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Sunday, June 28th, 2009
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Minè Okubo: Following Her Own Road

by Greg Robinson

Discovering the Citizen

A review by Jessica Knight

It's hard not to like Minè Okubo as we come to know her through this first book-length study of her life and work: feisty, eccentric, and deeply committed to her art. A slim, beautifully produced volume, Minè Okubo: Following Her Own Road is both a tribute to the artist, who died in 2001, and an important step in remedying the dearth of scholarship on her work. The paucity of Okubo criticism may in part be a situation of her own making: best known for her landmark graphic memoir Citizen 13660, which documents her experience as a prisoner in the internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, she was loathe to part with her work, and she consciously cultivated an enigmatic persona. Even those she counted as close friends thought of her as a sort of trickster figure, wry and mischievous, generous and notoriously cantankerous. Editors Greg Robinson and Elena Tajima Creef were both friends of Okubo's (and, like so many others both famous and unknown, were unaware of their mutual acquaintance until her memorial service); as they describe, "Although one side of Mine was always trying to withdraw into herself and give herself space for her art, and she raged loudly against the idle curiosity of the ignorant, she simultaneously craved attention and recognition." While she masterfully reproduced her own image countless times, she was also fiercely guarded, and the glimpse into her life and work afforded by Following Her Own Road is a rare treat.

Published by the University of Washington Press -- pioneers in the field of Asian-American Studies and the same press that brought Okubo renewed attention by reprinting Citizen 13660 in 1983 -- the collection includes reproductions of her visual art; selections from her quirky and endearing letters and personal writings, many of which are published here for the first time; portraits of Okubo which span her life, most notably a full reproduction of the stunning photo collage by Masumi Hayashi that decorates the volume's cover; scholarly essays; and personal tributes and remembrances by friends and colleagues. Okubo's work itself, rarely exhibited or reproduced, is the book's greatest draw. Known primarily for her internment art, her nonetheless incredibly varied oeuvre demonstrates the breadth of her experience as an artist. The twenty three color plates of her paintings range from striking nudes and portraits that evidence her ties to 1930's protest art (she worked on at least one mural project with Diego Rivera) to abstract expressionist experiments with color and form. But where she shines most as a visual artist is in her pen-and-ink illustrations, and the collection includes a wonderful selection of the covers she drew for the magazine Trek, as well as illustrations she produced for various books. Her unique style -- unquestionably modern, but influenced by centuries-old Chinese and Japanese brush-drawing traditions -- combined with her technical ability, honed during her years as a commercial illustrator, is remarkable: the drawings demonstrate the magic of how an artist can turn the most spare, simple lines into an aesthetically and emotionally complex experience.

The most substantial section of the book consists of seven scholarly essays, each save one an original commission for the collection. All of the essays focus on Okubo's internment art, and while they only begin to scratch the surface of what can and should be said about that work, it is one of the collection's disappointments that there are no commentaries on her larger body of work, so wonderfully documented otherwise. Most of the essays, while smartly written, cover somewhat familiar ground within the narrow canon of Okubo criticism: Vivian Fumiko Chin, Heather Fryer, Lynne Horiuchi, Laura Card, and Stella Oh all -- from different theoretical and cultural perspectives -- analyze Okubo's internment art as a form of political resistance. More interesting and uniquely insightful is Greg Robinson's "Birth of a Citizen: Minè Okubo and the Politics of Symbolism," which focuses on Citizen 13660's masterful ambiguity, foregrounding the politics of the text's production and Okubo's complex relationships with her artwork, her public persona, and the media outlets through which she sought an audience.

But Kimberly Phillip's essay, "To Keep A Record of Life: Minè Okubo's Autographic Manga and Wartime History," goes the farthest in taking scholarship of Okubo's internment art in a new and significant direction. Phillips usefully contextualizes Okubo's work within the long trans-pacific Manga tradition, and the (often racist) visual language of early 20th-century American comic strips. Giving Citizen 13660 its due for its prescient widening of the comic-book idiom, Phillips notes, "In an era when comic books and comic strips served to define enemies and allies, inculcate pro-war sentiments, and promote values associated with American citizenship, Okubo produced reminders that comic-book art could also be subversive and critical of racial prejudice transmitted through mass culture." She rightly concludes that the burgeoning literature on the autographic genre must do more than incorporate Okubo's achievement in [its] history. Citizen 13660 is not simply an antecedent to the work of Art Spiegelman and other writers of graphic histories. Rooted in the long tradition of Japanese and Japanese American art and text, Citizen 13660 demands that our understandings of the history of comic books, their audiences, and their producers be rethought and rewritten.

The spirit of Phillips essay reverberates throughout the book: unlike many academic anthologies or posthumous tributes -- and true to Okubo's playfulness -- this collection offers less the "definitive version" of her life and work, and more an incitement to re-view it in new ways that throw its power and charm into relief.

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