For as long as she could remember, Iona Rozeal Brown had been in search of the ideal Afro: a ’do both neatly scissored and picked out to a magnificent height, with a subtle gloss independent of oil sheen. After nearly giving up hope, the 37-year-old painter stumbled upon follicular perfection three years ago. And the Afro of her dreams, it turned out, was hiding inside a small store in Osaka—on the head of a young Japanese man.
“I was born with kinky hair, and I can’t get the perfect Afro,” Brown says. “But he had the perfect Afro! I’m out there, it’s summer, my bush is looking like ush. As vain as I am, I’m thinking, His bush looks better than mine. I said, ‘I gotta get a picture.’”
Brown handed her camera to the shopkeeper and signaled to the man that she wanted him to pose with her. He walked over to her and immediately threw up a peace sign. Tickled, Brown responded by jestfully flashing the East Coast hand sign—raising her pointer finger, pinkie, and intertwined middle and ring fingers and holding them to the side to form an “E.”
“My man looks up to see what I’m doing,” Brown recalls. But instead of holding up four fingers, he flashed only three. “He’s probably thinking that’s something. I said, ‘Poor baby.’”
That well-coiffed but befuddled youngster was just one of the many hiphop-obsessed teenagers Brown encountered during a 2001 trip to Asia, which she took after her first year at the Yale University School of Art. Some of the kids she met were truly into the music, but more often Brown found folks interested in only the trappings—the hair, the shoes, the clothes, the diamonds, the posturing.
“In Kona, it’s everywhere,” she says. “Rocawear—FUBU! I’m like, Wait a minute—For Us, by Us? But it’s made in Korea, so maybe you do get to wear it. I went into the FUBU store and asked the lady who was working there where I could see a hiphop show. She walked over to a rack of clothes and said, ‘Hiphoppa.’”
For Brown, the experience wasn’t exactly unexpected. A few years before, she had read the late Joe Wood’s essay “The Yellow Negro,” which explores the Japanese ganguro subculture. In addition to acquiring clothing and hairstyles they associate with black culture, the ganguro use makeup or visit tanning salons to keep their skin artificially dark.
“I saw the photos and was like, What?!” the artist recalls. “I had three reactions. The first was, Oh, OK. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. That was short-lived. The second was, Hey, wait a minute! The third was, Why? Don’t they know how difficult it is to be black?!”
By the time Brown left for Asia, she had already begun work on a series about the ganguro phenomenon. Rendered in the style of Edo-period ukiyo-e prints, the paintings depict geisha, samurai, and other traditional Japanese subjects. But Brown’s figures sport cornrows, diamond pendants, and Burberry bikinis. They spin records, watch rap videos, and smoke weed. And they all have artificially brown skin, except for around their hairlines, where their natural complexions are visible.
“Things bother me about the commercialization of hiphop,” says Brown. “People aren’t getting any closer….Everybody’s looking and dressing alike, but it doesn’t mean we’re on the same page.
“It’s like Greg Tate said—they have everything but the burden,” she adds. “You’ve put it all on except for the burden. They can wash it off. We’re black forever.”
“Hi! I’m trying to figure out how to say ‘Rocawear’ in katakana.” Brown is standing in her work space near the new Washington Convention Center. Pieces of paper are taped to the walls, and little jars of paint sit on a dropcloth spread over the floor.
Brown wants to put a Rocawear logo on the hat of one of the figures she’s painting, so she pores over a page of characters written in the Japanese script used to render foreign words and phrases. She knows that the characters ra and ka can represent “Roca,” but she needs to figure out how to say “wear.” She has already decided that fu-re-shu will work for “fresh” and na-ta ni-ga-ro can stand in for “not a Negro.”
Hanging beside two ganguro pieces she’s finishing up are sketches for her newest series, which is based on Japanese shunga—erotic prints depicting figures with sometimes freakishly enlarged genitalia. The new work will appear in three upcoming shows in New York and Los Angeles, as well as at 14th Street NW’s G Fine Art in October.
“This is fetishism as it extends to black men,” Brown explains. “It addresses the music videos, Nelly and Snoop doing porn, the gangsters-getting-it-on thing.”
One shunga piece nearing completion features two ganguro going at it. The woman, her nipples covered by a teeny bikini top, is wearing an open shirt patterned with a symbol that Brown says loosely translates as “Can’t tell the original from the fake.” She is astride a scowling man with an enormous brown penis.
