The Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Yellow(Face) Peril

Posted by Guest Author Jenny Wills & filed under Art & Design, Life.


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There is something particularly hurtful when one of the most important cultural institutions in Winnipeg invites Orientalism, fetishization, and stereotyping in the name of charity. This is what is happening with the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s upcoming “Big in Japan” Art & Soul Gala (February 22, 2014), where attendees are encouraged to “throw on a kimono and celebrate everything Japanese,” “embrace their inner ninja,” and “Dress in theme or cocktail attire” with the reminder to “keep it in good taste.” I’ll mention that these descriptions come from an edited version; an earlier narrative also referenced “geisha girls,” the Yakuza, and David Suzuki – a Canadian public figure.

In just the last three months yellowface has been in our face in a number of ways. Katy Perry’s “geisha” performance at the American Music Awards in November was called “problematic” but “unsurprising” by The creators of How I Met Your Mother apologized in January for what they called a “silly and unabashedly immature homage to Kung Fu.” And just this week, followers of #notyourasiansidekick, led by writer and activist Suey Park, have taken on SNL for the sketch comedy show’s repeated use of yellowface—most recently in the horrifying character portrayed by Taran Killam on February 1st.  Intention does not matter, as we are reminded every Halloween when someone dresses up as their favourite character from Orange is the New Black, or whatever.

Asian cultures continue to be an endless resource for cultural appropriation; our various traditions (old and new) are reduced, consumed, and exoticized out of context (the WAG invitation boasts a drink called “samurai-sword shooters”).  These images ignore the struggles of Asian/Canadian and Asian/American activists who have worked for decades to resist this kind of cultural tourism.

Though not the intention of the Art & Soul fundraiser, the circulation of stereotypes such as these often results in the marginalization of Asian/Canadians; despite our diversities in ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, stereotypes are used to read us as a homogenous mass of forever-foreigners in our own Canadian cities.  These de-contextualized images also perpetuate dangerous stereotypes that see Asian/Canadian women as submissive and obedient “geishas,” a fetishistic  representational tradition that can be directly linked to the persistence of sexual violence against Asian women in North America.

Considering the theme of the WAG’s current exhibition on “violence, women, and art”—which prominently features a piece by Japanese American artist Yoko Ono—one would expect the WAG to be more conscientious of their use of such triggering imagery (festive, or otherwise).

Winnipeg has an ever-increasing Asian/Canadian community. Some people have immigrated from overseas and chose Winnipeg as their home; others have moved to Winnipeg from other Canadian or American cities; many were born and raised here. The Winnipeg Art Gallery has a responsibility to these communities not to reiterate the stereotypes, well-intentioned or not, that continue to marginalize us regardless of our generational and cultural distances from our Asian countries of origin.

We know blackface is not acceptable—even in the name of a charity fundraiser. I should also hope that we know that redface and brownface are equally as damaging and dismissive.  So how did an event come to be proposed, approved, and organized that specifically calls for yellowface (whether “in good taste” or not)?

Let’s think about that request, shall we? What is “good taste” minstrelsy? Taste went out the window when event co-ordinators declared, “Grab your chopsticks…! or show off your karate skills.”

Yellowface, somehow seems to be permitted, possibly because the model minority stereotype assumes that Asian/Canadians are empowered to the point where they can no longer be the targets of race-based violence. We know, from countless examples (including the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982), that “honourary whiteness” in fact can rouse aggressive behaviour and certainly does not justify racial dismissiveness.

I am not someone who likes to label things as “racist” or “non-racist.” I think those accusations are conversation-enders and allow us to scapegoat racial imbalances onto identifiable and containable “bad people” or “bad places.” I will, however, not be idle when this kind of exploitative and insensitive cultural appropriation is being promoted across the street from where I teach my students about the struggles of Asian/North American identity.

What I do want to say is that this event puts a lot of people in an unfair position (I’m not just talking about Asian/Canadians, but also like-minded allies and friends who will not stand for this kind of Orientalism). It forces us to choose between supporting the arts and standing up for our beliefs and ourselves.

I don’t want people to boycott the WAG or its event. I especially don’t want us to stop supporting the arts. I only wish that “the arts” (and/or the arts community) would also support us.

Jenny Wills is an Assistant Professor at the University of Winnipeg. Her area of research includes Asian American Studies, Race and American Literature.


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