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The Agony of Okinawa: Mao Ishikawa’s “The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū” – Q&A with Dr Ayelet Zohar

The Sainsbury Institute was delighted to welcome Dr Ayelet Zohar, President of the Japan Art History Foundation (JAHF), current visiting scholar at the Sainsbury Institute, and Senior Lecturer at the Art History Department, Tel Aviv University, to give our 250th Third Thursday Lecture. Focussing on the work of Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa, the talk explored Ishikawa’s practice through both her documentary and staged photography, with a particular focus on her latest project The Great Photographic Scroll of the Ryūkyū. Following a lively Q&A session where we ran out of time to answer all the questions submitted, Dr Zohar kindly returned to the unanswered questions for which you can read the answers below.

Please contact for all questions relating to the recording of the talk.


Q: You mentioned about the format and its connection to cinema film, but I wonder what kind of material the artist used to create the scroll by using the photographs?

A: Printing machines use rolls of paper, so each scroll is a full roll of paper. The industrial size of it is 30 metres long and one meter wide. [Mao] just takes the full scroll, and she prints it with the images – [this is] interesting when we think about a scroll in the traditional sense as a continuous image. It’s smooth, like it is in film – although in film we have 24 frames per second, which creates the sense of smooth movement, but still, it is really “frame by frame”. In this sense, Mao’s scroll stands in between the traditional scroll, which is a physical paper length of image, and the idea of “frame by frame” that creates the continuity.

The way she creates her scrolls is by putting a sequence of frames one after the other, not necessarily obeying time order. Some of [the photographs] are put arbitrarily during the time she created the image, some of them are documentary. As you saw in the later images, she took photographs of the demonstrations in Nago and she incorporated them [into the scrolls], she took pictures of families – [in the scrolls] it’s not all staged photography. Most of [the scroll] is staged photography, but there are also sections where she just incorporated the community that was working with her into this. It’s not like a sequence of events like Sesshu’s scrolls where we go from spring to summer, from summer to autumn etc, and we have a clear advancement of time, or often when we watch a film, where we see some sort of time sequence. Here, it’s completely distorted in the sense that she puts different things in one scroll, and keeping the frames also activates it as in-between a scroll and cinema. Or, as I mentioned, video art is possibly a better reference. Video art plays with the idea of a narrative quite freely, [whereas] cinema mostly is a narrational art – we watch a film, we listen to a story, we follow a certain sequence, so it’s a development. Video art is mostly more fragmented and less committed to telling the story in a sequential manner, so in this sense I find [Mao’s] scrolls to be kind of a step beyond photography towards the language of video. The fact that it is printed and it is a physical object in space makes it closer to photography per se, as an object rather than video art, which is obviously screened and intangible.

Q: Ishikawa Mao is one of the few artists who has directly criticised the Japanese government and the US military base at Henoko. In contrast, most Okinawan artists have tended to refrain from making overtly political statements.  For many years, it seems that she didn’t make much of an effort to reach international art audiences, and her art has ended up being aimed mainly at Okinawans. But for the past decade, she started showing interest in reaching out to international audiences. Do you know the reason for this? Is ‘Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll’ her turning point? What environment and situation made her acknowledge outside of Okinawa?

I call Ishikawa Mao ‘Mao’ because I have known her personally for many years, I’ve visited her several times, and as I said, unfortunately, she’s very ill at the moment. My sense first of all is, if you take the very first series she did when she was 20, referring to the Afro-American GIs, that she was part of this group – America is on her mind from this very early point. It’s not that she turned her practice to look into and try to address foreign audiences recently – I don’t think this is the case. Mao has been looking into this complex relationship of, on one hand, the American military controlling Okinawa and as an imperial colonial force, and then, on the other hand, she is very much aware of the kind of people she befriended. She has a very interesting book called Life in Philly when she went to the poor parts of Philadelphia and took some impressive documentary photographs of her boyfriend and his family. You probably also noticed, during the pictures that I’ve shown, that she had an Afro hairstyle when she was in her twenties, so it was a complete way of identifying with the African American cause as a way of expressing these marginal groups – the Okinawan group and the Afro-American group. Both groups [were] marginalised by their main culture so I think her starting point was that she experienced this. There is a mainstream, and there are also the margins – being on the margins [herself], she could identify the margins of American society as well.