“They both have cornrows, and they’ll both be blinged out,” Brown says. “I’m waiting for the day when I put some bling on this,” she adds, smiling and patting the gigantic engorged dick.
Though Brown’s work depends to some degree on shock value, G Fine Art Director Annie Gawlak says that its “many layers” are what initially attracted her to it. “It’s interesting the way that other cultures appropriate African-American culture,” she says, “especially cultures you wouldn’t assume would identify with African-Americans or African-American culture. It’s interesting the way this happens, and has been happening for generations—Mondrian’s [Broadway] Boogie Woogie is about his fascination with boogie-woogie.”
Like the Dutch abstractionist, Brown is a relative latecomer to the art world. She was an art hobbyist while growing up in Chillum, Md.—she still lives in her childhood home and paints on an easel she’s had since the age of 3—but she realized that painting could be a full-time job only in the late ’90s.
“I’m glad this gift didn’t get taken away,” she says of her skill with a paintbrush. “I used to play guitar—I forgot how to read music. But art held on—‘Don’t forsake me! I’m the one you want!’”
After earning a degree in kinesiology from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1991 and trying her hand at a variety of careers, Brown turned to art at the urging of her mother. She graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 before heading off to the Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture that summer and Yale that fall.
Brown’s earlier work was also Asian-inspired, concerned with courtesans and geisha and female sexuality, but after her trip to Japan, the ganguro series became her focus. She hopes to make it back overseas in December, but in the meantime, she relies on memory and Japanese hiphop mags procured from New York.
She opens up one such glossy, called Woofin’, and turns to a page of young Asians dressed in full hiphop regalia. Brown has decided to use the asymmetrical ’80s hairstyle of one of the teens, a female MC named Michico, in a new ganguro painting.
“I give people credit for having style,” she says. “If it’s fly, it’s fly. But did you go too far? Ya might have.”
Brown understands what it is to have extreme admiration for another culture. Her mother started taking her to see Kabuki theater when she was 10, and her artwork and travels have only heightened her curiosity about all things Asian. She is tattooed with Mandarin characters, likes the music of Tokyo garage-pop trio the 5,6,7,8’s, and speaks passionately about the film Ran.
“I’m not Asian,” Brown says. “It’s easy for me to see that, but I can appreciate everything. I recognize that their culture is bigger than wearing a kimono. Just because I do tai chi doesn’t mean jack. But people look at black culture as something they can take on and become.”
And Brown recognizes that she lives in a more heterogeneous society than the ganguro. “There’s no context for them to understand that, on some level, it’s wrong….It’s their form of osmosis,” she says. “There isn’t a great influx of blacks, so I guess they’re saying, ‘It’s up to us’—I’m assuming.”
Still, the artist worries that such considerations can get lost in the ganguro work. So to ensure that her focus isn’t completely on Asian–African-American relations, Brown also paints what she calls “WOIMS,” or Weapons of Irresponsible Mass Spending—little eyeless worms that are the literalized leeches of hiphop culture.
“Besides liking how they look, they take the weight off of the ganguro, because it’s not about them ultimately,” explains Brown. “They’re the conduit between the ganguro and the hiphop stuff. If you’re in Japan, all you have [to teach you about black culture] are TV, magazines, videos. The WOIMS are the ones who get it twisted and distorted.”
Brown has pieces depicting WOIMS fighting over a Burberry scarf, getting squashed as they try to pour a bottle of Hpnotiq into a glass, and eating chunks out of a B-boy as they attempt to “bite his style.”
“It’s comical because I’m guilty, too,” Brown says. “I have one piece where they’re all around this iPod—consumers about to dive in. After I finished it, I bought an iPod. So I have no room to talk. I’m gluttonous, too….I have ideas, but I don’t know the solutions.”
Still, Brown hopes that she can at least use humor to make serious subject matter palatable. “I like being funny but smart,” she says. “Like Pryor or Carlin—they’re smart. And Dave Chappelle. I know everybody is talking about him, but I love him. I love that he’s from here, and I would love him to buy a piece of art.”
But recalling that Chappelle is married to an Asian woman, Brown has to wonder how likely it really is that the reigning king of comedy would become a celebrity collector.
“OK, maybe he won’t,” she says, laughing. “But you never know. I get all sorts of reactions to the work. You never know.”CP