A remarkable exhibit on display at the University of Michigan’s Lane Hall, “Portraits of Feminism in Japan,” depicts nine major feminist activists, writers, and artists from Japan. A diverse group of artists, including Takatoshi Hayashi, Nancy Nishihira, Shigeki Shibata, and Elaine Cromie, each chose a single figure to represent.

“We were trying really hard to make clear not just that Japan is diverse, but that diversity has been there for a really long time and intersects with feminist projects,” says Allison Alexy, one of the exhibit’s curators as well as interim director at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG) and a U-M women’s and gender studies professor.

Nishihira’s “Portrait of Otake Kōkichi” depicts a dual-faced figure, cheeks striated in vibrant blues, whites, and reds. Kōkichi (18931966) was an artist and writer who transgressed many of the gender norms of her time by dressing in traditionally masculine clothing, drinking, writing about sex workers, and publicly having a love affair with another woman.

Nishihira’s portrait is an implicit play on the divisions that defined Otake’s life. Otake was both a woman who loved another woman and a woman who married (and eventually divorced) a man.

Nishihira says she didn’t want to paint a “stereotypical” portrait of someone “with their hands folded in their lap.” She had something specific she wanted to express: “how people can look one way from one perspective and totally different from another perspective.”

Cromie, a photojournalist whose work has been covered in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and NPR, took a slightly different approach. For her piece, “Ippee Nifee Debiru,” she licensed an existing photograph of her subject, the activist Takazato Suzuyo, by the photographer Noriko Hayashi.

Takazato (b.1940) is known for founding the first women’s health clinic in Okinawa in 1995, following the kidnapping and rape of a 12-year-old-girl by three American servicemen. Cromie overlaid the photograph with images of bashofu and bingata fabrics, which are traditional to Uchinanchu people, as well as flowers native to the Uchinaa Islands. (Uchinanchu people are indigenous to what is now known as Okinawa and are not officially recognized as an ethnic group by the Japanese state.)

The exhibit was curated by Alexy, freelance translator Brad Hammond, and U-M graduate students Grace Mahoney and Alexandria Molinari.

In an email, Molinari noted that many of the women depicted in the exhibit “were subjected to violence, ridicule, and even death because of their views.” In many cases, she added, “what’s left of their legacy is what is said about them rather than their own words, and it’s nice to know we had such an intentional group who made sure they were spoken about with care.”   

The exhibit doesn’t just provide a lesson in history. Taken together, the portraits pre-sent a kind of mosaic of longing, each piece depicting a perfectly unique life. Or as the artist ivokuma writes in her statement, “Every single color in the background is a different color.” Each portrait stands on its own, but where the exhibit really shines is as a whole.

This exhibit will run until July 28, 2023.