I think that Mao is a very kind of direct person. She is, in this sense, very critical, and in her speech, in her presence, in her actions, she never saves you from being confronted by uncomfortable facts. She’s very direct in this sense, and in my experience, the shift in style [when] she moved from documentary photography to staged photography in the 1990s has very much to do with what was going on in the Japanese scene all of a sudden in the 1990s. A lot of women photographers became very central, while in the 1970s, you have the Provoke, or before that, even the VIVO [group] in the 1960s and 1970s which was controlled by men. The word for a photographer in Japanese was カメラマン (Kameraman), and there wasn’t even a word for camerawoman. [The scene] was absolutely dominated by this group of Moriyama Daidō, Tōmatsu Shōmei, and their peers, and then the younger generation and women photographers started to be part [of this].  Miyako Ishiuchi is also an interesting case – slightly older than Mao, she was born 1947, but she also was studying with Tōmatsu, and she became a prominent photographer. She was taking a lot of photographs in Yokosuka, which is another American base in mainland Japan, just near Yokohama.

In the first place, I think that [Ishikawa’s] encounter with Tōmatsu directed her to look into this relationship between American soldiers and Okinawan girls in this Nan Goldin-esque style – that she was part of the group, and she was photographing from within. I remember when I saw this book for the first time in 2007, it blew my mind because there was something so direct, so unpretentious, so touching in the way she presented this group, that you could not stay unmoved. It was a very moving project, and she caught the attention of many in America and in Europe later on – probably not in Japan, because she presented something that was very critical towards the mainstream position of Japanese government. Once you realise that there was this attention to her views from American and European audiences, she could carry on, and move forward, and not as exploited. I find in this question a kind of attitude that probably questions the motive of Mao in gaining fame, or of gaining the attention of foreign audiences, while for me it’s the opposite way [in that] she was actually telling some very difficult situations she was facing. She could find the ear [for this] not in Japan, but outside Japan.

As I said, the shift in the 1990s, and then the photographic scroll of the recent decade, are part of her attempt to become part of what is going on in contemporary Japanese photography, where the shift is very evident from documentary to staged photography, from black and white to colour, etc. She wanted to stay relevant, and I think that in this sense she’s very successful.

Q: Could you please share your knowledge about the reception of US audiences when she published ‘Red Flower’ (2017)?

A: [Mao]’s been showing her work in several museums and galleries, but I’m not sure about the exact reception of American [audiences] only – I don’t know how you measure that, and how you can actually articulate that. The fact that she has several exhibitions probably says that there is interest in her work in different bodies that consider contemporary art in America.

Q: I have a question on the aesthetics of photography. You mentioned how Mao’s image formulates intimacy between the viewer and the viewed. On top of intimacy, I’m curious to know if we can also see gender and race dynamics, specifically in the photographs of women and the US GIs? I’m wondering how we should think of the effect of intimacy and gender and racial dynamics together.

Thank you very much for this question. I think it’s also fair to keep an eye on the two methods that Mao was working on. For the first two decades, she was doing documentary photography, directing her camera to the collaborators, to participants, to her friends, in a very direct way. She’s taking a photograph from within, very much against the traditions of documenting, or going to foreign lands, or documenting others. She’s part of the group, so intimacy is built into her practice because she’s actually sort of directing the camera around herself, to herself, and in some cases, exactly towards herself [as] she’s part of the images. It is the camera from within that creates the intimacy. This is why [Mao] is compared to Nan Goldin, because Nan Goldin was also a part of a group of addicts and partygoers [that she photographed]. I am not so familiar with Nan Goldin’s practice, but in Mao’s case she was also a hostess in Koza. She was working in this scene, and these are her friends, and she’s looking at them.

In Life in Philly, the project she created in Philadelphia, she goes to visit her boyfriend and his family, and their close friends and relatives, and people just allowed her to go into their rooms and showers and flats, and she just takes pictures with these people who connect with her in a very direct manner. In this sense, I think the intimacy is also growing from Mao’s very direct personality [from which] she creates these direct sorts of friendships, and people allow her to get into their bedroom or into their bed, and she’s taking the picture from within.

