Friday, January 25, 2013

Where were the Asian Female Artists? Meet Okuhara Seiko.

In the writing of this blog, it is my intention to include female artists of all nationalities. However, it has been a challenge to locate more than a handful of Asian women artists in America that were born much before the end of the nineteenth century. The artists are presented somewhat chronologically, with an attempt to write of the women who were painting, drawing, weaving, quilting, and creating pottery from the earliest period of settlement in the West, but, while white women and Native Americans were creating a variety of artwork, Asian women struggled for place.

Most 19th Century Chinese immigrants were single men.
The Byrom-Daufel family of Tualatin retained this portrait, but descendants no longer have the Chinese family name.
Photo courtesy of the Byrom-Daufel family.
There were few women who arrived during the first wave of Chinese who came to America. In 1850, the Chinese community of San Francisco consisted of 4018 men and only seven women. [1] By 1855, women made up only two percent of the Chinese population in the United States, and thirty-five years later, in 1890, it had increased to only 4.8 percent. The lack of Chinese women in the general population was due, in part, to the prohibitive cost of the voyage and few work opportunities for Chinese women in America. In addition, harsh working conditions and the traditional female responsibility of looking after the children and extended family back in China restricted opportunities for women. Cultural issues such as bound feet, regardless of class, and the expectation of not leaving the home until a marriage was arranged, narrowed women's power to select their own paths. 
Japanese sugar plantation workers in Hawaii around 1890
Japanese sugar plantation workers in Hawaii around 1890.
(Hawaii State Archives)
The history of Japanese emigrating to America begins in the mid-nineteenth century as well. The first Japanese immigrants to the United States, known as Issei, or "first generation," arrived in California as early as 1869. By the mid-1800s, the first major influx of immigrants was recorded as Japanese laborers began working in the sugarcane fields in Hawaii and on farms and ranches in California.

According to the 1900 U.S. Census, 24, 326 Japanese were living in America, primarily on the West Coast. Of that number, 393 were listed their residence in Wyoming. By 1910, the total population of Japanese in America had grown to 72,157, with nearly 2,000 living in Wyoming.[2] During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, white plantation owners imported large numbers of workers from Asia, primarily from China and Japan. The first labor recruits came from China in 1850. By 1887, 26,000 Chinese were working on Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations, however, approximately 38 percent of them eventually returned to China. Between 1868 and 1924, 200,000 Japanese workers came to Hawaii; eventually, about 55 percent of them returned to Japan. During this same period, 7,300 Korean workers came to Hawaii; 16 percent eventually returned home.[3] The pull to return to their home countries, especially with the severe conditions borne by the workers, disconnect from family, linguistic differences between groups thrown together on the plantation, and discrimination, remained powerful.

Asian female artists did exist in the East and in the United States. According to authors Deborah Cherry and Janice Helland in their book Local/Global: Women Artists in the Nineteenth Century, a group of forty-four Japanese women were selected to represent their nation, and exhibited their art at the Chicago World's Fair in 1983. Noguchi Shonin and Okuhara Seiko were part of a large, well established cultural group
in Tokyo with political, literary, and artistic achievements and, like many of their Western counterparts, taught aspiring young artists in their community, 'funded by the Empress and run by her daughter, Princess Yasu Mori.' [4]

In the West, women's artistic endeavors were increasingly in a studio-a "room of one's own" which became a necessary location in which to create. [5] For Asian women, their artistic practice and training often took place in an area of the family home. Families then, as now, varied by number, structure, relationships, region of origin, and dwelling. In addition, the family's attitude towards art and the practice of art by women had a significant effect on whether the woman would, or could proceed. Artistic families made demands that affected an artist's choice of genre or restricted access to her workspace and materials. The family could prove to be both beneficial and detrimental. What a woman artist made, or what she aspired to make, was closely connected to the spaces she inhabited and to her social relationships.

Okuhara Seiko
Okuhara Seiko
The aforementioned Japanese poet and painter, Okuhara Seiko, was born in what is now the Ibaraki Prefecture, located on the central eastern coast of Japan. Seiko was the daughter of a high-ranking samurai, a highly respected Nanga painter, poet and teacher who lived and worked in Edo (now called Tokyo) in late 19th century Japan. Seiko was an intelligent, educated, woman  who was considered a feminist revolutionary. During the period in which Japan was becoming increasingly westernized, Seiko wore men's clothing, cropped her hair, and explored her interest in martial arts. She was largely self-taught as a painter but did study under the Chinese-style poet Onuma Chinzan (1818–91), the painter Hirata Suiseki (1801–68) of the Tani Buncho school and the Rangaku (‘Dutch studies’) scholar Takami Senseki (1785–1858). [6]Her expressively brushed ink paintings, calligraphy, and loosely washed color paintings of her ‘Tokai Seiko’ period (1870s–1880s) are reminiscent of those of the 18th-century Chinese Yangzhou. Her work attracted a number of patrons, and hundreds of pupils trained at her school of Chinese studies and painting.

File:Okuhara Seiko 1.jpg
Okuhara Seiko
Geese and Autumn Grasses
ca. 1880

Her artwork and her independent lifestyle paved the way for vanguard women artists for generations to come, and the inscription on this painting bears witness to the strength of her convictions: “I, Seiko, have indeed arrived at the state in which I could control my brush at my will and scatter ink at my wish. I established my own style no longer emulating the old masters.” [7]

Seiko retired to Kumagaya, north of Tokyo, where she continued to paint in her country villa studio until just a year before her death. Her works include mokkotsu (‘boneless’; without bounding outlines) landscape, flower paintings, bold calligraphy from the 1870s and shinkei zu (‘true view’ paintings), her screens of the Sumida River in Spring, and a handscroll of the Tsukigase Plum-blossom Valley. Most of her works remain in regional private collections, however, a major collection of her works reside in the Koga City Museum of History, the Tokyo National Museum, the Ibaraki Museum of Modern Art, the Prefectural History Museum, Mito, Saitama Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, and the Municipal History Museum in Koga. [8]

Okuhara Seiko
Crow on a Willow Branch with Orange Sky
c.a. 1930s
11 1/4 x 11 inches

1. Asia Pacific. Chang Phil, Asians in America Timeline. (Accessed January 21,  2013).
2. Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Coming to America. The Issei: Early Japanese Migration. (Accessed January 23, 2013).
3. Encyclopedia of Immigration, Hawaii. Published December 22, 2011. (Accessed January 24, 2013).
4. Weimann, 1981. 274.
5. Woolf, 1929.
6. Art Fact, Okuhara Seiko (1837-1913). (Accessed January, 25, 2013).
7. Okuhara Seiko Biography. (Accessed January, 25, 2013).
8. Art Fact. (Acessed January 25, 2013).

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