Harajuku, Tokyo 2014 (Courtesy of Asha Veal Brisebois)
Harajuku, Tokyo 2014 (Courtesy of Asha Veal Brisebois)
February 27, 2017

Asha Veal Brisebois: "The Tokyo Show: Black Is Beautiful"

While visiting Tokyo in 2014, Asha Veal Brisebois (MA 2017), MA candidate in Arts Administration and Policy, came across a sub-culture of young people who dress like black American hip-hoppers. Three years later, she is presenting her MA thesis project The Tokyo Show: Black Is Beautiful. We sat down with Brisebois to discuss exhibition-making in an international context, intercultural communication, and arts geographies and communities.


Solomon Salim Moore (SSM): What would be one take-away you want somebody who didn’t know about the work you’re doing to know?

Asha Veal Brisebois (AVB): Over the past year and a half within SAIC’s Arts Administration and Policy program—and also spending time in the Art History department —two of the areas that I’ve focused on most for class projects and also individual research, are arts organizations in society and also experimental curatorial practice. So looking at the way that different arts organizations, globally, function not only as part of the art world—but also their local context. Politically, socially, economically, art historically, and even in the building or contributing to the identity of a region.  

I found a description recently in some research, and again this is not my own phrasing, but I saw it and felt it so definitely and succinctly summed up the way I’ve been thinking and the position that I’m coming from in collaborating on and building projects. This thinking about curatorial practice “in terms of its potential to rewrite power relations and cultural values” while working within “public culture.”

SSM: Is that kind of the meat of what you’re trying to get at, to rewrite power relations? Tell us more about how your research began.

AVB: In general, this wanting to encourage large groups of people to think differently about issues such as race and gender, began for me in the studying and work that I did before coming to SAIC. I suppose that my goal is to always try to present and make space for alternative options to dominant narratives or hegemonies. I believe that if presented with a possibility that they hadn’t considered before, peoples’ perspectives can grow and it’s a way to encourage new thought. I don’t necessarily feel that there’s an ultimate point I’m trying to prove, although I definitely have an agenda. Again, part of my goal is to invite people to ‘think along with me…’ in a way that’s compelling, and then have their own thoughts and draw their own conclusions.

My thesis is called, “The Tokyo Show: Black is Beautiful.” It is a multi-site exhibition of Black American Art, and public programming with black American artists, that will take place later this year in Tokyo, Japan. I had the initial thought for this thesis project in 2014, when I went to Tokyo for the first time. I came across a fashion subculture, a music subculture, of people — mostly I believe in their twenties and early thirties, who would dress like black American hip hoppers. I thought it was interesting. Often in Chicago when people talk to me about this, the first question I get is, ‘Do you think that’s cultural appropriation?’ But that’s not the first thing I felt.

I was there the same time that Mike Brown and Darren Wilson were once again in the news. Maybe it was just how I was feeling, but I thought it was interesting to see a group of people saying ‘black is beautiful’ through the expression of their own bodies. It’s not even that they put on clothes only. They died their skin deep, they crimped their hair. I don’t necessarily know that it’s a political choice or a political physicality, but again, in America, and even in most countries where you have people with a variety of skin tones, not everyone believes that black or deep skin tones are beautiful. It’s not necessarily societally advantaged in the same way that light skin might be, right? We can just be honest. But on that first trip to Tokyo, I went to one shop, it’s called Baby Shoop. This place is part of a corporation, so obviously they have a corporate model. They’re selling fashion so they are not necessarily coming from the same place I might be coming from politically. But to me, to see some of the young women there wearing shirts that said “Black is beautiful…Love, Protect, Respect” really moved me.

SSM: How did you take your experiences from Japan to develop your thesis?

AVB: Having a background as a writer before coming to SAIC, I used ask myself: How do I document something into a writing or editing project? Through being in the Arts Admin program, I now come from a wider position, and seek wider partnerships, forms, and collaborations.  It’s something that I’d started to do a bit, and what made me want to apply to SAIC. And now it’s definitely solidified in my thinking, and expanded.

So if we go back to that quote about power relations and public culture… With Black is Beautiful, my wider thought was how do we—thinking about something like white supremacy, or images of beauty—how do we disrupt that conversation, or disrupt that global narrative. And after seeing and thinking about the “b-stylers” in Tokyo, although that’s not the essence of my project, it made me feel like there could be an interest there. So, my project is bringing black-American art by emerging artists and established artists into different spaces, and also building a resource or object catalogue of black American contemporary art that can stay there in Tokyo permanently and be accessible. So there’s the immediacy of exhibition and programming, and then also this permanency and hope that dialogue and arts exchange might continue on both sides. I’m hoping to construct and have all of the materials for Black is Beautiful available bilingually in English and Japanese.

SSM: Some academics will say that your thesis is a path of exploration — you’re making an argument, but you’re also arriving from an idea to a conclusion and when you start you don’t know where you going to end up. What is one unexpected lesson you’ve learned through working on your thesis so far? 

AVB: One lesson, is that I initially thought I was doing an exhibition project, not a research paper. But then on the ground in the city, arranging and going for meetings, I realized that I was also seeing and being invited into tour many vastly different types of art spaces and organizations, in different districts. I was becoming aware of the arts and cultural landscape of a city. That in itself was a particular and—although it seems obvious now—an unexpected part of the work and experience. That could have been its own individual research topic, and a full thesis paper. 

Another lesson, more personally, was realizing I need to up my game in Japanese language learning. I can count 1 to 20 in Japanese because I learned this when I was five, but I don’t know any other words besides ‘thank you.’ When I go back to Japan later this year, I clearly will not be fluent or even intermediate, but I realize I need to at least show up with an improved level of language competency. This is also the same with needing to know more about Japanese art history. I haven’t taken classes on the subject at SAIC, and I’m obviously not going to be an expert when I’m back in Japan later, but I need to have reached a different level of competency. So that’s independent work I’ll most likely be doing this summer.