In the [practice of] staged photography, the second part of what I’ve shown here – What The Flag Means To Me, and the scrolls, [Mao] creates this intimacy by her contact with the protagonists. She’s not the official photographer, or the ‘genius photographer’ who comes and gives orders – ‘you do this, and you do that, and you’re just a statist in my image’ – she’s actually giving her protagonist the possibility to bring their ideas, their pains, their complaints, their histories, their memories, and to stage it. [Mao] initiates the project, she tells them what she wants – like in the flag [project], she said, ‘take a Japanese flag and do something with it’, in the second project she said, ‘what do you remember? What does your family remember? What is a significant event in the history of Okinawa that you want to stage?’ – and then they plot something, they create something, and they stage something, and [Mao] comes in the end and takes the picture. We say it is Mao Ishikawa’s project, but we need to be more sensitive in this sense, and to see that it’s a collaborative project. Mao works with the community, [and] Mao works with a group of people, so the intimacy is there because she puts herself as part of the community. [Mao] doesn’t try to put them as people who perform her ideas – she’s initiating the idea, or taking the picture, or preparing the final image, but it’s not her own project in the sense that they are all part of this collaborative project. [The participants] are the people who initiate certain actions. This is why she took pictures of the demonstrations in Nago just in front of Camp Schwab, the American base – these people are there every day for the past two decades or so, so she just came and took their picture. In this sense, she’s a documentary photographer. The added value that makes it Mao’s project is the fact that she arranged it in the scroll, in the way she displays it, that she initiated [the project]. There is a certain input, but it’s also a collaborative project – I think this is a very important element.

As for the gender element, when we look at the documentary projects, it was very important for her. It’s not even just gender, it’s gender and sexuality – the pictures taken in Camp Hansen were charged with this kind of youthful, erotic atmosphere of people, of men and women being attracted to each other, spending much time in bed, and enjoying this kind of physicality, sexuality, of being together. It’s also very obvious there that a lot of the women did curls and got their hair to be just like Afro style, and they identify with the position of their boyfriends, of their lovers, and of the people in their lives. They position themselves in [their lovers’] context, and also a lot of the men are photographed undressed with the upper part of their shirt open, kind of showing off – it’s very bodily. It’s a very physical series in my mind, showing this joy of sex, or joy of the flesh, or of the body. The series of the port workers she did several years later in the 1980s is also gendered, but in the sense that it shows the margins of the margins. The group [she photographs] is even outside Okinawan society – Okinawan society is outside Japanese society, [and] the group of port workers is outside this. It is like the rock bottom of the class system that you can imagine within Japanese society, and it is defined by these single men – there’s no women there. [Mao] has another group of women who are like initiate shamans, and they do all kind of spiritual rituals and things like that. In this particular [port] group I presented, it’s about disempowered men, men who have nothing, and by putting the camera and paying attention to them, [Mao] brings back the possibility for this group to become present, to become someone, to present their position, to present their reality in a way, although they are pushed into the margin in a very cruel way. Gender here is not what we normally expect, [with] powerful men and obedient women, etc, but is just the opposite with very disempowered men, and her camera is allowing them a position and to stand up.

In the staged photographs, [as in] the first series of the flag images, gender is being expressed by individuals, for example, women showing their babies, women dancing, or showing some aspects of their physical body as an engendered power. I would say that more traditional aspects, like men as associated with the samurai, or these very general ideas of what represents what [in terms of gender] is probably present in this series. Some men probably display Yakuza, or some sort of samurai culture, or something that we normally see as masculine, but this is not the purpose. The purpose is actually between nationalism and, on the other hand, if these are Koreans or Chinese who participate in the pictures, it’s probably anti-Japanese sentiment. It’s not specifically about gender, but it’s about the association of nationalism and gender as a part of a more basic scheme.

