In his Daughters of Art History series, Yasumasa Morimura explores the tensions between East and West in Art History through performance. By presenting himself as figures in famous paintings of the Western canon, he challenges the omission of Asian artists in Art History’s pedagogy. The artist employs the technique of disidentification, a methodology that neither accepts the majoritarian nor fully rejects it. This critique becomes even more powerful considering art historians’ celebration of Orientalist works that view Asian culture as aesthetic or fashionable, but nothing more. Morimura also engages with the history of the Oriental male body in Western art: often viewed as impotent, it was contrasted with the strength and masculinity of Western heroes. Already seen as effeminate or fluid, Morimura performs gender in a way that exposes its arbitrariness. The rigid codes of gender and sexuality in Western societies are challenged and destabilized through his artwork—the artist exists in a liminal space between man and woman as well as Eastern and Western. Even though Orientalist or Japonistic work was most prominent over 150 years ago, these issues are not temporally bound; the ripples of Orientalism are felt presently in a number of ways such as yellowface, exclusion, and microaggression. Daughters of Art History may seem to be a playful role swap on the surface, but the series engages with a number of complex issues surrounding race, sexuality, and gender.
A close analysis of Western art historical pedagogy reveals a tension in which Orientalist work is included in the canon, but actual Asian artists are excluded. Students taking survey-level courses are often taught only European and American artists, thus deeming the study of Asian art a specialty field. Western artwork that appropriates Asian objects or styles, however, is included in introductory art books and classes; it would seem that Asian culture is only worthwhile after it is consumed and regurgitated by Europeans. In paintings such as Gustav Klimt’s Woman with Fan (1917-1918) and Claude Monet’s Madame Monet in a Japanese costume (1875), Japanese culture is transformed into fashion or mere aesthetic. Monet’s title suggest the kimono is nothing more than a costume and is devoid of meaning outside of his wife’s Oriental role playing. The Blooming Plum Tree, painted in 1887 by Vincent van Gogh, actually appropriates the Japanese ukiyo-e style of woodblock prints. One begins to wonder if van Gogh actually understood the script surrounding the imagery or if it served only as a formal consideration. This very tension between East and West is one of the major ideas that Morimura’s work engages with.
By transforming himself into prominent figures in Western Art History’s canon, Morimura reinserts Asian artists into Western consideration. In his earlier work, the artist’s process involves a painstaking recreation of the paintings through set design and costuming. After the advent of software such as Adobe Photoshop, he turned to digital image manipulation. Morimura’s images are instantly recognizable as their source material as a result of this verisimilitude. By utilizing familiar imagery, a wide variety of viewers are able to engage with his work. Daughters of Art History is in the tradition of postmodern appropriation art that begun in the 1980s; notably, Morimura’s work reverses the appropriation of Eastern culture by European artists. His face reappears in painting after painting, forcing the viewer to recognize what Western art has taken from Asian culture. As Paul B. Franklin notes, Morimura “remains undeniably ‘yellow’ despite his embodiment of white women.” In the 1990 photograph Daughter of Art History: Theater B, the artists applies makeup to his upper body so that he appears to be a white barmaid. The resemblance to his source material, Édouard Manet’s a Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), is uncanny. From the chest down, however, his skin is noticeably darker and retains masculine signifiers including pubic hair and a pronounced lower abdominal muscle. He still signifies Otherness, curiously existing in a state between man and woman as well as the majoritarian and minoritarian.
Morimura’s performance of race and gender are a mode of critique that José Esteban Muñoz refers to as disidentification. Muñoz writes of this term: “Disidentification is a performative mode of tactical recognition that various minoritarian subjects employ in an effort to resist the oppressive and normalizing discourse of dominant ideology. Disidentification resists the interpellating call of ideology that fixes a subject within the state power apparatus. It is a reformatting of self within the social.” This mode exists somewhere between identification and explicit rejection. Morimura recognizes the racist underpinnings of Art History’s pedagogy, but still identifies with Western art to a degree as he utilizes its imagery in his critique. The artist literally reformats himself, to borrow words from Muñoz’s definition, by dressing as women who are not of his own race or culture. He does not perform whiteness to attain it; rather, he calls attention to Art History’s racial inequality. The Situationist concept of détournement also describes how Morimura’s work functions; through détournement, the original is altered and presented in a way that creates an antithetical meaning. While the artist’s source material may uphold a history of racism, he uses them to direct attention to these very conditions. Morimura’s disidentificatory drag calls into question the overwhelming whiteness of Art History as well as its notions of beauty, femininity, and gender.
