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Book of the Week: A Pick by Keenan McCracken


Book of the Week Book of the Week: A Pick by Keenan McCracken Keenan McCracken selects Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa by Mao Ishikawa as Book of the Week.

Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa
 By Mao Ishikawa. Session Press, 2017.
Keenan McCracken selects Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa by Mao Ishikawa from Session Press as Book of the Week.

" 'I have two hearts in one body' says Mao Ishikawa, explaining her fondness for U.S. soldiers stationed in Okinawa and her disdain for the American government. It's with these words in mind that Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa, the first American monograph on Ishikawa's work, should be received.

Born in Okinawa in 1953, Ishikawa grew up in the wake of the American government seizing control of her island from the Japanese, control that would be largely returned to Japan in the early 70s. With the constant presence of American GIs and the pervasive effects of Japanese colonialism, Okinawan identity became a confused series of resentments and allegiances, leading Ishikawa to question Okinawa's relationship to itself and the surrounding world. But it wasn't until after her time as a student of Shomei Tomatsu that Ishikawa found the visual vocabulary and incentive to explore these themes, taking a job at a segregated bar for black soldiers and photographing the lives of her fellow bargirls and their lovers. What emerges is the work of a photographer who belongs in the pantheon of East Asian photography.

As someone working in the wake of the Provoke era, Ishikawa's photographs break away quite radically from the stylized, romantic syntax of her predecessors, instead thriving on intimacy, directness, and a kind of erasing of the distance between her and her subjects, many of whom are well aware of her presence but never entirely under her control. With the political scope of social documentary and the candidness of diaristic photography, Ishikawa's work sits in its own unique space, notably rejecting solemness for playfulness and depicting people from disparate but similarly oppressive backgrounds forming unlikely relationships at a time when history had made every attempt to label them enemies. And yet, seeing Red Flower as a didactic lesson in putting aside differences would be a mistake — it is the capturing of a social phenomenon from the inside, one that was an obvious reality for a woman who had grown up among social and political dissonance and who, along with her peers, had learned to make the best of it.

As an artist overshadowed by her Japanese male predecessors, many of whom used their work to exercise control over the female body and occasionally made Okinawa their subject matter, it is a welcomed change to see a female Okinawan native getting a chance for the recognition she deserves. Session Press's publication, beautifully edited and designed and comprising eighty full-bleed black and white photographs, is the perfect starting point for recognizing her work.

As Shomei Tomatsu wrote of Ishikawa, '[she] lives on the polar opposite of objectivity.' For anyone interested, it is well worth acquainting yourself with the irreverent subjectivity of one of Okinawa's most important photographers." — Keenan McCracken

Purchase Book

Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa. By Mao Ishikawa. Session Press, 2017.

Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa. By Mao Ishikawa. Session Press, 2017.


Keenan McCracken is an artist and writer living in New York.








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