Mao Ishikawa, Red Flower

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Session Press (here). Softcover, 112 pages, with 80 black and white photographs. Includes a short introduction by the artist. In an edition of 600 copies. The book contains images originally published in Hot Days in Camp Hansen (by A-man Shuppan, 1982) as well as previously unpublished work from the same period. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The complicated cultural melting pot that has evolved on the Pacific island of Okinawa is a charged facet of Japanese history that is often overlooked. Once the home of native Ryukyuan people, the island was annexed by Japan in the late 1800s, and after the end of World War II, it was occupied by American forces, in the form of military bases and permanent troop stations. Okinawa was under military possession by the United States until 1972, when it was returned back to Japan, and in the subsequent years, the island has struggled with its connection to the larger Japanese nation. In many nuanced ways, particularly during the Vietnam War and onward in the 1970s, the place fundamentally was and wasn’t Japan, and this layered social friction provided a wealth of material for some of Japan’s most esteemed photographers.

For many, the presence of so many American soldiers and sailors, both black and white, was a point of continued dissonance, if not outright hostility, and the pictures from that period capture the pervasiveness of that simmering uneasy mood. Shomei Tomatsu’s images from his series Chewing Gum and Chocolate are rich in this tension, full of the visual contradictions between Western culture and traditional Japanese lifestyles, with the undercurrents of aggression never far from view. Bombers in flight, sneering faces, angry protestors, Coca-Cola, and strip club sleaziness came together in powerful cross-cultural photographs full of mixed references.

But for Mao Ishikawa, the hybrid cultural world of 1970s Okinawa wasn’t entirely negative – in fact, the bars frequented by black GIs offered a liberating kind of freedom from the strict behavioral norms of Japanese society. And while she had been a student of Tomatsu’s, her photographs move beyond the stylistic and performative aspects of the Provoke aesthetic in vogue at the time, embracing a more casual documentary style infused with personal warmth and uninhibited intimacy.

As a photobook, Red Flower reprises and extends the photographic work that Ishikawa made in the segregated military bars of Koza and Kin in the mid 1970s (when she was in her 20s), giving us a fuller picture of the choices these women made. Full bleed reproductions pull us into the lives of bar girls, their black boyfriends, and ultimately, the mixed race families that resulted, opening up a window into a world of playful tenderness and honest sensitivity.

That Ishikawa herself was a bar girl certainly made it easier for her to get an authentic view of this subculture of Okinawan society, but that shouldn’t undercut our admiration for the truth to be found in her photographs. The photobook begins by introducing us to a handful of bar girls, and we tag along as they linger during off hours, smoking, drinking, and goofing around. As they go about their preparations for the night to come (the curling of hair, the applying of makeup etc.), there is consistent laughter and joy in their faces, the daily rituals taking place within the playfulness of a sisterhood. Ishikawa’s pictures get in close, letting the casual companionship take over her frames.

As night falls and the men arrive, more snapshot-style posing takes place, with couples and groups mugging for the camera. These images then slowly evolve into more subtle relationship pictures, and this is where it becomes clear that these women were not prostitutes, but companions, girlfriends, and lovers. Ishikawa’s photographs zero in on intimate gestures and fleeting moments of affection and delicacy, where sex is transformed into open-hearted friendship and devilish mischief. Some of Ishikawa’s best images delve deeply into these connections, finding genuine care and attention where we might have assumed there was only a physical transaction.

The last sections of the book push the idea of family a bit further, tracking the bar girls on a day at the beach, and more poignantly, tracing the arrival of children to the various couples. Black fathers hold newborns and dandle toddlers on their knees, the loving smiles of their Okinwan partners always nearby. As the kids get older, they do just what all kids do – swing on swings, play with dolls, wrestle with each other – and the mixed race children don’t seem to be set apart in any obvious way from their playmates. The message of these final pictures is one of easy going acceptance, where love infuses the surroundings, even if the parental pairs are in some ways unconventional.

This is a body of work that functions well in photobook form, as the turn of the pages allows the stories and characters to unfold with more aggregate nuance – we can follow along and begin to see traces of personalities in the passing of time, and this feels more personal than any one frame. In a field largely dominated at the time by male photographers (aside from Miyako Ishiuchi), Ishikawa’s approach reintroduced both an insider’s view and a confident female perspective to 1970s Japanese photography. The durable value in the work comes from this innate sensitivity for the power of freedom, where the choice to be a bar girl wasn’t a dead end, but an opportunity to feel alive.

Collector’s POV: Mao Ishikawa is represented by NAP Gallery in Tokyo (here). Ishikawa’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail is likely the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (no website link). Hardcover (21.7 x 28 cm), 98 pages, with 58 black and white photographs. Design by the artist. (Cover and spread ... Read on.

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