by Renny Pritikin
For a quarter century, the Fine Arts Gallery at San Francisco State has emphasized exhibitions demonstrating the wealth of American diversity. The latest is the rollicking See You Space Cowboy…From Hokusai to Hiphop. The show, organized by faculty member Dr. Dawn-Elissa Fischer in collaboration with gallery curators Sharon E. Bliss and Kevin B. Chen, argues that in a vivid and urgent cultural development largely overlooked by the art world, the visual styles associated with hip-hop have forged an unbreakable chain of shared cultural references between African-American young people and their contemporaries in Japan and elsewhere in Asia and around the world.
Organized with input from students Cooper Fareira and Zaki Willis and guided by Fischer, Space Cowboy corrals strands of fashion, advertising, TV, movies, manga and anime, Asian folk mythology, Afro-Futurism, hip hop dance and music, graffiti, skateboarding, martial arts and even some drag. It’s as unruly and energetic as its youthful intended audience. It illustrates how Asian and Black youth speak to each other without asking permission from mainstream (i.e., white) authority.
The show’s title acknowledges the importance of Cowboy Bebop, a hugely influential but short-lived anime shown on Japanese television in 1998-1999 and later on Netflix. It proved too provocative for prime time in both cases, and no second seasons were proffered. The director, Shinchiro Watanabe, placed his neo-noir space Western about a futuristic team of bounty hunters in 2071. It stunned teens and young adults with its unprecedented amalgam of genre elements: sci-fi, martial arts, Clint Eastwood-style western, and hip hop, establishing the mashup style seen throughout Space Cowboy. Akira, an anime a decade older than Cowboy Bebop, about a Japanese biker gang, is another mass culture product that demarcates the origins of this aesthetic. Projected video clips lasting just seconds meld into a mesmerizing video projection to demonstrate how the motorcycle move called an “Akira slide” has been reproduced in dozens of subsequent animations (and some live action) from Spiderman to the Avengers. Video of the first African-American broadcast animation, Boondocks, illustrates the influence of samurai stylings in Black American culture as early as 2004.
The other part of the title – Hokusai – refers to the legacy of Adolph Sutro, the San Francisco Gilded Age business and political leader who amassed an enormous library largely destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire. Luckily, a third of his collection was saved because it was stored at SF State. Only recently rediscovered, it includes several books and artworks by the great 19th-century Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai, informing the origin of comix and this exhibition. Hokusai is, of course, best known for his masterpiece set of prints, Fugaku Sanjurokkei (Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji) from around 1830-32, and Kanagawa-oki nami ura (Under the Wave off Kanagawa), another print depicting hapless canoers trapped by a tsunami wave. The latter, one of the germinal art images of the 19th century, is worth a trip to SF State. During his lifetime, however, Hokusai was not considered a fine artist; his proto-comix were best sellers and thus suspect. They include non-narrative drawings of human figures and landscapes as a set of how-to-draw books whose agility and wit leaps across the intervening two centuries to connect to viewers today.
Space Cowboy is not exclusively about comix and anime; painting, drawing and sculpture also help bring the Hokusai legacy up to date. The contemporary wood blocks of Yuki Maruyama cleverly reference Japanese woodblock prints of the 19th century but are, in fact, hand-sized art objects in the form of children’s building-block toys. Each holds a black ink drawing in manga comix style, at once charming and in-your-face scatological, and can be arranged like cels from a disassembled comic to form changing narratives. Using sumi ink, charcoal and ground mineral drawings, Craig Nagasawa makes large dramatic works focused on Godzillas with human faces. One pair is shown wandering in an amorphous grey mist. Another has them feinting like wrestlers before a breaking wave, while a third depicts his family’s grocery store in Salt Lake City, the city to which the U.S. government forcibly relocated them during WWII. In this autobiographical statement, Godzilla, a stand-in for the artist, is just another lonely pedestrian passing by on the sidewalk.
Fischer, the co-curator, emphasizes the centrality of Rozeal. [sic], formerly known as Iona Rozeal Brown. Among the first African-American artists to note the hop-hop influence among Japanese youth, Rozeal. traveled to Japan in 2001, where she encountered the widespread fad called ganguro among young women who darkened their skin, lightened their hair and wore loud, eccentric clothing. Rozeal. saw this phenomenon of straddling the line between appropriation and appreciation as offensive and respectful. Her diptych, A3 blackface #36, later study (bcz dude doing double dutch’s du.), consists of two small portraits of male characters made 20 years apart (in 2002 and 2023) in the flat Ukiyo-e style. The earlier version shows him from the waist up wearing a yellow robe, sporting cornrow hair and dreads, looking to the left, while in the second, he’s bearded, darker-skinned and looking to the right. Both appear to be using Hip-Hop sign language indicating east and west, implying that while hip-hop and anime in 2002 were respectfully circling each other, by 2023, the two cultures were thoroughly integrated.
Reflecting the influence of Japanese youth culture, Daniel Acosta’s digital prints of small, cartoon-like drawings, mounted, scroll-like, four to a sheet, resemble the marginalia seen in The New Yorker or Mad, full of visual puns and anthropomorphic creatures mocking politics and consumer culture. They include Japanese text and manga imagery like a rat in the form of a slice of pizza or an oxycontin pill with a face resembling a sperm cell. Gajin Fujita, an LA artist, makes large paintings inspired by street art. Iron Heart (2000) includes Iron Man, Power Rangers, the banned Japanese rising sun flag and dense urban environments, a sharp contrast to his abstract lissome stencil drawing on view.
Academic exhibitions are typically designed to make an argument, and that can be a flaw if works are chosen solely as evidence, as in a court case. See You Space Cowboy… from Hokusai to Hiphop, by bringing serious research into subject matter that doesn’t often receive such scrutiny, avoids that pitfall. By demonstrating how race, class and internationalism intertwine, this exhibition adds further complexity to
how we understand the world, celebrating new and hybrid ways culture can be experienced. The show also demonstrates how a public university, whose student body consists primarily of people of color, immigrants and the first in their families to attend college, can stage an exhibition that reflects their interests.
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“See You Space Cowboy…From Hokusai to Hiphop” @ Fine Arts Gallery, SF State through October 26, 2023.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal. His memoir, At Third and Mission: A Life Among Artists, will be published this fall.