MFA to Host Forum on ‘Kimono Wednesdays’ Controversy
A summer event series at the museum sparked protests about cultural appropriation.
In 1876, Claude Monet completed a painting of his wife Camille, dressed in an elaborately designed kimono and sporting a blonde wig to emphasize her Western identity—art historians consider the work to be a comment on Parisians’ growing curiosity for Japan.
“La Japonaise” currently belongs to the Museum of Fine Arts, and over the summer, to celebrate its return from a touring exhibition in Japan, the museum invited visitors to “channel their inner Camille Monet,” try on a silk kimono—a reproduction of the one in the painting—and strike a pose in front of the iconic work.
Then, controversy broke out.
“This is appropriation, this is Orientalism,” read a sign held by one of the protesters who attended the first “Kimono Wednesday” event that also coincided with a celebration for departing director Malcolm Rogers, reported the Boston Globe.
“A little controversy never did any harm,” Rogers told the newspaper.
But shortly after its debut, the MFA changed the format of the event, inviting the public to “touch and engage with, but not to try on” the kimonos, which would now serve only as display items.
A statement from the museum explained that the same program had accompanied the traveling exhibition in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagoya, but spurred “concerns” when it was introduced in Boston. In addition to changing the format, the MFA also increased the number of “Spotlight Talks” with museum educators who would be able to provide historical context about the painting and apologized for “offending any visitors.”
But the protests continued, even inspiring counter-protests and creating a dialogue about cultural appropriation in museums.
Now, six months later, the MFA plans to reexamine the episode. On February 7, the museum will host “Kimono Wednesdays: A Conversation,” a panel discussion led by Elena Creef, a women’s and gender studies professor at Wellesley College. Panel members will include independent scholar and PoNJA-GenKon co-director Reiko Tomii, Decolonize Our Museums member Xtina Huilan Wang, and Ryan Wong, a writer for Brooklyn-based arts blog Hyperallergic. MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum and curator of lectures, courses, and concerts Jasmine Hagans will attend as well.
The conversation plans to address issues including “Orientalism, racialized iconography, institutional racism, representation of minority groups, and cultural appropriation,” as well as answer questions such as “How can institutions such as the MFA be more accountable to their publics?” and “Who speaks for whom?”
The two-hour forum will kick off at 1:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public, who can register for tickets at mfa.org.