- Minor Transnational Inter-Subjectivity in the People’s Art of Kitagawa Tamiji
The Japanese painter Kitagawa Tamiji’s (1894–1989) unique transnational idea of people’s art originated in New York,1 where he was a migrant worker and a student at the Art Students League (1916–20), developed gradually over the years of his career in the midst of the well-known muralist art movement in post-revolutionary Mexico (1921–36), and matured during the remainder of his long life in Seto, Japan. Kitagawa’s concept of people’s art represents the expression of the people’s subjective power and is grounded in local grass-roots activities. In his later years, in the 1970s, Kitagawa expressed his adherence to people’s art as the “philosophy of a grasshopper” (batta no tetsugaku), a phrase that he repeated as a sort of personal motto.2 For Kitagawa, the grasshopper or locust (batta) served as an alter ego. In pre-Columbian Mexico, the grasshopper (chapulin in Nahuatl) was associated with a mythical tribal totem, which explains the name of the prominent site Chapultepec Hill (Grasshopper Hill) in Mexico City, historically an important locus of political power. Although individual grasshoppers are small, Kitagawa explained, they migrate, and “swarms of grasshoppers damage crops in the fields, and can cause famine.”3 He likened art to a grasshopper because art is not only pleasurable and beautiful, but also contains the hidden power of becoming a formidable enemy. Kitagawa’s idea of people’s art appears throughout his numerous essays and is further articulated in the recollections of his avid supporter, the art critic, collector, and collaborator for children’s art education, Kubo Sadajirō (1909-96).4 This article investigates how Kitagawa’s cross-cultural experiences enriched his idea of people’s art and added complexity to his artistic expression after he returned to Japan in 1936. Focusing primarily on Kitagawa’s work following his departure from Mexico, I wish to highlight connections to the artist’s earlier Mexican experiences in order to provide a post-colonial perspective on transnational art. Toward this aim I have borrowed the concept “minor transnationalism” from the comparative [End Page 266] literature scholars Francoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih, as introduced in their Minor Transnationalism (2005).
This concept of a “minor transnationalism” proposes a transnational perspective through horizontal studies of relationships among minor-peripheral cultures rather than the normative vertical studies of relations between a major-center and minor-cultures on its periphery. Lionnet and Shih argue that their approach allows one to look at cultures being “produced and performed without any necessary mediation with the center,” giving insight into “less scripted and more scattered” phenomena that occur across “different and multiple spatialities and temporalities.”5 Thus, dialogues between multiple minor spaces allow the periphery to develop self-awareness and self-critique. Lionnet and Shih note a level of commensurability and effectiveness in revolutionary philosopher Franz Fanon’s attempt to carry his argument well beyond the center’s self-critique. Fanon reworked the Hegelian or Sartrean critique of alienation into a context for the minor culture’s struggle for national and cultural autonomy and worldwide racial equality. The term “minor’” is not used in a pejorative sense here, but positively to provide scholars the freedom to look at the fluid production of art beyond the normative study frame of Western art verses non-Western art. This essay treats Mexico and Japan as “minor” and non-Western, in terms of the art they produce, as nations that searched for modernity and an identity under the overwhelming power of Western art. Kitagawa’s art provides an interesting case of a minor transnationalism operating between Mexico and Japan. By focusing on Kitagawa’s minor transnational connections, this essay also questions the way we look at modernities of non-Western art, which are normally studied as phenomena of reception and appropriation of Western art within a fixed framework of center-periphery cultural relations.
Kitagawa Tamiji was born in Shizuoka in 1894. In 1914, at the age of 20, while a student at Waseda Preparatory College, he emigrated to Portland, Oregon in the United States where his brother lived. He moved to...