iona rozeal brown

by Janel St. John

Artists' blend of Japanese and
Black culture proves to be winning combination


SPRING 2010. The Midwest is, apparently, good ground for Maryland-based artist, iona rozeal brown. Her first solo museum show and the first museum presentation of her brand new work is all taking place, right now, at MOCA Cleveland. iona rozeal brown: all falls down is on view at MOCA Cleveland until May 9, 2010.


The exhibition features 15 visually stunning and conceptually rich figurative paintings. Ranging in tone from playful and whimsical to raw and unsettling, this vibrant series takes brown's cultural sampling of African American hip-hop culture and Japanese art history to new levels.


brown received the 2009 Joyce Award in Visual Art, which supports new commissions for artists of color. As part of the award, MOCA commissioned brown to create new paintings, based in part, on Japanese Ukiyo-e prints from the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, as well as to complete a residency with Cleveland-area high school students.

class kaatchi, the incubator, 2008 by iona rozeal brown, mixed media on framed panel Diptych: 62 x 100 in. (62 x 50 in. each)

In this new work, brown creates a "journey of the hero(ine)" narrative filled with complex characters and the 'path of a hero.' One particularly resonant character in this series is Yoshi, an enlightened warrior who communicates with divine spirits but remains on the earthly realm to guide young mortal spirits. Paintings like King Kata #3: peel out (after Yoshitoshi's "Incomparable Warriors: Woman Han Gaku") (2007) provide a sense of Yoshi's fiery personality. Confident, courageous, and sincere, Yoshi embodies the qualities that brown hopes to inspire in young women and men today.

This Japanese-Black fusion has been the focus of brown’s work for quite some time. It was at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she received her B.F.A. in Painting, that brown first learned about the ganguro - fashion-conscious Japanese teenagers who want to look cool, black and American, much like their hip-hop idols. These teenagers dress in funky clothes, dye and braid their hair in cornrows and darken their skin at tanning salons or with makeup. Ganguro, literally ''black face,'' has its roots in the mid-1990's and grew parallel with the popularity of hip-hop in Japan.

When brown traveled to Japan, she met members of the ganguro tribe in person. The experience inspired a new body of work. “So many things happened to me in Japan,” she said. “I got this sense of their understanding that ideas come from another world,” she said. Brown describes the characters in her new body of work as ‘not fully human,’ and says she was inspired by ‘Octavia Butler and West African and Japanese ghost stories.' Yoshi, the enlightened warrior, is also the main character featured in the community outreach residency project at MOCA Cleveland. Last year, a jury selected nine high school students from the Progressive Arts Alliance's 2009 RHAPSODY Hip Hop Summer Camp and the Visual Communications Arts Class at Shaw High School in East Cleveland. Early this year, brown worked with this group of students to produce a Japanese screen and a site-specific wall painting in MOCA's Dr. Gerald and Phyllis Seltzer Rotunda Gallery.

The Japanese screen includes both a landscape painting by brown and rhymes written by the students that relate their experiences as teenagers in today's complex world. The wall painting features an enormous Yoshi in the pose of a character from Yoshitoshi's Tsuji Ya Hyoe Morimasa (1869), a print from the Allen Memorial Art Museum's collection. Yoshi's cape contains images created by the student apprentices that range from anime-inspired drawings to abstract designs. brown has created a limited edition multiple for MOCA based on the character, Yoshi. MORE work by brown.



King Kata #4: resist on the character, Yoshi. (after Yoshitoshi's Fuwa Bansaku) 2007 by iona rozeal brown, mixed media on framed panel, 51 1/2 x 62 in.



“…hold on…” –Erykah Badu, 2009 by iona rozeal brown, mixed media on framed panel 60 x 48 in. Courtesy of the artist and Robert Goff Gallery