Along the bottom of the posters and flyers in tiny type appeared the words: "Sick and tired of the same ol' gaijin sex fantasy? Tell me about it! Return the gaze. firstname.lastname@example.org"
In response, geisha_crossing received a number of e-mails at this anonymous address. Selected messages and my replies are linked below:
>So-called "western geisha"
>University art historian
>Journalist from Nichi Bei Times
>Japantown community member
Prompted by this dialogue + photos of the action, the local paper of record chose to cover the story, leaving the Museum with no choice but to respond:
From: "Liza Dalby"
Date: Mon, 27 Sep 2004 16:07:00 +0000
Subject: your poster
I was in Japantown this weekend and saw your clever satire on the SFAsian Art museum's geisha poster. I agree with you entirely about the fetish, which has not much to do with real geisha and everything to do with western fantasy.
When I wrote my book GEISHA, I decided not to even touch the subject of the Western fascination with these women, focussing instead on how the profession arose in Japan and why it still exists there today. But, in case you are interested, I decided to take up this question in the essay "The Exotic Geisha" that I wrote for the exhibit's catalog.
[Editor's Note: Liza Dalby is sometimes referred to as the first "western geisha," based on her experience with geisha practice in Kyoto which she performed as doctoral research in anthropology. What separates Dalby from actual geisha is the power and privilege that entitled her to study the practice with the freedom and intent to leave the profession and turn her observations into authoritative discourse, a classic modern example of the Western tradition of Orientalism.]
From: "geisha crossing"
Date: Fri, 01 Oct 2004 23:06:45 +0000
To: "Liza Dalby"
Subject: GEISHA: PERPETUATING THE FETISH
Dear Ms. Dalby,
Thank you for your response to my work. It is satisfying to learn that the poster has impacted a leading authority on looking at geisha through Western eyes.
I want to make clear that no exhibition catalogue essay, no matter how well-articulated it may be in its contextualization, can make for effective counterbalance to the real social impact that the institutional presence of the exhibit and the accompanying media saturation has in shaping cultural perceptions of Asian AMERICANS.
As I'm sure you're aware, there is agreement in contemporary scholarship that meaning is a function of context. A strong argument can be made that the promotional geisha image that blanketed the visual landscape of this city lacked adequate context to prevent it from refueling tired stereotype and ingraining said perception even more deeply into contemporary cultural consciousness.
The impact that this has on our culture has real consequences on the social conditions of people's lives. Not only does it inform how others look at Asian Americans as Others, but it also is taken inside to affect how Asian Americans look at themselves. When the posters were being distributed, the head of a community organization saw the work and immediately shared how this person's two-year old daughter walks around saying "geisha, geisha, I wanna be a geisha," and how troubling it is for this parent to hear. This is a community leader in the most progessive city in the country, unable to protect this parent's own child from the social impact of this exhibit.
The racialization of the Asian American body reinforced by this exhibit is real and deeply felt on a physical level.
I would like to ask what responsibility that those involved with GEISHA: BEYOND THE PAINTED SMILE, the curators, contributors, promoters and institution of the museum itself, take for the larger social consequences of their work, the impact that goes beyond fetishistic indulgence and culturally-based intellectual curiosity, to shape the real social conditions under which people have to live.
Very truly yours,
CC: (This e-mail will be copied to the following recipients, minus your e-mail address)
The Asian Art Museum, ATTN: Emily Sano, Director
SF Bay Guardian
Art critics/scholars (names withheld)