Between the pages of her latest autobiographical collection, Red Flower, Mao Ishikawa gives us a candid glimpse of life as she knew it between 1975 and 1977 in Okinawa. It was a liberating period for much of the youth of the island, thanks to the unexpected occupation of the region. The newcomers brought not only arms and guns, but a taste of what life could be should the locals live without conforming to their cultural environment.
Although choosing to live freely may seem like an easy step, it was not. At the time, the residents put much value on the group, rather than the individual, as did much of Japan. Keeping the status quo was essential to this mindset; the belief was that nothing should change and everyone should know their place. It was ingrained.
However, it’s human nature to lust after liberty and look for a way to express your individuality. So, when the occupation began, many of the younger residents followed the servicemen, wanting to know more about their culture. The lessons they learned brought out their inner bold and fierce natures; the honne they’d been hiding.
Ishikawa was in her early 20s and by her own account ‘young and rash’; the finest way to be, given the amount of sheer opportunity that lay before her. And yet, miraculously, while surrounded by this dampening undertone, Ishikawa found an alternate culture: one where she could finally feel liberated from the constraints of her home.
"What’s wrong with loving a black man! What’s wrong with working at a black bar! What’s wrong with celebrating our freedom! What’s wrong with enjoying sex!"
Down in an entertainment district frequented predominantly by African-American servicemen, the forces having chosen to segregate by race, she took a job as a barmaid. The scene that existed in that time and place may be further than most imaginations can stretch. Although people of her profession often got a bad rap and were seen as products to be bought, Ishikawa had ulterior beliefs.
“There are those who look down on women who work at military bars. They assume that the women are prostitutes. That is a total misconception,” she writes as part of the grand introduction to her collection. “The worst position is looking down on others. I want to take down those high horses. The bar girls were living their lives to the fullest. “
Her words couldn’t ring truer. Ishikawa had relationships with a few different servicemen, around this time, as did many of her friends and co-workers. Though some of the servicemen had wives and even children back at home, while they were based on the island, they took temporary girlfriends. They acted out these transient romances; tragedies of sorts that could never last. But, then, all is fair in love and war.
Red Flower takes the reader on a journey through these stories. The initial imagery is relatively tame — pictures of friends sitting among one another laughing, smiling, being social. The tide soon turns a handful page in, though, when we start to see deeper into Ishikawa's private world. A woman in just her briefs stretches backward; chest pushed forward. She knows no modesty; she doesn’t need to here.
The life of a carefree bar girl that Ishikawa once was and tangible art collide to create an earnest collection of snapshots. From love and loss to the strong pursuit of individual freedom, they each tell a tale. Red Flower intersects these moments, much like a private photo album may, only with added flair.
“What’s wrong with loving a black man! What’s wrong with working at a black bar! What’s wrong with celebrating our freedom! What’s wrong with enjoying sex!” she writes. The actions that may have otherwise rendered the people of her island speechless were her reality now. She could openly love who she loved, be who she was, and, crucially own her sexuality, whatever that may be, with sheer pride.
“Let’s live free, do what we want, and trust ourselves!”
“I liked these bar girls who lived open and free in narrow, cramped Okinawa. I had never cared much about what others thought of me but their ethos of “let’s live free, do what we want, and trust ourselves” made me care even less,” she continues in the collection.
For that reason, her images have an authentic quality. The subjects; her friends, loved ones, passersby, are almost oblivious to the camera. They are captured experiencing life to its fullest; sometimes nude, sometimes clothed. Neither of these states being consequential.
Couples stand next to one another, unclothed, unembarrassed. They are not ashamed of who they are or what they stand for; utterly secure in their identities. In another revealing picture, an eccentric young woman lifts her top to reveal her bare breasts. She is not at all demure in this stance. She doesn’t avert her eyes from the lens, but stares boldly into it, daring the onlooker to try to judge her.
The page-turning imagery is as rare as it is honest; a world apart from the staged sequences we’ve come to know and sadly expect from so many worn-out modern artists. Gazing over them almost feels sinfully voyeuristic. These are pictures of someone’s private life; bare, frank, and unedited. These insights are just what she’s chosen to gift to the public who care to look, just as they are. Aptly uncensored.
Red Flower by Mao Ishikawa is published by Session Press.