Femme Visuale: Yoko Nogami

Where in the world is Toko?

Have you seen her? She’s got short, black hair, a white blouse, and a red and white schoolgirl skirt. Since she’s quite the explorer, she could be anywhere from the Suwannee River to Tokyo. Does that help out some?

Where you can be sure to find the elusive Toko is in almost all of the art done by Yoko Nogami, an interdisciplinary artist who goes from painting to photography to video with ease.

“Toko is a hybrid of myself and my daughter. At the time I started these, my daughter was in elementary school. I wasn’t really seeking a character, but I was looking for a stereotype of an Asian girl, so I created her with this short bob hairdo and a Mary Jane schoolgirl uniform. She doesn’t seem to have a particular age; she’s around middle-school age — sometimes younger — but not much older than that,” Nogami says. “I never planned to make a series of her, it’s just that she’s a really good storytelling character and she can be in many different circumstances.”

Exploring concepts of identity, gender, and cultural displacement, it’s hard not to become involved in all of Toko’s adventures, whether she is a camp lifeguard standing by as someone drowns behind her in "Baywatch” or ordering ducks around with a whistle in “The Troop Leader,” both from her Camp series. Using a more refined illustrative quality, Nogami knows how to tell a great visual story.

“I think the vulnerability of her looking like a little girl mixed together with some situations that are not where little girls go made it a little bit interesting an edgy at times,” she says.

Nogami grew up in Japan and when she was 16, she went to a boarding school in Fort Lauderdale. Since then, she has travelled extensively and lived in Boston, Los Angeles, and Macon, and spent four summers in Michigan teach at Interlochen Arts Camp (which is where the Camp series came from). Seeing new places and meeting new people, Nogami uses Toko to narrate real-life experiences in a more fantastical way, whether Toko is riding an alligator or running through a rough-looking neighborhood.

Some pieces are somber, where you don’t see much of Toko’s face in the works. Maybe you get just a glimpse at the side of her face, but it’s usually a back view. Capitalizing on anonymity, there’s a sense of mystery that the artist cloaks Toko in, especially in her series Side Stories. But humor also plays a big role in her work, whether it’s the circumstances Toko is put in, or Nogami’s overt use of stereotypes. Many artists from Kara Walker to Renee Cox use cultural or racial stereotypes as a method of empowerment in their work to reclaim identity.

“The first piece [where] I used overt stereotype was a short film I made with my daughter. That’s what started the development of Toko. I played a character called Yoman that was based off Mickey Rooney’s character of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s with these round glasses and buck teeth. It’s a stereotype, but it’s true!” Nogami emphasizes. “There’s truth in all stereotypes, but I wanted people to feel a sense of endearment within that stereotype. I think people tend to forget that notion and they get angry. Everybody is oversensitive about it. Stereotypes are there, but nobody ever talks about it — and I feel like it needs to be talked about. It’s OK to be different. I carry so many things that are particularly Japanese and I can’t fix that. If I did, I wouldn’t be me anymore. It’s kind of a reminder to just laugh about it.”

And I dare you not to at least giggle at Nogami’s Almost Toko project. Allowing others to join in the laughter, the artist gathers students from all backgrounds to costume them from head to toe in Toko gear. (Could the real Toko please stand up?) You can tell some of the students really got into it, fully dressed with a bright smile and shoulders perked upright. Others (mostly the boys) look less than enthused: their slumped-over body language says more than words.

“This project started was when my daughter left me to go to boarding school. She was attending the school I was teaching at, but it was like, ‘Where did she go?’ Like, what if she left me all by myself? So I thought, ‘You all need to wear this then',” she says laughing. “It was my expression of feeling like I was missing a piece in my life. I knew it wasn’t going to be a painting, it just had to be photographs of these students, and they loved it so much.”

Between teaching full-time at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School and traveling, it’s been hard for her to be able to spend time on a full painting—which is what she would rather be doing.

