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American relations in Okinawa: a valuable lesson in history through art

In the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, a particular exhibit in the back of the gallery draws interest as it transports the viewer into another time and culture. “Theater of Tacit Operations by Chinen Aimi Bouillon, a graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts Intermedia and Digital Arts program at UMBC, comments on the imperialistic tendencies that are characteristic of 20th century America.

Bouillon’s installation is tucked away in the back of the gallery in a small cut-off space with two entrances on either side. On the floor of these two entrances is a dotted line with the written words, “Please remove shoes,” followed by three pairs of sandals.

Black and white photographs of Okinawa, belonging to Bouillon’s series titled “Seeing Ryukyu: Collective Unconscious,” are hung on the surrounding walls. In the middle of the room is a table with a map of Okinawa painted on top. Seashells, currency and other various objects lay atop the table. Above the exhibit is a speaker playing a loop of audio broadcasts dating back to after World War II when the United States began occupation in Okinawa.

The set up of the map on the tabletop game-board resembles that of maps used for military planning. By putting the map of Okinawa on a tabletop game, Bouillon comments on how the United States viewed Okinawa as a strategic island base and possession rather than a home of a distinct people.

The announcer featured in the surrounding audio of the exhibit states, “It [Okinawa] is the only possession we hold in Asia” and later, another announcer states, “Okinawa is a vital bastion of the free world.” The broadcast can be interpreted as a form of propaganda: The United States’ justifying their of occupation of Okinawa.

On the website for the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, the description for Bouillon’s exhibition states, “The installation plays with the assumed hierarchy of knowledge.” If one only heard the audio tape playing, one would only receive the American perspective of Okinawa. As the viewer, one receives both the American perspective from the audio as well as the perspective of the natives of Okinawa. The audio recording speaks of the militaristic benefits that the island provides to the United States, thus portraying an entire region as nothing more than a stepping stone for America into Asia. However, the objects scattered on top of and around the table paint an entirely different picture.

The writing on the floor displaying “Please remove shoes” immerses the viewer into Okinawa household culture by giving them a direct command for how to behave. The exhibit takes on the feeling of a small living room as on either side of the table there are mats and cushions. The photographs of Okinawa, as well as the seashells around the exhibit, immerse the viewer in the landscape of the island.

Bouillon’s exhibition serves as a reminder to always question the information constantly produced by the media. The information on Okinawa American citizens received was filtered by American broadcasters who weaved pro-military sentiments into their reports. To learn about a culture, one must be immersed in that culture. Bouillon immerses the viewer into the lifestyle of Okinawa, thus expanding the viewer’s knowledge from the surface-deep audio reports.

Bouillon’s installation is the perfect combination of art and a valuable lesson in United States history that will be shown from April 9 until April 26.