If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Masami Teraoka, American Kabuki

Creating beauty from the heartrending tragedy of the AIDS crisis. See learning resources here.

Masami Teraoka, American Kabuki (Oishiiwa), 1986, watercolor and sumi ink on paper mounted on a four-panel screen, 196.9 x 393.7 x 3 cm (de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), © Masami Teraoka Seeing America video Speakers: Emma Acker, Associate Curator of American Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Steven Zucker.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    Alongside the painting as it is displayed in the museum, is there an English translation of the inscriptions? Lacking that, I would find it difficult to even approach an appreciation of what is done here other than seeing the craft in it.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

(upbeat piano music) - [Steven] We're in the photography studio in the de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Looking at a Japanese screen, but this screen is from the late 20th century. - [Emma] By a Japanese-American artist named Masami Teraoka. - [Steven] And what this screen does so well is to mix both Japanese and American cultural traditions. - [Emma] Here, Teraoka is addressing this burning topic of his day, the AIDS pandemic that in 1986 was at its height. - [Steven] It's hard for us to remember just how terrifying this moment was. By the time we get to 1986, 10s of thousands of people had died, and there was almost no political will in Washington to confront and address this pandemic. - [Emma] Masami Teraoka was inspired to create this work by the story of a friend, who confided in him that her infant had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. And so this became the springboard for Teraoka to universalize and humanize this, at the time, highly politicized crisis. And he talked about wanting to confront the universality of this issue, to show that it was a global health crisis that affected people from all walks of life. So he takes this highly personal, individual tragedy and opens it out onto these much larger social and political issues. - [Steven] And he brings to bear a full arsenal of Japanese art history to tell this story. - [Emma] It's this very traditional, four-panel folding screen format. It draws on the tradition of woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, from Edo period Japan. The title American Kabuki, Kabuki refers to a traditional theatrical form that was widely accessible and popular. Kabuki incorporated both overt erotic content and sometimes very covert political content. - [Steven] And that's because Kabuki theater was highly censored. Representing contemporary events had been outlawed, and so people used historical events to refer to contemporary corruption and other stories that needed to be told. But any sense of sensuality has been overwhelmed by this sense of tragedy, of frantic terror that we see in the woman's face. She clutches her child, you can just make out the back of the child's head, and her wild despair. - [Emma] Look at her wind-blown hair, her hollow-eyed stare. These nebulous forms that represent the spirits of deceased AIDS victims mirror the forms of her hair. She rises up out of this surging wave. - [Steven] The crest of the waves are almost like fingers that want to pull her down. - [Emma] You can almost see the waves as skeletal fingers of death. And the artist actually referred to them as creeping fingers. And we think of artistic precedence and inspirations, Hokusai's The Great Wave, which shows this tiny boat that's about to capsize. And here the wave represents this tidal force, this tsunami of destructive energy that the AIDS epidemic was reeking on the world stage. Look at her blackened teeth. This was a convention for showing that a woman was married in the Edo period. But here it takes on darker associations when combined with the lesions that we see on her forearm, and her forehead, and her cheek, which show that she's already suffering from the symptoms of AIDS. - [Steven] In Kabuki theater, that green-blue eyeshadow is a representation of the ghostly, of fear. And so he's drawing on these symbols that are 200 years old. And even the calligraphy is based on a historical calligraphy that was used in advertisements for Kabuki plays. We have the large narrative that unfolds before us, but we have it also in microcosm, in the lower right corner, where we see a frigate bird who seems like he's about to attack two mating fish just below. And here this black bird seems so menacing. - [Emma] And frigate birds are known for stealing fish from the mouths of other birds. You could say in a sense that this bird represents this stealing or the extinction of life. And there's this tension between the cycles of life and fertility, represented by the fish, and then this menacing, predatory bird. I think this is mirrored in the conflict between this very luminous full moon, which the artist said for him was a symbol of hope and of the cycles of life and rebirth, but it's overshadowed by these menacing black storm clouds that dominate the horizon. - [Steven] And I'm taken with the calligraphic, almost signature-like lines that define the folds of her kimono. Throughout this image we have this confrontation between beauty and tragedy. - [Emma] You almost have the sense that you're watching a blockbuster movie, with the central drama unfolding before your eyes. The inscription paints a beautiful picture of the scene. In the evening, the clouds are very turbulent, storm-bearing. The sound of the waves is loud and black clouds are beginning to spread over the shoreline. As the evening wears on, the full moon is revealed by the parting of the clouds. Suddenly a cry is heard, "Help us!" "Help us!" It is so faint that the audience is uncertain whether they heard a voice, or if it is only the sound of the waves. (upbeat piano music)