Not half, but double. Maya Fuji explores what it’s like being a mixed race individual in America and in Japan. We saw this theme excel in Double, Fuji’s solo exhibition at YOD Editions in Osaka, Japan. She uses art to reconnect with her Japanese heritage as she reflects on her upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area and how American society also influences her art. Her unique style draws in the spectating eye to vibrant colours, bold shapes, and cultural themes. In this chat with Maya, it was incredible to hear how she is so self-reflective of her message and how tradition informs her approach to art.
Congratulations on your solo exhibition titled Double at YOD Editions in Osaka. How did it feel to display your work abroad for the first time? Not only that, but in Japan, the country of which you draw much inspiration from?
Thank you! To be honest, I am still thrilled about having a solo exhibition abroad. It was so exciting and meaningful to bring my work back to Japan and have my relatives see it! Much of my work explores the nuanced nature of being an immigrant or child of an immigrant in the United States, and how our culture gets preserved, passed on, and fused with the local cultures. I have done a couple exhibitions in San Francisco exploring this, but because this exhibition was taking place back in Japan, I wanted to explore my experience of being mixed race in Japan in a flipped perspective.
Did you notice any differences between how your art was received in Japan as opposed to in the States?
I’ve had the opportunity to have many meaningful conversations with people in both places through my work, but I did notice a slight difference in what resonated with others. A lot of women I spoke to in Japan commented on the rolls and folds I paint on my figure's bodies. They told me they were happy to see a more natural body being represented, because beauty standards in Japan still prefer a thinner physique.
My conversations in the US have been more about celebrating culture and visibility. Something that really stuck with me were the many conversations I had with people from different cultural backgrounds during my opening for Fujimura Tobacco Shop at Swim Gallery. We shared our experiences of being first or second generation in the US, experiences of visiting relatives in our home countries, and the nostalgia and longing that evoked. We were often surprised to find many similarities in our experiences or traditions and those were very special moments for me.
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In December 2022, you were featured on the Immigrantly podcast, hosted by Saadia Khan, you spoke about how you hoped to incorporate more cultural elements of the Bay Area into your work. What is your mentality when trying to create an intersection between Japanese and American cultures? And now how do you feel your mentality has changed over time after several solo exhibitions, the two exhibitions in 2022 alone and the exhibition in Osaka in April 2023?
Over the last year, I have explored how Japanese and American cultures intersect within me. It has become thematically more centralised in my work, especially my hometowns—Kanazawa in Japan and the Bay Area in the US. My earlier works focused on how to remain connected to my Japanese heritage while living in the US, however, I have recently begun exploring how ethnically mixed people, immigrants, and children of immigrants retain certain practices and traditions while letting go and picking up others. The longer I spend time in the US I’ve noticed the way certain habits have shifted and morphed, often re-emerging as new ways of being. I often surprise myself by the unexpected ways certain parts of each culture have taken root within me. We tend to think of tradition as something stationary, from the past, and passed on for generations, but I wonder what it means to carry tradition across the ocean to a new place, where it interacts and reacts with the local customs, beliefs, and other cultures of that region. How does tradition exist within pockets of immigrant communities, and what ripples can it have if it were to become part of the greater local community?
I also find it quite interesting when similar cultural phenomena pop up in different parts of the world. In my painting, My Dekochari Bike Go Hard, I Don’t Need No Car, for example, reveals similarities between Japan and Oakland through the subcultural phenomena of bicycle decoration. The Dekochari of Japan, inspired by elaborately embellished trucks called Dekotora and Scraper Bikes of Oakland, inspired by luxury car modification were DIY responses by teens to these unattainable customised vehicles. By decorating their bikes, teens were able to participate in something that was once inaccessible to them. And, through it, began cultural movements and communities in their own respective locales.
On the podcast, you also spoke about how Japan is an improving, though still sexist society and about how you featured women and nudity in your paintings as a way to display women who are “more bold and comfortable in their bodies”. I’m curious. Could you elaborate on the message you’d want individuals to take away from your paintings and do you have aspirations to influence Japanese societal norms and views of women? If so, could you speak a little to that point as well?
To be frank, I am not sure of my ability to influence Japanese societal norms and views of women with my paintings alone. I’ve experienced many microaggressions when visiting throughout my life that are quite commonplace. Some are so embedded in what is considered normal that I sometimes don’t notice them until reflecting on the situation later. Despite this, the conversations that emerged from sharing my paintings were meaningful. My hope is that people are able to see themselves in my figures and feel connected to the unwavering comfortability the figures have with themselves. I strive to feel that way too!
You have a very distinct style. How would you describe it? And how long did it take you to find the kind of visual style that best depicted the messages and stories that you wanted to share?
Thank you! Many influences, including artists I admire, mythology, personal experiences, friends and family have inspired the development of my visual language, which continues to evolve as I uncover new aspects of my narrative. As I spend more time painting, I am also able to meditate and explore further on what I’d like to convey through them. I always try to push myself through experimentation, as I attempt to cultivate my visual language, nurturing its growth and fostering a dynamic lexicon that evolves and expands over time - I don’t want to feel too boxed into a specific quote unquote style.
