Thought Leader Tina Takemoto

A Conversation with Tina Takemoto

From channeling Bjork as a geisha to making the film Sex, Politics and Sticky Rice, Tina Takemoto has a résumé filled with bold investigations into issues of gender identity, sexual identity, and race. An associate professor of visual studies at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, Takemoto has served as board president of the Queer Cultural Center and co-founded the community-building organization Queer Conversations on Culture and the Arts. As with OMCA’s Over the Top: Math Bass and The Imperial Court of SF, Takemoto’s work playfully “queers” conventions in fresh and provocative ways.

You have worked in many disciplines, including film, performance art, and writing. How do different media change your approach to art?

In performance, I try to orchestrate an arc of experience with an element of humor and surprise for the viewers. For example, in Memoirs of Bjork-Geisha I used chopsticks to evoke stereotypes about Asian sexuality and cuisine and then used them to commit harakiri like Madame Butterfly. 

Experimental film allows me to combine live action, historical and Hollywood imagery, and music in a very layered manner. Through mashup editing, I can juxtapose these elements and also disrupt, or “queer,” conventional narratives. Writing enables me to spend time with archival research and make connections between visual artifacts and historical documents. 

What can an institution like OMCA do to open up difficult topics like race, sexuality, and gender for discussion? 

It is crucial to have engaged curatorial staff members, museum educators, and administrators who collaborate with local organizations and communities, offer public programming, provide affordable access to the museum, and create welcoming spaces. And it’s important that exhibitions do not shy away from addressing issues of gender, sexuality, and race in a nondidactic and participatory way. For example, All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 provided a great opportunity to open up conversations about how the Black Panther Party may be perceived as a masculine movement but was also impacted by complex dynamics of gender and sexuality. 

Your film Looking for Jiro is about a gay Japanese American man—Jiro Onuma—who was incarcerated during World War II. There hasn’t been much discussion of queer sexuality in the wartime camps; how did you decide to rediscover that history?

When I realized that Onuma’s photographs might be the only known images of a queer adult in the camps, I wanted to create a piece that spoke to the isolation and humiliation of that experience. In my drag performance as Onuma, I used a mix of Madonna’s “Hung Up” and ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” to emphasize how time goes by slowly when you are waiting for your muscleman who will never arrive in a prison where you are forced to live in crammed horse stalls. 

How can drag performance art critique our culture in ways that protests cannot? 

The brilliance of drag is its embrace of humor and pleasure. Drag provides a way to invite viewers to engage with topics like Orientalism or incarceration in an unexpectedly playful manner, because it doesn’t look like a conventional protest.

There is a long history of LGBTQ activism in the Bay Area. How are activists building on that legacy now?

José Sarria combined his experience as a Latino drag performer and the first openly gay candidate for public office to found the Imperial Court System, whose unique approach to fundraising and appropriation of symbols are featured in a new exhibition at OMCA. Today, we have activists like Alicia Garza, a queer mixed-race African American activist who cofounded the Black Lives Matter movement. Like Sarria, Garza works with artists, cultural workers, and activists to organize the movement through popular media. Garza continues to be an important voice for health, employment, and student rights as well as fighting violence against gender-nonconforming people.

What are you currently working on?

I am beginning research for a new project inspired by Isa Shimoda, a butch Japanese-American restaurant owner who served 10-cent lunches to female tuna factory workers in the 1930s and challenged men to swordfights. 

Tina Takemoto, Looking for Jiro, film. Directed/performed by Tina Takemoto. 2011. Production stills by Maxwell Leung.

Over the Top

Math Bass and the Imperial Court of San Francisco unite to queer our understanding of symbols.

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