Boston’s Kimonos of Oppression

by Fred Schwarz

So the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has an 1876 Monet painting that shows the painter’s wife wearing a kimono. Museum staff thought it would make a nice promotion to get a kimono like the one Mme. Monet was wearing and, one day a week, let visitors put it on and pose for photos in front of the painting.

Bad move. Almost immediately Asian-American activists raised a ruckus, some claiming that the painting itself was racist (in the 1870s a fad for Japanese things swept through Europe), others that dressing museumgoers in a kimono was cultural appropriation / imperialism / fetishism / “exotification” / Orientalism, while still others called for (you guessed it) “a conversation” about race and identity.

I’d like to be able to report that the MFA told them to get over it, but instead it immediately apologized and said visitors would be allowed to touch the kimono but not wear it. More recently, kimono-clad counter-demonstrators, Japanese and non-Japanese, have appealed to everyone to lighten up. The Globe reports one Boston academic’s reaction (emphasis added):

“I have talked to many people, including Japanese and Japanese-Americans, that didn’t find the event offensive on its face,” said Paul Watanabe, who directs the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Mass­a­chu­setts Boston. Still, he agreed with the museum’s decision to recast the program.

Watanabe said MFA staff could have avoided the controversy by better contextualizing the painting within a discussion of cultural appropriation and by clarifying what they hoped visitors would gain by donning replica kimonos.

Museums try hard to erase the notion that viewing art is like eating your vegetables, but the protesters are doing their best to make sure the MFA serves up a double helping of broccoli.

Editors’ note: This item has been revised since its initial publication.

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