Kabuki and hip-hop: Corcoran presents an artist’s blending of distinct traditions

At first glance, the images portrayed in her art and dance seem incongruent, juxtaposing traditional Japanese Kabuki theater and African American hip-hop.

In one print, she paints a geisha in black face, her hair parted in intricate Afro puffs. Another print portrays a samurai in traditional Japanese dress squatting as he spins a turntable, dropping a beat.

In a performance she created and choreographed, a “dance-vogue” legend, his face painted like a Kabuki actor, strikes characteristic poses that one might see at a Kabuki theater, the traditional Japanese drama that originated in the 17th century.

Artist iona ROZEAL brown, who was introduced to Kabuki theater as a child in the District, where she was born, explores African American culture and its influences on cultures throughout the world, particularly in Japan.

“I am surfing between two worlds of ancient Japan and rap. It’s about similarities and making connections,” said Brown, 46, who presented the D.C. debut performance of “battle of yestermore” on Friday as part of the “Now Performance” series by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and College of Art and Design, which focuses on emerging artists.


a3 blackface #21, 2002, by iona ROZEAL brown. Brown explores African American culture and its influences on cultures throughout the world, particularly in Japan. (iona ROZEAL brown/Caren Golden Fine Art)

On Sunday, Brown’s “changeling tree: the forest lies about you,” an extension of the “battle of yestermore” performance, in which vogueing legend Benny Ninja, who appeared in Madonna’s “Vogue” music video, battles in a dance, will be featured in a parade at the Tidal Basin as part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. The parade will be led by hip-hop dance star Monstah Black.

The performances dramatize images displayed in Brown’s art, literally bringing characters from her prints to life on stage. The “battle of yestermore” and “changeling tree” are inspired by hip-hop, vogueing, Japanese Noh and Kabuki theater and are based on allegories depicted in Brown’s paintings, which have drawn rave reviews. Her paintings have been exhibited in “30 Americans” at the Corcoran Gallery; the Studio Museum in Harlem; the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, and “a3…black on both sides” at Spelman College.

“One of the things about her art is it is so immediately arresting,” said Sarah Newman, curator of contemporary art at the Corcoran, which recently acquired one of Brown’s paintings titled “afro.died, T.”

“You look at the painting and think you know what it is, but the more you look at it,” the more it perplexes the viewer, Newman said. You think you are looking at an African American contemporary woman, but then it turns into a geisha or a mythological figure. “It’s slipping identities, you can’t immediately locate it. There is a shock of recognition, but also a creeping strangeness. You know these people, but you don’t know them.”

The performance, which spotlights hip-hop performers Beasty, Lady Beast, Monalisa, Katie, Toko and Uko, features original music by Brown, who grew up in Prince George’s County and now lives in New York. The artist, 46, created the choreography, sound design and costumes. “The only thing I’m not doing is dancing,” Brown said.

When she was 11, Brown’s mother, a math teacher, took her to her first Kabuki theater performance, an experience that would emerge years later in her art. “I saw Bando, the actor who plays the female role,” Brown said. “We sat in seats and my mother said to me, ‘There are no female participants in Kabuki. They are all men.’ ”

Brown watched. She was overwhelmed by the brightness of the show — the costumes, the stark white makeup. But when Bando came on stage, it blew Brown’s mind.


”afro.died, T.” by iona ROZEAL brown, 2011. Acrylic, pen, ink, marker and graphite on birch plywood panel. (iona ROZEAL brown)

“I said to my mom, ‘You said there are no women!’ ”

“She said, ‘That’s a man!’ ”

“I thought my mom was wrong. I thought, ‘No way that’s a man!’ ”

Years later, while Brown worked on her master of fine arts at Yale University, she began researching Kabuki. “And obsessing,” she said. “It was one of the things that always was on my mind. It is a deep art form that is beautiful and moving. I’ve gone to Kabuki plays and I wept openly.”

In 2001 and in 2005, Brown traveled to Japan. There she saw the ganguro phenomenon, in which Japanese teenagers enamored by hip-hop darkened their skin: “One girl with black face. She had an attitude. I thought, ‘You took all of it. You have the hair, the clothes.’ ”

Brown realized the teens were only expressing themselves. “People say Japan is homogenous,” she said. “I understood why it was important to them to make people know their affiliation.”

Brown started making wood-block print images, incorporating references to hip-hop into the symbolic Japanese images. “I found a lot of similarities in the way rap is viewed today, which is this over-the-top spending of money, pouring champagne on floor, the fabulous lifestyle and late Edo,” a period in Japanese history characterized by wealth and isolationism.

A few years ago, she began examining how the images in her prints related to dance. She realized that if one were to freeze the poses in Kabuki, they would resemble the characters painted in prints, she said. The same thing could be said for vogueing, where dancers strike a pose. “The first memory I have of seeing vogue was at Tracks,” once a popular nightclub in Southeast Washington. “When I think about that time when I saw these two men vogueing . . . it was more like the first time I saw ganguro or the first time I saw a geisha.”

“I lose my mind when I watch Kabuki. I get hyped,” Brown said. “The movement is so subtle, the simple placement of a thumb. I love teeny movements. I love the transitions from one position to the final position.”

Brown hopes people walk away from the performance “wanting to know more about hip-hop, more about vogueing, more about Kabuki.”

The performance of “changeling tree: the forest lies about you” begins Sunday at 6 p.m. at the Tidal Basin (in the paddle-boat parking area).

DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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