: Yayoi Kusama,” Bomb Magazine, Winter 1999, under “YK My Mother Was A Shrewd Businesswoman,” (accessed November 4, 2012)
[4] Heather Lenz, “Kusama: Princess Of Polka Dot,“ YouTube, 0:49-1:06, (accessed November 5, 2012).
[5] Kay Ito, “Kusama Speaks,” Artnet, August 22, 1997, under “YK: The Illness Lets Me Just Be An Artist,” (accessed November 5, 2012).
[6] Grady Turner, “The Artist’s Voice Since 1981: Yayoi Kusama,” Bomb Magazine, Winter 1999, under “YK As An Obsessional Artist,” (accessed November 5, 2012).
[7] Kay Ito, “Kusama Speaks,” Artnet, August 22, 1997, under “YK: I Had A Phobia About Sex,” (accessed November 5, 2012).
[8] Holland Cotter, “Kara Walker,” The New York Times, October 12, 2007, under “When She Was 13,” (accessed November 5, 2012).
[9] Jerry Saltz, “An Explosion Of Color, In Black and White,” Artnet, November 13, 2007, under “Even The Title Is Contaminated,” (accessed November 5, 2012).
[10] Art21, “Segment: Kara Walker In Stories,” Art21 Watch Now, 11:50-12:13, (accessed November 5, 2012).


Art21, “Segment: Kara Walker In Stories.” Art21 Watch Now, (accessed November 5, 2012).

Cotter, Holland, “Kara Walker.” The New York Times, October 12, 2007, (accessed November 5, 2012).

Ito, Kay, “Kusama Speaks.” Artnet, August 22, 1997, (accessed November 5, 2012).

Lenz, Heather, “Kusama: Princess Of Polka Dot.“ YouTube, (accessed November 5, 2012).

Richards, Bree, “Yayoi Kusama: Performing The Body.” Yayoi Kusama: Look Now, See Forever: 1. (accessed November 4, 2012).

Sumpter, Helen, “Interview: Yayoi Kusama.” Time Out London, January 25, 2012, (accessed November 3, 2012).

Saltz, Jerry, “An Explosion Of Color, In Black and White.” Artnet, November 13, 2007, (accessed November 5, 2012).

Turner, Grady, “The Artist’s Voice Since 1981: Yayoi Kusama.” Bomb Magazine, Winter 1999, (accessed November 4, 2012).


  1. This sounds very interesting. Will you be comparing the cultural aspects of their art to artists of different countries and cultures to provide contrast? Will India be explored as well? They seem to have similar cultural boundaries and are considered to be part of Asia. Sounds like a fun topic.

  2. Chivaun, Thank you! I think I will just compare their art to their own countries to provide a contrast between one and one's culture and country only. Since I focus on only Asian and African cultures, I don't think I will compare different artists to artists of different countries and cultures... but like you said, it would be really interesting and would make it dynamic thesis. India!! That's really good suggestion!! I mean India is a part of Asia, right? I will definitely look up some Indian artists!! Thank you!!

  3. Hi Yohey! I just read your part 2 scholarly essay. Its very interesting how these artists their past, up-bringing and experiences have influenced their work in a powerful way. Also, how they use their work to express, discover and understand themselves and help others see subjects in new ways. This is great. Thank you for sharing!


  4. Hej Jade! Thank you for the kind comment! These artists are so blessed to find their way to get the victory from the past... (wow it sounds so preachin churchy lol)... but true. Especially Kusama is really fighting for her traumatic past and hallucinations, then now she actually says she is thankful for her situation... True artist!

  5. Once I saw this post on Kara Walker I was instantly hooked on her. Her point of views on the antebellum south and her silhouettes show such an interesting point of view. I feel like her work of art is made to make you think on a deeper level and look more into not just the silhouettes but also the story they tell within. I f I saw this exhibition in person I feel as if I would have to constantly look at, because you could see details you did not necessarily see the first time you view it. - Ashley Hampton

  6. Love this post~I think the beauty of Kara Walker's work is the details.Viewers would definitely notice all the details even though all they could see is silhouettes in black and white.But they would not be able to see all the details more clearly even if they come closer because all they have is nothing bu silhouettes,there is no any more details.So there's a vague beauty there,allure people to get interesting, but once they want to see more,they can't go any deeper.In this way,the stories under Kara Walker's hands would always keep their mysterious style and they are always leaving people wanting more.

    Xuan Han