Making Headlines

The relentless churn of daily news can feel like a burden—especially for those who don’t see themselves represented in it.

Then

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1935

New York City

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Then

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1935

New York City

Courtesy of Library of Congress

“I am much more interested in painting women, because woman is more decorative, and I think for me to admire woman is natural,” wrote artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi in his unpublished autobiography, now preserved in the Archives of American Art. “I paint universal woman, as I dream woman should be.”

Kuniyoshi was born in 1889 in Okayama, Japan, and immigrated alone to the United States in 1906, when he was only 17. The reasons for his move are now lost to history, says Tom Wolf, a Kuniyoshi scholar who teaches at Bard College; he may have come to the US seeking his fortune, or simply an adventure. It was this early migration, as well as a love for the female form, that would inform Kuniyoshi’s work throughout his life. This includes the lithographs he produced as a member of the Graphic Arts Division of the Federal Art Project—a New Deal program for underemployed artists—several of which depicted one of his favorite subjects: female circus performers.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, the teenage Kuniyoshi took odd jobs to support himself and enrolled in a public high school, where a teacher encouraged him to pursue art. He took the advice to heart; after high school, he had a brief stint at the Los Angeles School of Art and Design before traveling east to New York. Once there, he attended the Art Students League and fell in with the Penguin Club, a group of hard-partying progressive artists. Kuniyoshi was very social and outgoing—he would complain to a gallerist early on in his career that she didn’t throw enough parties—and he fit right in with the New York art scene. Manhattan would become his home base for the rest of his life, although he would eventually split his time between the city and an artists’ colony in Woodstock, New York.

The Daily News, 1935. Yasuo Kuniyoshi / Courtesy of the Frick Art Reference Library.

Kuniyoshi’s status in the United States—that of a Japanese immigrant—was one that mainstream white America would not let him forget. In a 1937 Esquire article, he spoke with frustration of having his work constantly examined through the lens of his race: “I can’t very much be Oriental,” he told the reporter. “I have spent most of my life here. I have been educated here and I have suffered here. I am as much of an individual as anyone—except that I have Oriental blood in my veins.”

The interview was given two years after Kuniyoshi painted one of his seminal works, Daily News (1935). The women he painted were often nude or partially clothed, with exaggerated proportions that nodded to the influence of folk art. In the painting, a woman wearing only a scarf, slip, and stockings stares pensively out of the frame, clutching a cigarette in one hand and a newspaper in the other, a pose that would appear in several of his paintings in the 1930s. Kuniyoshi—who had visited Japan in 1931, as its military was invading the region of China called Manchuria—was “keenly aware of the rise of Japanese militarism and he took an explicit public stand against the policies of his native country,” writes Tom Wolf, in his 2015 monograph of the artist, The Artistic Journey of Yasuo Kuniyoshi. These women, Wolf argues, are “projections of the artist’s mental state.” Wolf suggests that Kuniyoshi may have expressed his anxiety over rising tensions in his birth country—and the subsequent repercussions for Japanese people in the United States—through the imagined bodies of women. Women who were ostensibly white and painted from white models.

In her 2015 book Making Race: Modernism and “Racial Art” in America, art historian Jacqueline Francis points out that the women in Kuniyoshi’s paintings, while appearing “white,” tend to have skin of different hues; the subject of Daily News takes on the gray tone of a nearby radiator. The painter made “whiteness strange,” she argues; these women, “reflect Kuniyoshi’s “thinking about the complexity of identity and appearances.”

Boy With Cow, 1921. Yasuo Kuniyoshi / Courtesy of the Frick Art Reference Library.
Waiting, 1938. Yasuo Kuniyoshi / Courtesy of the Frick Art Reference Library.

Kuniyoshi’s representation of female bodies was as complicated as his relationship to his adopted country. Although he was eligible to receive employment through the Federal Art Project, he could not become an American citizen; any person born in Japan was barred from becoming a legal citizen until 1952.

His stint with the Federal Art Project ended in 1937, when the WPA purged 3,167 enrollees without American citizenship. In 1941, following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were reclassified as “enemy aliens” by the US government. Kuniyoshi’s radio, camera, and binoculars were confiscated. All of a sudden, he was required to notify officials if he planned to travel even the short distance from his Manhattan apartment to his house in Woodstock.

