American Kabuki

Creating beauty from the heartrending tragedy of the AIDS crisis

Masami Teraoka, American Kabuki (Oishiiwa), 1986, watercolor and sumi ink on paper mounted on a four-panel screen, 196.9 x 393.7 x 3 cm (de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco), © Masami Teraoka, a Seeing America video. Speakers: Emma Acker, Associate Curator of American Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Steven Zucker

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Teraoka, American Kabuki

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Key points

  • The nearly nonexistent government response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s was largely due to prejudices against the most critically impacted communities. Activists worked to raise public awareness and reduce the stigma around the disease, leading eventually to improved medical care and research, but not before the death of tens of thousands of people.
  • Masami Teraoka, who grew up in Japan, draws on the traditional format of the folding screen (byobu) and kabuki theater for this piece. Popular during the Edo period, kabuki had been a popular form of theater that often used historical narratives to offer covert commentary on contemporary politics during a period of censorship and suppression. Similarly, the artist uses traditional symbols, including the blackened teeth and makeup of the female figure, to speak to the personal and universal tragedies of HIV/AIDS.
  • This screen is modeled in the style of ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Masami Teraoka uses a strong, violently undulating line to add drama and tension to both the figures and the waves that threaten to overcome them. He depicts a struggle against an overwhelming destructive energy, echoed in the calligraphic text inscribed on the panels.

Go deeper

See this object at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Read about the history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. and worldwide

Explore the politicized response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s

Watch the artist, Masami Teraoka, discuss painted Japanese folding screens

Learn more about kabuki theater

Read about ukiyo-e woodblock prints, the Edo period, and explore thousands of examples

Learn about the process of making woodblock prints

Learn more about traditional Japanese screens

More to think about

Since I always had been fascinated by Ukiyo-e wood block print and its beautiful vocabulary coming from Japanese cultural background, what if I use my favorite vocabulary to create my work. I could make comments on Japanese culture and US culture in Ukiyo-e style work.

Masami Teraoka, “Bridging Life and Art,” interview with Mike Foldes, Founder and Managing Editor,” Ragazine (November-December 2014)

The artist drew on his own cultural heritage to make this work of art about modern American and Japanese society. If you were to try this, what could you borrow from your own family’s cultural heritage?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.