Saturday, 18 June 2016




Vinyl text at the entrance to A 3rd Gender (Photo: Natania Sherman)
Last week I had the privilege to attend the curator's remarks and a lecture at the ROM’s beautifully designed 3rd Gender exhibition. While I had initially thought I would write a straightforward review, the events of the past week and the fact that it is Pride Month, made me consider what kind of role museums have to play when it comes to representations of people who are often marginalized by mainstream institutions. I know that I'm not the only one having these thoughts, because Incluseum just published a post highlighting ways that museums can be more welcoming to people in the LGBT community through their reputations as safe spaces for learning. The 3rd Gender is an interesting exhibition to look at in this light because it tackles issues of culture, gender, fetishization and sexuality but does so without resorting to a one dimensional narrative.

The 3rd Gender focuses on gender ambiguity in Edo period Japan, when the country was still closed off from the western world. The exhibition discusses gender around the subject of wakashu, meaning youths, young men who had not yet reached adulthood who adopted feminine accoutrements and mannerisms to gain favour from the older merchants or samurai who were their patrons. The wakashu were considered to be great beauties and many of them were desired by both men and women, as evidenced by the many depictions of wakashu with both men, women and sometimes other wakashu in surviving ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

A painted screen in the exhibition (Photo: Natania Sherman)
In some ways, the 3rd Gender exhibition is a uniquely Torontonian exhibit in the way that it creates dialogue around both Japanese culture and the LGBT communities, reflecting the diversity of intersecting cultures in this city and the willingness of museums and their publics to be open to creating dialogue about culture, art and representation. I was pleased to learn from the curator’s remarks that the exhibition was developed with consultation from Sexual Diversity Studies here at the University of Toronto as well as LGBT2AQQ groups and the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

Without context it is often difficult to "read" the gender in the images on display. (Photo: Natania Sherman)

In minimalist muted grey with pops of bright orange vinyl text, 3rd Gender is a multimedia exhibition containing a mix of artworks, books, textiles, clothing, objects and film. That being said, I truly think it is the ukiyo-e woodblock prints that steal the show, but that may be my own background as a former printmaking major showing. I was thrilled that the exhibition included not only the prints themselves but the wooden matrices which had to be carved and then inked in order to produce the prints.

I was so excited to see the wooden blocks used to produce the prints (Photo: Natania Sherman)

The other objects that were placed in the exhibition, such as the samurai armour and hair combs, did not on their own serve to enhance the theme of gender ambiguity but, in the context of the exhibition, served to highlight and explicate some of objects depicted in the prints and their gendered qualities. It was also positive to note that the curator chose to discuss sexuality as both part of culture and culturally defined instead of playing up the more sensationalist aspects of the images on display, many of which explicitly depicted sex acts. I was surprised to learn how important elements of culture, like food and fashion, are to understanding the context of the images. For example, when looking at prints from the kabuki era, in which cross dressing was common for men and women, without the subtle cues revealed by hairstyles and accessories, it would be almost impossible to “read” the gender of the individuals depicted. Similarly images of food can reveal the setting of an image because certain foods were only served in brothels, revealing the subjects of the print to be engaged in prostitution. A quite fun element of the exhibition was the subtle humour evidenced in many of the prints and their accompanying texts. The ambiguity of gender allowed for the audience (presumably an adult male contemporary of the printmaker) to feel surprised as they read the painting from right to left and discover that the young woman is in a fact a wakashu cross-dressing for the kabuki theatre or that the characters’ surreptitious activities may have ulterior motives such as a desire for wealth or power.

Some of the objects in the ROM's 3rd Gender Exhibition (Photo: Natania Sherman)

I think if the exhibition reveals anything it is that gender and sexuality and the ways that they are expressed can be culturally formed and that although the controlled and often conservative space of the museum can sometimes sanitize the more sexual elements of historical images, it also forces the visitor to confront their own cultural bias in understanding historical depictions of same sex couples. In fact sex and gender are important ways to understand cultural hierarchies and practices, and when discussed sensitively and without sensationalism can make not only an appropriate museum topic but one that is timely and all too relevant to contemporary events.

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