Circus Girl, 1933. Courtesy of Library of Congress
Cafe #2, 1936. Courtesy of Library of Congress

Still, Kuniyoshi volunteered his services to the war effort, penning speeches for the Voice of America radio program and making anti-Japan posters for the Office of War Information, a government program that had absorbed many artists formerly employed by the Works Progress Administration. While an enemy alien, Kuniyoshi was allowed to create art as long as it was propaganda. During this time, Kuniyoshi created works that depicted explicitly Asian bodies, such as in the 1942 drawing Killer, or Chinese Woman Praying, in which a Japanese soldier swings his rifle at the titular woman. While his art would depict the brutality of the Japanese army, he still felt sorrow for Japanese civilians and Japanese-Americans caught in the crossfire, especially those interned in camps on the West Coast. “If a man feels deeply about the war, or any sorrow or gladness, his feeling should be symbolized in his expression, no matter what medium he chooses,” he wrote in his 1944 autobiography.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 finally allowed all immigrants, regardless of their country of origin, to apply for citizenship. Kuniyoshi wanted to apply, but it was too late: he was already dying of cancer. The artist, who had lived in the United States for more than 45 years, never filled out the paperwork. His ex-wife, Katherine Schmidt, visited Kuniyoshi on his deathbed. She later recalled that the artist was a bon vivant until the end. “He got a nurse to bring out a pint of whiskey and he had a tablespoonful and we all had a drink with him,” she told an interviewer in 1969. “He said goodbye to us.”

Then

Yasuo Kuniyoshi, 1935

New York City

Courtesy of Library of Congress

Now

Laura Kina, 2019

Chicago

Now

Laura Kina, 2019

Chicago

I selected Yasuo Kuniyoshi as my inspiration for Federal Project No. 2, creating paintings that feature female Asian American, gender nonbinary, and transgender artists responding to both our current political state and Kuniyoshi’s 1935 painting, Daily News.

Kuniyoshi was an immigrant from Japan who, despite not fully being considered “American”—he was barred from becoming a citizen for nearly his entire life—participated in the WPA’s Federal Art Project. Kuniyoshi was uneasy about the rise of militarization in Japan, and in Daily News, he portrayed his feelings toward the state of the world through a white female model. I was drawn to how he captured her mood of melancholy and despair, as she sets down the paper, contemplatively smoking a cigarette.

Waiting—Erin O’Brien Watching the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court Hearing.

On the morning of September 26, 2018, I asked six Asian American artists to photograph themselves in response to the biggest news of the day: the Senate hearings for the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had accused of sexual assault when they were both teenagers. The Kavanaugh hearing, and Ford’s testimony, magnified the #MeToo movement by throwing a spotlight on rape culture in America, as well as on the Trump administration’s endorsement of white patriarchy.

For many Asian Americans, it’s hard to separate our response to this hearing from the rage we feel about Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. The mask of white nationalism has been unveiled, and is taking up so much space in our lives. Like so many others, we’ve been exhausted by the gaslighting and the political circus.

Seiji After a Good Cry .
She Walks Amongst the Ruins—RIP Red Chador.

When the hearing was over and Senate prepared to vote, the activists Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher cornered Senator Jeff Flake while he was in a congressional elevator, on his way to cast his vote in favor of Kavanaugh, and told him about their own experiences with sexual assault. In this moment, I realized I wanted to create paintings that captured Archila and Gallagher’s raw emotions of empathy, sadness, rage, disgust, revenge, and resolve. Watching them, I found myself asking, “Who is and isn’t allowed to express anger, and what range of emotions can we publicly display?” I wanted to capture this flash point before it dissolved back into apathy, as the next wave of breaking news crashed around us.

Daily News—Aram Han Sifuentes in Her Studio.

In these paintings, I explore the power and mobilizing potential of anger for Asian American womxn to create solidarity, by portraying images of those who are usually silenced and invisible. My paintings, based on the photographs made in response to the Kavanaugh hearing, feature artists Aram Han Sifuentes, Genevieve Erin O'Brien, Maya Mackrandilal, Seiji Nakano, Jaishri Abichandani, and Anida Yoeu Ali. As O’Brien said in response to their portrait, “I feel that it’s important to show the vulnerable crumbly parts of ourselves and knowing the strong parts of ourselves are in the background.”

Sad Jaishri.

Laura Kina is a multiracial Okinawan American artist-scholar based in Chicago. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, including at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, India; Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum, Japan; Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles; and the Wing Luke Museum, Seattle, among others.

facebook lighttwitter lightemail light

Explore Federal Project no. 2

Window Shopping

Conspicuous consumption plummeted during the Great Depression, but the fantasy of big spending remains a part of the American dream.