“My practice is circumstantial. Right now, because I’ve been traveling and can’t sit down for long, I’ve resorted to this,” she explains as she pulls out a bunch of postcard-sized drawings from her purse. “These are in the works, but they will be finished pieces, not just studies. They will get colored and become a whole series. I can do this anywhere from the plane to the train to the car. If I can sit down and make a big piece then I will, but right now I can’t because I’ve been moving.”

Most of her small, intimate pieces are based off her trip to Japan this summer.

“They are getting a bit more cartoon-y as I go, but it’s kind of a melodramatic gesture and action. I’m interested in hybrid of character, but also hybrid of culture. In this piece [Epi Center in the Dust Bowl], I used the Hiroshima landscape with rivers running through it. There’s this particular T-shaped bridge that was used as a target because it was so identifiable from above, so that’s where and why they dropped it there. It’s a little bit exaggerated and serious, but at the same time Toko is flying through the air and dropping with the bomb. I like approaching things that could be kind of scary in lighthearted way, you can lure viewers in this way to try and create a dialogue,” Nogami says.

Though she is forced to work smaller and with drawing mediums, painting will always be her favorite.

“I love painting, but it’s the hardest thing to do. Not so much physically, but as a medium, it’s just so deep and very difficult. You can make a bad painting very quickly,” she laughs. ”Whereas to make a good one, it takes a really long time. I use a water-soluble oil and I fell in love with it because of the quality and the translucency it has. I wanted to incorporate typical design elements of graphics and cartoons, but make it as deep and dimensional as I could with my painting technique.”

Most artists emphasize constant sketching to work out composition or to just keep your hand in making, but Nogami is more of a list-maker.

“Media selection is important, and the reason is because I really don’t sketch. If I do, it’s in the form of note taking so I write more about what I’m going to do in words. So I might write I’m going to do this, this, and this depending on the concepts. In this piece, Toko parting the swamps, so I knew I needed an alligator. I thought about what else in a swamp could be associated with my culture, so I put a lily pad. It’s sort of a stream of consciousness list, and from there I decide where to put things. I start out with abstract thumbnails of shapes to know where something will go, and then I go straight onto my panel. If I try to copy a drawing, it feels like it’s never better. I tend to work more intuitively,” she says.

Technical skill is evident in the artist’s work, from her smart use of color to detailed shading. Earning her BFA at Boston University, she received classical training where she pain and drew the figure from life for four years.

“There was nothing constructive or creative about it, it was just figure, figure, figure. With that skill, I can draw anyone, anywhere, in any circumstance, but it was so hard to break that. When I went to grad school at USF, I thought I was going to paint, but no matter what painting I did, it just didn’t work,” she says. “I had to completely abandon painting, and I went into video, which is how I got my Master’s degree. It really forced me to do something else, and I think it informed back into whatever I did after that. In hindsight, it was a very good experience, but when I was there, it was very hard.”

After a tough break-up with painting, she was able to make amends with the medium due to one thing:

“What changed my life the most was when I taught people with disabilities at Creative Clay for a year and a half. I watched people make art for the simple pleasure and joy of making it. It didn’t matter what it looked like,” Nogami says. “It was like, ‘I thought that’s what I was doing. What happened?’ That’s when I felt I could go back to painting. That experience is really what saved me in terms of making art that means something to me.”

To see more of Nogami’s work, visit her website: nogamiyoko.com.

You can see her works in person at Clayton Galleries, where she is represented.

Urban Dictionary defines Femme Fatale as “a woman with both intelligence and sex appeal that uses these skills to manipulate poor helpless men into doing what she wants. May cause death.” Keeping in line with this concept, Caitlin Albritton's "Femme Visuale" series aims to highlight local women artists and show off some lesser-known talent that's been hiding in the shadows. In the art world, if it ain't big and loud, it ain't being seen (looking at you, Koons). Art as a grand spectacle leaves little room for modest, sincere, or quiet voices, especially women's voices. And I promise, we won’t bite.


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