Review: Tomorrow Girls Troop
Content Warning: Sexual assault, misogyny
In November 2017, the World Economic Forum published its Global Gender Gap Report[i], ranking countries according to women’s access to health, education, politics, and pay. Korea ranked 118 out of 144 countries whilst Japan ranked 114. This placed them in last and second to last respectively amongst all developed nations. With a gender pay gap almost double the average of other developed nations, and a system that repeatedly fails to protect survivors of sexual assault and violence, the patriarchy in Korea and Japan is entrenched.
Whilst feminism as a discursive trend has grown in Western public consciousness, how has it emerged in other countries? Specifically, in East Asian countries like Korea and Japan? These questions provoke the need for an understanding of intersectionality and the locus of issues such as race, gender, and class. However, both the terms ‘feminism’ and ‘intersectionality’ have become mere buzzwords. Tokenised and commercialised, they are now used in headlines for advertisements and media articles, sanitised for mainstream discourse. Living in a post-Weinstein era, with the rise of viral campaigns such as #MeToo these issues seem to be more pertinent than ever. We ask- what role does art play in the face of political turmoil? Where do art and politics imbricate in this moment of social reform? Can art be a powerful vehicle to galvanise social critique?
The staging of an exhibition by Ashita Shōjo Tai (Tomorrow Girls Troop) at Firstdraft is a timely response to these imperatives. Founded in 2015 and based in Japan, Korea and America, they are the first feminist art collective of their kind from Japan and Korea. Curated by Alison Groves, this is their first exhibition in Australia, renewing questions around equality facing women around the world, not just in the West. Their presence and projects send an important message to an Australian audience that women in Korea and Japan face unique issues and must overcome a specific set of obstacles and that feminist ideology must be culturally relativised.
This sentiment is embodied by the masks donned by the members of the Tomorrow Girls Troop. Ostensibly they seem to mimic the Guerrilla Girls and the gorilla masks they wear, as the anonymous members of the Tomorrow Girls Troop also all work under pseudonyms. For others, it may be reminiscent of the Russian punk feminist collective, Pussy Riot. However, these pink fabric masks are a culturally specific reference as a hybrid of the rabbit and the silkworm. According to the Tomorrow Girls Troop, the rabbit in Japanese society is associated with docility, meekness, and powerlessness. Wearing the masks in their performances and protest marches signifies their reclamation of the motif as a symbol of empowerment. Meanwhile, the silkworm in Japanese traditional mythology is associated with the fertility goddess Oogetsuhime, who is murdered by the god Susanoo. This anecdote is taken by the members as a metaphor for domestic violence in contemporary Japanese society and the scorn for women’s labour after years of historical gendered bias. With this understanding, the iconography employed by the Tomorrow Girls Troop is imbued with greater meaning and relevance. Understanding the practice of the Tomorrow Girls Troop as simply an adoption of Western modes of thought, paradigms and activist strategies, is not only too convenient, but also reductive.
What is perhaps striking about these masks is their attention-grabbing bright pink colour, which is indicative of the Tomorrow Girls Troop’s employment of the Japanese aesthetics of ‘kawaii’. This is evident in the design of the placards which are hung on the far wall of Gallery 1 which create cultural nuance through their use of Japanese graphic design with their bold text and colours. Their pastel colours are reminiscent of the ‘kawaii’ designs of Takashi Murakami that is now seen as emblematic of a uniquely Japanese aesthetic. Cartoon icons accompany slogans such as ‘No means no’ and ‘I can say NO’ which are all translated into English, Korean, Japanese, and Mandarin. These multilingual signs highlight that whilst feminism is localised, it is simultaneously relatable and relevant for all global societies.
The entirety of Gallery 1 at Firstdraft has been cleverly employed to display the eclectic range of strategies used by the Tomorrow Girls Troop, from performances to videos. There is documentation of their struggle to alter the definition of feminism in their project Dear Kojien (2017-), which attempts to change the dictionary definitions of ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ in Korean and Japanese dictionaries. The project allows Western audiences, like Sydney gallery visitors, to garner a deeper understanding of Japanese and Korean societies through historical context. For non-Japanese and Korean speakers, they may not have been aware that ‘feminist’ has been appallingly defined in both Korean and Japanese dictionaries as “a man who is easy on women.” Faced with such fallacious definitions, we are invited to contemplate on the discrepancy between cultural values. The Dear Kojien project then opens dialogue about the slippages that occur in translating ideologies between cultures. For example, in Korea, feminism is seen as an imported Western term with no Korean equivalent and the word has simply been romanised for use. Displaying an actual copy of the dictionary in the gallery not only explores the literal and metaphorical misunderstandings of feminism but conflates the boundary between art and activism. The Tomorrow Girls Troop brings the urgency and vitality of grassroots activism into the sterility of the white cube gallery.
The Tomorrow Girls Troop reveals the potency of fourth wave feminism, advocating for a feminist ethos that is more inclusive, existing within the ecology of the internet. Whilst individual feminist artists from Japan and Korea, such as Yoshiko Shimada and Lee Bul, have achieved success in the international art circuit, misconceptions about the women of East Asian countries persist. East Asian women have often been stereotyped as ‘submissive’ and ‘docile’, an erroneous and detrimental misconception that belies an ignorance of the oppressive conservatism of many East Asian countries. This exhibition resists such categorisations, inviting viewers to celebrate a nascent and inchoate collective movement, by understanding the specific conditions under which different theoretical ideologies manifest and crystallise. Such an understanding, by extension, allows us to realise that feminism itself as a term is constantly expanding: it is a reflexive theory that reflects alterations in time, but also in locality. It is important to understand that feminism is not a homogenous, monolithic framework that encompasses the diversity of the histories and experiences of women around the globe. The arrival of the Tomorrow Girls Troop in Australia is confirmation that the questions posed by feminism are not outdated, but perhaps more relevant today than ever.
Soo-Min Shim is finishing her Bachelor of Art History and Theory (Honours) at the University of Sydney and is a freelance Art writer based in Sydney.
Tomorrow Troop Girls was presented at Firstdraft, Sydney 7 – 29 March 2018 and was curated by Alison Groves
[i] See report here: http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2017.pdf