Japan is placed 144 in the world list of [gender equality in terms of] women participating in politics. It’s bad – less than 1% of women in Japan are part of politics. If you say politics, you normally refer to men influencing this way or another, whether they’re politicians or the Prime Minister, or the people elected for different positions in Okinawa or the mainland. There was one woman representative that she relates to, she’s a representative of Nago, but is actually someone who collaborates with the Japanese Government, and therefore there is a lot of criticism of her acts, and [she is] not someone who is admired or supported by many locals. In the scrolls, the historical representation of the different events, or the political representations, normally have men as protagonists – they are the centre point. When we come to the group activities, the demonstrators in Nago or the collaborators who help Mao in her project, there’s definitely more presence of women as people who support her and want to use her imagination and power to express this kind of political criticism, which is so important these days. Mao gives them the opportunity to speak up and show their discomfort and their idea of how to go beyond the expected attitude.


Q: What awareness of Ishikawa Mao’s work is there elsewhere in Japan?

A: I would in this case separate between professional audience and a general audience. I think Mao’s work is very well known among professional audiences, people who work in the art world, specialising in photography and those in museums, galleries, and other public venues. She became very famous over the past decade within Japan – I’m not sure if she’s so well known outside Japan, but she enjoyed the benefit of display and exhibitions in multiple venues, so in the professional world, very much so.

However, if we think about the more general public or people who do not specialise in contemporary art, that will be more tricky. [Mao] is definitely very well known in Okinawa, and probably in certain circles of the Left in Japan, she will be known. Otherwise, I don’t think she’s a widely spread out known figure of photography. As said, she’s more of photographers’ photographer – she’s kind of someone who is more appealing to the language and taste of those in the art world.

Q: I’ve long been curious whether this is to be thought of as a Great Picture Scroll of Ryukyu, or a Picture Scroll of Great Ryukyu – “Dai Ryukyu” being a term that shows up historically itself. Have you by chance heard Ishikawa talk about this point regarding the title?

A: No, I have not and I promise to do so on my next meeting with Mao to find out more about her choice of title. Those of us familiar with the history of Japan know that the term Dai Nippon or the ‘Great Japan’ was a term of imperialism and the way Japan wanted to express its superiority over other Asian countries. [It is therefore] a somewhat bewildering or strange name to choose for the Ryūkyū, such a small and not powerful place. I think it’s a kind of a word game or a play on the idea of Dai Nippon, [by putting] the Dai Ryūkyū as a sort of an answer, knowing that in political life or in the present it has no effect as being ‘Dai’ – it’s not going to be any empire or anything similar soon. [This is the case] if we take the Dai Ryūkyū as the Great Ryūkyū.

If we take it, on the other hand, to be the great picture scroll then it probably echoes in a better way the endeavour that Mao is taking in creating a sequence, a scroll which reflects the history of the place, the attempt to put together aspects of the present with aspects from the past and possibly redirect our attention to some possible future. In this case, the great scroll will reflect more this specific artistic endeavour that Mao is taking. Nevertheless, I think that this ambiguity serves well her cause or her aim to raise this kind of challenge that she is imposing from the deep South, from the furthest, the weakest, the poorest prefecture of Japan, to call a challenge to the government that have put this archipelago into this dire situation.

Q: How should the public engage with these collections and photographs, to make the most of it and also what else can artists do to make a big impact on society?

A: Thank you for this question, because I think it’s a very general question, not just specific to Mao or the Great Ryūkyū Photographic Scroll – it is a question of the relationship between art and public. If we think about modernist art, generally speaking, it was “art for art’s sake” – it was trying to put itself away from the real, from the world, from the everyday life, and talk about the specific questions concerned within the artistic frame or frameworks. This has changed, and from the 1960s onwards, the late Modernism and, of course, the current practices that we face, artists are very much engaged with reality, with the environment, with the public asking questions, being involved politically and doing a lot of things. In this case, I think that viewing exhibitions will be a very political act – just going to the museum, to bring your children, and make them aware of the kind of discourses we have around. Be aware that people criticise government, and different political trends [exist] in a more subtle way, not just in the parliament or on newspapers, but in artistic acts that actually engage with the public and present to the public other possibilities, other thoughts, other approaches to how we should understand the society we live within. How can these images bring to our attention a different view of the events that surround us?

Q: Has Ishikawa remixed the order of the images in the scrolls, e.g. combining older photos and more recent ones into new reorderings of the photos? Or is each older scroll maintained as is, and only new scrolls of new images added? Any thoughts on the significance or meaning conveyed by this choice?

