by Max Sparber in

More than a decade ago, the Joslyn Art Museum offered a display of Japanese woodblock prints from a tradition called “ukiyo-e.” This translates approximately as “pictures of the floating world,” and depicted all manner of worldly subjects, including actors, wrestlers, landscapes, and, in history if not at the Joslyn, explicit depictions of coitus.

These prints, called shunga, were spectacularly graphic, often to an exaggerated extent. Naughty bits are not merely engorged and engaged in vigorous interplay, they are exaggerated to elephantine proportions. They were more than sexual -- they resembled a whale engaged in a battle with a giant squid. In fact, in 1814 an artist named Katsushika Hokusai created a piece of shunga called “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” in which an octopus has his way with an unclad woman.

This theme (called “tentacle erotica”) has persisted in Japanese art, by the way. It has little to do with what I am writing about here, but you never know when a reader might discover an interesting sensual byway, and I’m happy to provide.

I mention all this because The Joslyn, which 15 years ago demurred from shunga, has an exhibit right now that is directly inspired by it. In a little alcove off to the side of their permanent modern collection, there are a handful of pieces by artist with a name that sounds less like a traditional fine artist and more like a world beat deejay: iROZEALb.

And so, there, in the Scott Pavilion, are a half-dozen images of couples, well, coupling. They aren’t especially graphic -- exquisitely patterned kimonos cover whatever dance between squid and whale may be going on underneath. But there’s no doubt as to what is happening, as the couples are intertwined, ecstatic, sometimes wrapped in a shared pearl necklace, sometimes even with a few pearls in their mouths, with unavoidable erotic connotations. One woman even has her breasts exposed, although, in place of nipples, she has what looks to be tattoos of kanji, Japan’s logographic writing system. Calligraphic erotica! I may have found my own byway!

And there is so much more to like. Her couples are often wearing headphones, the cords coiled around them -- like tentacles, now that I think about it. I cannot imagine what shared music they are listening to, although it is fun to imagine what I might listen to in similar circumstances, and then disappointing to realize that I have no idea. This must be addressed. Everyone should have a playlist ready for the moments when their lives become shunga.

I am not sure that sex is the subject of these images, however -- at least, not exclusively. iROZEALb seems intrigued by the subject of identity, and, more than that, how flexible identity can be. Her couples, despite their Japanese garb, are ostensibly African-American. Hidden among classical Japanese habiliments are hoodies and sneakers, as though, when not fornicating, these characters sometimes breakdance.

The women have Afros, and both have facial silhouettes that I am sure the artist intended to be understood as those of black people. And yet their skin color, which is appropriately brown, seems in these images to be makeup, and incompletely applied. Their hands, ears, back of neck, and other places where makeup might be forgotten or washed away, show another skin tone -- blue. Legs are half-blue, and here it is clear that the brown color has been painted atop the blue.

The artist’s statement says that she was influenced by ganguro, a fashion fad in Tokyo that saw Japanese women wearing what seemed to be blackface. Initially shocked by this, iROZEALb investigated it further. She certainly discovered that the Japanese women who browned their faces weren’t merely impersonating the skin tones of black artists they admired, although they were doing that. The style also borrowed from kabuki makeup -- a popular subject in ukiyo-e prints -- and folklore. In fact, there was an offshoot called yamanba, named after a mountain witch. This fact makes me think American fashion fads are woefully bland.

It is interesting that the skin in iROZEALb’s paintings is blue. After all, these pieces depict a complicated series of references that almost entirely seem to be Japanese and African-American. Yet, when it comes down to any particular identity, the artist remains cagey.

These are not black people dressing in Japanese garb; neither are they Japanese people painting their skin brown. They are blue people doing both, although, to be fair, mostly what they are doing is listening to music and making love. It’s possible to get lost in the complex discussion of identity that iROZEALb presents, but that is subtext, and isn’t what the subjects of the painting are interested in. They are interested in music, they are interested in pearl necklaces, and, more than anything, they are interested in sex.

Now I think I will excuse myself. I have a playlist to work on.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at