The #metoo movement birthed a cultural revolution that is slowly chipping away at the patriarchy. Millions of women have shared their stories about the sexual abuse and harassment they have endured at the hands of men. This movement inspired me to look deeper into the debate about whether we should separate the art from the artist. I became aware of the way cultural institutions routinely withhold or dilute information they provide at exhibitions.
I was recently alerted to an exhibition at The Art Institute of Chicago that presents Roger Weston’s collection of 17th century Ukiyo-e paintings from Japan. The museum refers to the “beauties” in these portraits as “courtesans, geishas, actors, or women in scenes of everyday life” in The Floating World, a pleasure quarter similar to what we know as the red-light district. The narrative offered by the museum focuses on the fact that the women possessed great beauty and impeccabile style. The museum fails to provide viewers the whole story.
The audio tour created by The Art Institute of Chicago does not mention the brutal living conditions the women endured. One ipad in a corner of the exhibition offers an altered narrative of what it was like for the child sex slaves, who are referred to as “kamuro,” revealing only that children as young as seven were contracted to brothels by their impoverished families, stating “girls who showed promise were educated and trained to assume the role of courtesan, the highest level of prostitute.” Only one sentence on a wall label states that there was a wall and moat that prevented women from leaving the pleasure district.
Many of the sex slaves were beaten, starved, suffered from sexually transmitted diseases, and if slaves died while they were imprisoned, they were buried in mass graves. Brothel keepers sometimes locked the prostitutes they owned in a box. If a child ran away back to her family, the parents were required to return their daughter back to the brothel keeper, as part of the contract.
This alternate audio tour provides the truth about these artworks and includes an interview with Dr. Amy Stanley, a historian of early modern and modern Japan.
Please listen to the alternate audio tour below.