BY: NATANIA SHERMAN
|Vinyl text at the entrance to A 3rd Gender (Photo: Natania Sherman)|
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)|
|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.