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Sahava Baranow

Projected Identities: Displaying and gendering Japanese objects in Europe and America, 1862-2013

Projected Identities: Displaying and gendering Japanese objects in Europe and America, 1862-2013 in the Department of History


Project Overview

Japanese presence and performance at international exhibitions have long been subjects of interest for historians and art historians alike. Traditionally, however, the two disciplines have approached ‘Japan’ at exhibitions in strictly separate ways. Scholars of Japonisme have pursued an aesthetic Japan, one that served as a source of inspiration to the West. Historians, often concerned with questions of political and societal change and continuity, have scoured exhibitions for signs of Japan emerging as a modern nation state with its complex web of included and excluded groups. Taking forward insights from both avenues, I hope to bridge the gap between Japonistes and real Japan, as the West’s arrival on Japan’s shores was reciprocated Japan’s entrance into Western consciousness.

International exhibitions represented the first opportunity for Japan’s newly ascended Meiji government to showcase the kind of state it envisaged becoming and for Japanese artists, thinkers, traders, and journalists to find their place in Meiji society. Exhibitions also allowed Euro-America to experience Japan and Japanese people with a vividness previously unimaginable. The fragmentary nature of the exhibition experience, marked by encounters with novelty at every turn, meant that exhibitions eschewed the complex and contradictory makeup of Japanese reality in favour of two gendered archetypal figures on view. The geisha and the samurai became dominant anchors in the jumble of pavilions. Existing ideas about Japan’s past and present further blurred the line between a mythical feudal society inhabited by these types and quotidian life in contemporary Japan. These archetypes were persistent in their prevalence throughout the 20th century, but fluctuated in detail.

The fin-de-siècle constitutes a moment of genesis for canonical ideas about Japan, including these two archetypes. I use this temporal marker as a starting point to examine how the specific infrastructure of these ideas’ production and reproduction expanded from the epicentre of exhibitions outwards into society at large. Rather than focussing on a literary reconstruction of types, I pursue the mechanisms that allowed the geisha and samurai to grow or contract in ever-evolving political and social climates. The materiality of physical performance, tangible objects and visual representations is at the centre of this line of enquiry, wherein text appears as an accompaniment to the performers and objects exhibited.

Research interests

  • Japanese Modernity
  • International Exhibitions
  • Museums and Collecting
  • Bodies on Display
  • Gendered Objects
  • Public Opinion
  • Historical Memory and Memorialisation