Undocumented Stations on the Tokaido Road

Racism is as American as mom's apple pie. The country was plagued with it in the 1940s when Richard Wright and James Baldwin left for France, and it was still endemic a decade later when W.E.B Du Bois left for Ghana. These African –Americans, and countless others like them, left because they knew that as soon as the creative mind becomes infested with the politics of race, then the creative mind is no longer creative. At different times during the twentieth century Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke…. and others all sought some kind of temporary refuge away from the essentialising politics of race which plague the United States. By its very nature, art anneals and looks for connections, not divisions. It revels in contradiction and ambiguity. However, to be an African –American artist in a country in which black and white find it difficult to speak to each other means that one is constantly being placed in the role of conversational supplicant. Either one explains oneself, which is more therapy then art, or one shouts.

(Caryl Phillips)

The series of paintings, which I have created in Tokyo during 2003-4, has involved, unfortunately, much 'shouting'. The series is titled: Undocumented Stations on the Tokaido Road and is subtitled graffiti. The series contains four paintings: The Foreign Family, The Stone Garden, ! and National Treasure, of which I wish to discuss in this Chapter the first two paintings mentioned. Undocumented Stations on the Tokaido Road reflects the despair I have felt, facing my failure in genuinely interacting with my adopted Japanese cultural surroundings. The title refers to the famous Japanese cultural icon, namely the Tokaido road (The ancient road that connect Kyoto and Tokyo) and its 53 stations. A road often depicted and elaborated by the Japanese Arts. 'Undocumented Stations on the Tokaido Road' laments the 'invisibility' of the foreign artist in his adopted society, and wishes to debate the seclusion of the 'Other' from the local cultural-discussion. The Foreign Family, 2003-2004, depicts three members of a non-Japanese family performing a Vaudeville-like dance in an orange coloured room. The room has traditional Japanese characteristics such as Tatami flooring, a tokonoma corner decorated with a Kakejiku scroll depicting cherry tree blossom and a traditional natural centre beam that supports the room's construction. The space's archetypical Japanese architecture is based on my own private residence in the downtown Sendagi neighbourhood (see chapter 3.3 'Tokyo no Gaijin San'). On the right hand side of the painting, three more figures are visible, seated on the tatami floor; the centre figure of this group is dominating the painting in the lower right hand side and is facing directly the viewer. Even though the painting's total image is comical and is executed in bright colours, the painting's general 'mood' is dark and unsettling, the male family member, the father, has a despaired, beaten expression. The female wears a condemnatory expression and the little child appears defiant. The contrast between the family's comical dance and their cheerless expression is disquieting. The discrepancy between the family's late 19th century Western clothing and the Japanese setting can call to mind Edo period depictions of the Western man, a certain anthropologic like depiction which wished to portray an archetypal image of the Western phenomena. The bold figure at the painting's right corner, who stares at the viewer, contributes as well to the unsettling atmosphere of the painting, the shadows that covers his face deters the viewer from making up his mind, if the figure's smile discloses good intentions or is ill meant, the viewer feels as if he has intruded on a private gathering, as if he is witnessing a ritual of some sinister nature.

The Foreign Family is an attempt to express the sense of alienation that I have experienced during my stay in Japan. The singular racial structure of the Japanese society exaggerates the 'foreignness' of the stranger in Japan and prevents assimilation. The courteous but distancing reception of the foreigner, the difficulty of mastering the language and the behavioural codes; the different physique of the foreigner - his long limbs, nose, eyes, body odour, etc. and the frequent remarks on these features, all of these factors contribute to the ongoing sense of alienation; One is being repeatedly reminded of his 'otherness' and feels often as if on display. 'The Foreign Family' wishes to express the frustration of this continued existence as an 'Other' on society's margin, at a cultural location designated for him.
I have subtitled the series 'Graffiti' as I have recognized in my emotions some of the anger and frustration that motivates the vandal's act of graffiti, the voice of the voiceless; I was always struck by the ruthless energy of the graffiti marks that cover many big cities walls, not necessary by their artistic qualities, but by their authenticity; bold scribbles of self-designed logos or simply signatures, simple yet effective cries on city walls, in defiance of the big metropolis anonymity and the hardship of existence, cries that call, I was here! I am! In a sense, I felt the need to repeat this cry, I was in the last leg of my stay in Japan, very much aware of the little, ineffective mark I have left on a culture that has left significant marks on me. I felt that my temporal existence in Japan is soon to fade away to nothing, to be denied. I wanted to spray on Japan's cultural wall, on Japan's cultural conscious, my own scribble: I was here! I was!

Amitai Ben David, The Foreign Family, 2003-200132x162cm, Oil on canvas

Amitai Ben David, The Stone Garden, 2003-2004. 170x148 cm, Oil on Canvas.

The subject of cultural appropriation is central in the painting, The Stone Garden, 2003-2004. The painting depicts a Japanese Zen stone garden and is based on the image of a garden of Daisenin temple. The painting uses the image of the garden to explore and to demonstrate the nature of the relationship that I have created with my Japanese cultural surroundings. The decision to react to a canonized cultural marvel should be reviewed in the context of mimicry, as demonstrated in Chapter 3.2 where I have stated that Artists tend to approach their new environment by concentrating their research on local icons, artefacts of canonized nature. This choice can be explained as a strategic move which facilitates dialogue with the local culture by commenting on its cultural foundations, or in accordance with Freud and Benjamin's statements , as a manifestation of a child's mimicry, where the artist reacts against the local windmills turn, the village chief's movements. The choice of reacting against such a cultural icon in The Stone Garden has enabled me indeed to communicate with my Japanese surroundings by 'translating' into my artistic language the garden phenomenon. Stone –Garden is a 'graffiti cry' that uses the serene image of the garden to accentuate emotions that are all but serene, emotions like frustration, despair, pain and the sense of solitude. Very much like the working process of 'National Treasure', I approached the garden subject with a certain sense of awe and with the fear of 'desecrating' it. I worked on Stone Garden acknowledging that my emotional and personal manifestation within the context of the severe serenity of garden might be denounced as tactless. At times I felt as a drunken fool who climbed in his drunken daze over the scenic garden closed gate, stumbling on the garden's carefully swept grounds, singing out loud drunken songs, weeping, crying for help and fearing, yet hoping, to hear soon the salvation sound of an approaching police car's sirens.
As much as I regretted breaching the well-mannered guest behaviour codes, I felt that I ought to continue my mad conduct; my intentions were not ill meant, it was not the mere need for self expression that motivated my actions nor the wish to upset or destroy; it was and it is, the wish to communicate, to speak, and to share.

Graffiti, 2004, 100 x 150 cm, Oil on canvas

By Amitai Ben David. Extract from the doctoral dissertation: "Fruitful Incoherence; The next village, a personal expedition"
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