A: As far as I understand Mao’s practice, she has created a scroll a year, and within that scroll, she has a selection of pictures mostly taken in that year, but probably here and there, she adds something that was taken earlier. Within [each] scroll, the order or sequence of time is not observed. Nevertheless, we can see that she is using staged photography of historical events, staged photography of contemporary political events with what we saw before, with the masks of politicians and other people like that. The mixture of times and events is not on the basis of the time they were taken, but on the basis of bringing elements of history, politics, current society, current events, the environment, etc. It’s not about the actual taking of pictures, but it is about the contents and the subject portrayed in each frame that combines together into the scroll.

Q: As with Nan Goldin, there is the risk of seeing Mao’s early photography as commodifying and exploiting her friends. How do you think Mao negotiates these issues and reflects on her own privileged position as the one holding the camera?

A: Very tricky and very interesting – I actually don’t think so. I think Mao is part of this group and never really became a privileged person. As I said, she continues to live in Okinawa [and] she never made a real fortune or monetary profits from this practice. She’s very ill at the moment, so nothing can help at this position. I don’t think that criticising her as someone exploiting her friends is the right direction. I would more tend to see that practice of hers, especially from the early pictures where she photographed her peers, her friends in Koza and in Naha and the GIs, and then going to Philly to see her boyfriend and his family. [I see it] more of an exposure, someone who brings to the fore, someone who shows things we never see or never know about, unless we have the information from this photo. It’s more [that] someone had the opportunity to bring to the fore events, and people, and areas, and dilemmas that are rarely reaching the newspapers, or publications, or otherwise to a general public knowledge. Even today, as I mentioned before, even if Mao is rather famous in Okinawa and among professional circles, the issues that she raises are not necessarily occupying central debates or discourses within Japan. It’s more tricky than that, and I think her pictures serve as a point of reference rather than exploitation or commodifying – that’s not my view of what was going on. I know that she had an issue with one of the photographers that was participating in the first series, and this is why she had the new publication under a different name, Red Flower. I’m not quite sure about the nature of this conflict, but there was a conflict of interest regarding Hot Days in Camp Hansen. This [may] answer part of your [concerns] about being commodified or exploited.

Q: What kind of impact have Mao’s photos that have had political messages had on the US when they were internationally published? (On the assumption that they are available in the US.). Are they obvious to American audiences that the photos are reflections of Okinawans’ feelings?

Thank you, this is a very important question. I think, again, this is a general question, not just concerning Mao’s oeuvre. Artists who work within the very specific local context of local dilemmas do engage with the risk that they will not be understood beyond those circles. Nevertheless, I think that the more subjective, more personal, and more concentrated they are on the specific symbols or signifiers of the political situation they are in, they can actually reach broader audiences. For example, her first series was talking about interracial relationships on the background of poor groups within the society, people who are deprived of social privilege. The very fact that she put forward this series as a group of images that show the attachment of the two groups – the GIs, the Afro Americans, who are a group that suffers from a lower social position within the USA, and the Okinawan girls, who, also in a very similar mode, reflect the poor position of Okinawans among the Japanese population. It is a strange situation – the two groups that seem very distant and not related to each other find common ground in the bar districts around the American military bases in Okinawa. This starts a whole possibility of a discourse of exchange and of relationship between groups that on the surface seem unrelated, but in a very surprising way do find common ground and the relationship between the two.

In my understanding, the fact that Mao is relating to a problem not very well known doesn’t stop the impact of her images, and the power of the questions she brings to be effective for many other groups or many other places. I think, for example, that [Mao raises] the racial relationship in her photographs and the political – the American occupation or American presence in Okinawa as a result of war, and the fact that the American military presence in Okinawa reflects America’s position within East Asia from Vietnam to Korea, from Japan to China, etc. It’s not necessarily the understanding of the political or the specific signifiers or the issues that Mao indicates, but it’s more an effective and emotional issue of bringing forward the very minute and very specific aspect she’s directing our attention to. Through the exploration of that experience, we are able to understand the broader picture of the political dilemmas that Okinawa is facing.