Learn more Arrow

Making Headlines

The relentless churn of daily news can feel like a burden—especially for those who don’t see themselves represented in it.

Learn more Arrow

Child’s Play

Handmade dolls embodied marginalized workers’ desire for autonomy—and, now, the plight of children at the United States’ southern border.

Learn more Arrow

The Visible Man

Telling, and preserving, the stories that reveal what it’s really like to be black in America—from Ralph Ellison’s classic novel to now.

Learn more Arrow

The Health and Safety of the Mother

During the Depression, the government encouraged men to get back to work—and women to stay home.

Learn more Arrow

Shelter in Place

The most iconic image from the Great Depression centers on rural poverty—but then, as now, the misery of homelessness was compounded in America’s cities.

Learn more Arrow

Song of the Mississippi

Heartbreak defines the human experience. And nothing can break your heart like your own country.

Learn more Arrow

On the Factory Line

Finding moments of beauty and elegance in industrial labor.

Learn more Arrow

A Queen Is Born

A local beauty pageant can be about more than just looks. It can also reveal how a community wants to be seen.

Learn more Arrow

When Art Is an Act of Protest

A summer of activism in Chicago reminds us that in order for history to be taught, it must first be recorded.

Learn more Arrow

Hole in One

Harnessing the power of the humble hole punch, to either create narratives or deflate them.

Learn more Arrow

What’s Your American Dream?

Gordon Parks and the pursuit of happiness as a black American.

Read more Arrow

Public Service Announcements

Updating the iconic posters of the Works Progress Administration.

Read more Arrow

If You Build It, They Will Leave

During the New Deal, Southwest DC was razed to create a “model city” for federal workers. Now the area is being redeveloped again, this time into a gentrified urban playground.

Read more Arrow

Proposals for a Monument

Public art has the power to show us what we want to see—or reveal what we deserve.

Read more Arrow

A Room of One’s Own

A photograph of a home speaks volumes about the inhabitant, even when they’re not included in the shot.

Read more Arrow

Back to the Music, Back to the Game

A visit to the juke joints in the Florida Everglades where migrant laborers could go to relax.

Read more Arrow

This Land Is Your Land

During the Depression, the federal government urged Americans to visit the country’s natural wonders.

Read more Arrow

The Exquisite Catalog of a Crow Fair

Wendy Red Star brings illustrations from the Denver Art Museum’s card catalog to the Crow Nation’s annual gathering.

Read more Arrow

The American Guide to the New Vermont

Shane Lavalette follows the refugees who have made their home in the whitest state in the nation.

Read more Arrow

Stoop Life and Survival

Documenting a life of a neighborhood means covering street life in all of its joy and pain.

Read more Arrow

Hot, Wet, and Out of Control

The history of Texas’s power struggle with water.

Read more Arrow

The Afterlives of Slaves

Snapshots of a life after slavery, and an imagining of a world without bondage.

Read more Arrow

Portraits of Hard Living in America

The faces and places of a forgotten swath of American life.

Read more Arrow

She Works Hard for the Money

During the Depression, women were advised to “sing for their supper” as a way to survive hard times.

Read more Arrow

Hands Across America

Manual labor can be hard and exhausting, practical and poetic.

Read more Arrow

Wall to Wall

Public murals are contested spaces, where retellings of history and new visions of the future fight for prominence.

Read more Arrow

Sharing the Great Outdoors

Tennessee’s once-segregated parks turn over a new leaf.

Read more Arrow

Signs of Boom and Bust

Mark Steinmetz drives the streets of the city’s fast-growing urban sprawl.

Read more Arrow

After the Curtain Calls

Fulfilling the American dream of standing under bright lights while your friends and neighbors applaud.

Read more Arrow

The Many Lives of McCarren Park Pool

Beloved, abandoned, then beloved once more, a Brooklyn pool transforms alongside its neighborhood.

Read more Arrow

The People of the Land

Dust Bowl migrants had to pull up roots. Native Hawaiians are strengthening theirs.

Read more Arrow

Letting Sleeping Children Lie

Leanne Shapton reconsiders motherhood after seeing a photograph of children asleep during a square dance.

Read more Arrow

The Cycle of a Woman’s Life

A 20th-century mural for a women’s prison meets 21st-century inequality.

Read more Arrow

More Federal Project No. 2