In this history of Western art, Oriental masculinity has been depicted as dubious and unstable. Men from the mythic Orient were often contrasted with Western heroes, upholding the latter’s masculinity while feminizing the former. In Frederic Leighton’s Hercules Wrestling with Death for the Body of Alcestis (1869-71), King Admetus and his associates are contrasted with Hercules. The men to the left all have dark skin, implying an Eastern setting for this interpretation. Pheres, the king’s father, is even wearing a turban. Hercules, who is notably lighter than the other men, becomes the active participant in the scene as his muscled, nude body fights off the personification of death. The other men do nothing more than look on in shock. Similarly, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa (1804) by Antoine-Jean Gros positions the emperor as a white savior. Even though they are his own soldiers, they are Othered through a noticeably darker skin tone. The light follows Napoleon and basks the other figures, suggesting his presence is akin to that of the divine. He appears to be strong and powerful in his pose, contrasting the emaciated and sick around him. It is clear that the emperor embodies true masculinity in Gros’s painting. Looking at East Asia specifically, there is a lack of masculine depiction in both Orientalist art and the ukiyo-e woodblock prints that were popularly enjoyed. Japan as a whole was viewed as feminine due to the popularity of kimonos and geishas in the European imagination—these things began to signify Japaneseness itself. Morimura plays with these associations placed upon his body as he infiltrates the history of Western art.
By showing that gender is merely painted on, Daughters of Art History reifies Judith Butler’s concept of gender performativity. In her seminal essay, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Butler outlines the aforementioned term. She writes: “Gender is in no way a stable identity of locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further, gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” Gender is ultimately illusory—it only manifests through the minute ways individuals present themselves and exist corporeally. Morimura’s work exposes Butler’s theorization through performance; by painting himself, he performs femininity just as the women he mimics do. The tension between the painted and unpainted self materializes, perhaps most spectacularly, in Daughter of Art History: Theater B. Morimura embodies both man and woman in this work, revealing a “behind the scenes” look at his performance. It becomes evident that no one “owns” gender—Morimura closely resembles the women he models his appearance after, and therefore, performs femininity just as well as they do.
The point of reference for femininity in Daughters of Art History lies in painted subjects, demonstrating that gender is a copy with no original – a simulacrum. Morimura presents himself as a copy of a copy and, through this endless sea of mimicry, the Real is lost. It may be more appropriate to say that the Real has always been illusory. As Butler notes, “Gender is, thus, a construction that regularly conceals its genesis.” One of the reasons that gender is so rigid, especially in America, is due to its unclear origin and thus is taken to be indisputable fact. Drag can help to demystify this line of thinking. For Muñoz, “The ‘woman’ produced in drag is not a woman, but instead a public disidentification with woman.” Drag queens perform hyper-femininity, not necessarily the way women actually exist and perform in their bodies. By making this perceptible, drag allows for the true nature of gender to be understood. In fact, one may argue that the depictions of women in art conform to a sort of drag femininity—through the artist’s eyes and hands, it become amplified and unattainable. Painting, both on the face and on the canvas, is methodology that uncovers the performative nature of gender.
By substituting the female figures in famous paintings with his own body, Morimura queers the relationship between viewer and art. Notably, much of the artist’s source material includes women that are renowned for their beauty and femininity. Johannes Vermeer’s the Girl with the Pearl Earring (1665) and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503-1506) are just two of such paintings that are queered through Vermeer Study: Looking Back (Mirror) (2008) and Mona Lisa in Its Origins (1998), respectively. Instead of a beautiful European women, Morimura’s audience gazes upon a gay Japanese man in drag. Many viewers, whether or not they are attracted to men, are likely to find his self-portraits beautiful nonetheless. The artist challenges the relationship viewers have with these famous painted women; they may begin to see the traits these women embody in multitudes of individuals, including men and people of color.