As a self-taught artist, the first medium I worked with was screen printing. I was drawn to the technicality of the medium, as well as the aspect of layering bold blocks of colour. Because I didn't have access to a screen printing studio during the 2020 lockdown, I became interested in airbrushing as an alternative. I felt that it bridged the two mediums and opened up new ways of expression while utilising the technical skills I gained from screen printing. As a result, I became immersed in developing my own technique of stencilling and balancing colour. More recently, I’ve been interested in taking my work in a more expressive direction. I’ve been blending painterly marks into my works alongside the airbrushed components, and experimenting with new materials like mineral pigment paint and sushi-enogu (pigmented shell powder), often used in traditional Japanese Nihonga paintings.
While my mediums and techniques may have evolved over time, one thing that hasn’t changed since the beginning has been my thematic focus on the joyful celebration of culture and diversity. My sentiment has been to explore the multifaceted experiences of cultural hybridity and how that can create community in unexpected ways.
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Your show Fujimura Tobacco Shop was a tribute to your late grandmother. I understand your grandparents owned a corner store, somewhat of a convenience store, in Japan that sold all sorts of things, and you visited them quite often during your early childhood. I noticed that the paintings in Double tend to have specific focal points on foods, particularly snacks (both Japanese and American). Takis, Shrimp Chips, La Croix, Corn Nuts, Onigiri, Fruit Roll ups, etc. It seems as though these snacks are added to pay homage to the memories in your grandparents’ store. Could you speak more to this significance of food, or the Barter Exchange as you put it, and how the food and snack culture of Japan and America influenced this exhibit, and your art in general?
To me, food is something that brings people together. There is an ineffable and ethereal quality to the act of sharing food, and I find it to be the easiest way to build community and grow an appreciation for each other. In the painting Barter Exchange, I painted a scene that happened quite often in my childhood, where I’d trade an onigiri from my lunch box with American snacks like Gushers and Fruit By The Foot (banned in my home by my mum - she was on the organic tip long before the trend). I can still clearly remember the time a friend of mine tried umeboshi, an extremely sour pickled plum, and she made the exact same face we make in Japan!
There are also many dishes in Japanese culture (and in many cultures) that hold traditional and ceremonial value that transcends mere sustenance. For example Himuro Manju, a red bean bun from Kanazawa which I included in the painting Meeting Place, is eaten on July 1st every year to ward off bad omens and promote longevity. Every summer my grandmother would have these ready for us when we’d visit, one of her many ways to express her love and care for us. I feel the universality of food has the potential to allow us to foster understanding, empathy, and a sense of togetherness.
I know that you tend to come up with a theme first, then sketch a layout of your painting, and proceed with colour palettes, constructing the mood with vibrant colours while maintaining a tonal balance. Where in this process do you usually create, or rather discover, the title of your piece? Do you create the title first and let it inform how you approach painting, or is it the other way around (artwork first, title second)?
It really depends. For example, in my exhibition Fujimura Tobacco Shop, I painted different rooms in my grandmother's home and shop as an homage to her memory and legacy, so the Japanese titles reflect the name of the room (living room, bathroom, etc). I came up with the English titles to expand on the scenes in the paintings after seeing them as a completed series. For my recent exhibition Double, I thought of some of the titles as I conceptualised the paintings, while others came to me post completion.
I’m curious to know. Because you carry such a strong focus on multicultural, multiracial, and multigenerational relationships, has your work affected your relationships with your own family and friends?
Yes! While working on Fujimura Tobacco Shop, I reached out to my mother and relatives back in Japan quite often to request photos, share stories, and remember my grandmother's home. I would call my mother and ask if she remembered what mirin and soy sauce my grandmother used, which shampoo was in her bathroom (it was the one that no one would buy from her shop), what beverages she kept stocked in the shop fridge? At times, she seemed annoyed at all the requests, but I felt it brought us much closer. It got us talking more. Each request would open up a flood of memories, and we spent many hours on the phone reminiscing and sharing stories throughout the painting process.
During Thanksgiving dinner a couple of weeks after the opening, my mother thanked me for memorialising her childhood home into these paintings, and we both started crying. It was a whole moment. I had painted the series as a personal healing process, but for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me that it had also been my mothers childhood home and her mother’s memory I had been painting as well. We were able to share an emotional moment of healing from the trauma of losing her, her home, and a place we could call home in Japan. It still makes me tear up to think of that moment.
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Who are your biggest painting influences?
My earliest influences were mostly of ukiyoe masters like Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Utagawa Kuniyoshi. I’ve most strongly been drawn to bijinga and yokai themed ukiyoe, surrounding themes of women bathing or relaxing in domestic spaces, and of otherworldly creatures creeping into those spaces. I also have been reading manga since an early age, and artists such as Araki Hirohiko (love a JoJo pose!) and Takahashi Rumiko have been favourites!
What’s next for you? Are there projects and or exhibitions that you are currently working on?
I am currently working on new paintings for upcoming group exhibitions - the Hole in New York and Good Mother Gallery, Hashimoto Contemporary and Residency Art in Los Angeles.
I’ve been exploring the idea of the Japanese concept of Tsukumogami, an animism of a household object that obtains a spirit or soul over a century. They were often times represented as little spirits of mundane day-to-day objects such as tansu shelving, koto or biwa instruments, fans, and futon covers. I have contemplated what these Tsukumogami spirits would exist as, not only in the modern day, but if they had followed my family to the Bay Area. Would they only exist in Japanese households, or would they coexist with other spirits that predated them? Could knowledge, wisdom, or oral tradition take life? I also wonder how it would affect our way of living if we treated our belongings with the care and respect we’d give something that we believed to have a spirit. Maybe it would shift the way we currently produce waste or treat the world with a false sense of abundance.
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