Sworded Love, Tina Takeomoto.

Tina Takemoto: Life at the Speed of Art

Equal parts artist, activist, and educator, Humanities and Sciences Dean Tina Takemoto is a force to be reckoned with. Her work takes many forms and deals with issues of race, gender, queer identity, memory, and grief.

Much of Takemoto’s work is performance based, as in the case of her 2011 project Looking for Jiro Onuma. Takemoto was asked by E. G. Crichton, a GLBT Historical Society artist in residence, to respond to a personal collection in the society’s archives relating to Onuma. He was a Japanese American who lived what she calls a “vibrant gay lifestyle” in San Francisco during the 1920s and 1930s before being sent to the Topaz incarceration camp in Utah during World War II. Takemoto’s response was part of Lineage: Matchmaking in the Archive, an ongoing project of the society that pairs queer artists, musicians, writers, and poets with deceased members of the queer community who were never famous in their lifetimes, but deserve recognition.

Takemoto recalls: “I was drawn to Onuma’s story because of his proud gay identity at a time when it wasn’t easy to be out, especially as a working-class immigrant.” (Onuma immigrated in 1923 and worked as a laundry presser.) “And also because of my own connection to incarceration: I’m a fourth-generation Japanese American, and my parents and grandparents on both sides were ordered into the camps.” Although Takemoto grew up hearing camp stories, she never heard any mention of LGBT individuals there. In fact, Onuma’s photographs from Topaz are the only known images of adult gays during the imprisonment. Using archival resources, she crafted a portrait of Onuma via a live drag- king performance where she portrays Onuma as a baker at the Topaz camp while playing music by Madonna and ABBA and showing muscle men and war propaganda footage on a screen behind her. “To queer aspects of camp life was an approach I thought Onuma would appreciate.” Her award-winning experimental video of the performance has screened at film festivals internationally.

Another performance she looks back on particularly fondly is Drawing Complaint: Memoirs of Björk-Geisha, a protest piece performed surreptitiously at the opening of Matthew Barney’s 2006 Drawing Restraint exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The show featured art that Takemoto felt was “hampered by elements of what I would call Orientalism. I felt the need to respond.” She dressed as a geisha and lip-synced Björk’s song “Big Time Sensuality” in the atrium, galleries, and women’s restroom. (In the exhibition, Björk and Barney appear as “Occidental guests” on a whaling ship in Japan.) Museum visitors and staff didn’t recognize the work as a protest until it appeared as a video on YouTube. “It was an exercise in disidentification,” Takemoto recalls. “By taking toxic stereotypes and performing them against the grain, they can be pushed into the world of visibility, and critiqued.”

Recently, Takemoto has been more specifically concerned with community building and historicity. In 2014 she produced the documentary Sex, Politics, and Sticky Rice, featuring five prominent San Francisco–based Asian American lesbians discussing their adventures in love and their work as longtime activists. This video was inspired by the Dragon Fruit Project and Takemoto’s collaboration with its founder, Amy Sueyoshi, and with API Equality Northern California, to document and record oral history interviews between queer Asian and Pacific Islanders of different generations as part of their larger effort to enable API queers to preserve their own histories.

Takemoto is the board president of the Queer Cultural Center, which is a municipally funded multiracial arts organization that hosts the National Queer Arts Festival. She was asked to join to foster connections between QCC and the academic environment of CCA; it led to the development of Queer Conversations on Culture and the Arts (QCCA), an ongoing lecture series at CCA and other venues in the Bay Area. The panels feature queer artists, designers, and scholars discussing their work, enabling students to interact and participate in conversations with the broader queer arts community. For information on upcoming events, see qcc2.org.

“Here’s what I’ve learned about expanding ‘queer potentialities’ from QCCA,” says Takemoto. “If you work collaboratively and strategically with academic, governmental, and established art institutions to help provide funding, space, and audience interest, you can absolutely increase the visibility and diversity of queer arts within and beyond institutional frameworks.”