Morimura’s body, which is already queered and Othered because of his race, begins to break down the rigidity of sexuality and gender in Western cultures. The artist’s self-insertion is queer in its verisimilitude. Perhaps it would merely be ridiculous if it was a muscled white man in his place. This may stem from the position of the Asian male body in our visual culture, which has positioned it as already effeminate and benign. Franklin suggests that Morimura critiques the “occidental stereotypes of Asian masculinity by playing into them.” Working from this idea, the artist is able to perform femininity because Asian men can never live up to the ideal of white masculinity. The result, however, is jarring and displaces the desire attached to the most important works of Western Art History. Morimura utilizes the perception of his body to infiltrate and destabilize rigid codes of gender and sexuality. Jack Halberstam discusses the global gay discourse, the notion that Western gender and sexuality binaries are universal. He argues: “In the United States we have become far too sure about the stability and separation of various forms of gender and sexuality identity. We are too confident about the operationality of the homo-hetero binary and the male/female divide.” Morimura, as a signifier of Otherness, challenges the global gay discourse through his engagement with Western art—by temporarily performing femininity in a male body and becoming the object of the gaze, he queers the binarism that is indicative of American culture.
Though Orientalist art was most prominent during the nineteenth century, Morimura reminds viewers that these issues are not bound to specific periods of time. Elizabeth Freeman’s notion of temporal drag, which she describes as “retrogression, relay, and the pull of the past on the present,” is pertinent for understanding the work’s temporal dialogue. In this case, “drag” has a dual meaning: Morimura’s drag is temporal in that it engages with the past, but also refers to the dragging effect that history has on contemporary culture. Society supposedly becomes more considerate of difference as time goes on, but a number of instances show that little has changed. For example, Marlon Brando donned yellowface in the 1956 film the Teahouse of the August Moon. This was a very common occurrence in Hollywood cinema, especially in the period between the 1930s and the 1960s. These portrayals are hardly positive and tend to position Asians as buck-toothed simpletons with exaggerated accents. A number of microagressions are directed at Asian men and women on a daily basis, ranging from comments on their eyes to jokes about Asian women’s supposed sexual subservience. These are not neutral or harmless—microagressions are constant reminders that those who are not white are considered less than. Exclusion is one other way in which the ripples of Orientalism are felt today, such as the aforementioned omission of Asian art from Art History’s pedagogy. Daughters of Art History, in its cross-temporal dialogue and racial critique, is a reminder that issues are not bound to singular moments. Racism and Orientalism can reverberate across time. It is not always explicit or overt and often occurs in forms that are overlooked.
Daughters of Art History causes the viewer to look more closely at the historiography of Art History, revealing that it is far from neutral. Morimura self-insertion is not merely comedic, but an important methodology of disidentification. He connects with Art History to bring the omission of Asian artists to the forefront—how can one enjoy the Blooming Plum Tree but not know Hokusai or Utamaro? The artist comments on not only the appropriation of Eastern style, but the pejorative depictions of Eastern masculinity. By playing into these, Morimura destabilizes the rigid codes of gender and sexuality of the very society that deems his masculinity lesser. The most beautiful women of European art are transformed into a gay Japanese man in drag through his elaborate tableaus. This series reminds viewers that issues deemed “historical” are never really dead; rather, they echo or reemerge in other forms. Orientalism is still felt today in the form of microagression, exclusion, and yellowface among others. Art History may seem to be straightforward and unproblematic, but a close inspection reveals an agenda of racism and Euro-American supremacy. We may all be daughters of Art History, but it is dangerous to take this discipline at face value.
 Paul B. Franklin, “Orienting the Asian Male Body in the Photography of Yasumasa Morimura,” in the Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire, ed. Deborah Bright (New York: Routledge, 1996), 236.
 José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 97.
 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theater Journal 40 (1988): 519.
 Ibid., 522.
 José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 108.
 Paul B. Franklin, “Orienting the Asian Male Body in the Photography of Yasumasa Morimura,” in the Passionate Camera: Photography and Bodies of Desire, ed. Deborah Bright (New York: Routledge, 1996), 238.
 J. Jack Halberstam, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Boston: Beacon Press, 2012), 81.
 Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 62.