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--Archived Article--

Watermelon Sushi: An AAV Art Gallery Exhibition

Featuring Works by Yayoi Lena Winfrey

by Yayoi Lena Winfrey, AAV Contributing Editor


Featured Artist:

Yayoi Lena Winfrey


This year's third place winner of the annual Seattle Urban League Minority Artists Exhibit, Yayoi Lena Winfrey says her art reflects a lifelong issue about being biracial.

"In the past, people never knew how to categorize my art. After graduating from the Art Institute of Seattle in 1985, I did a lot of commercial fashion work for companies like Normandee Rose, Union Bay and International News. I'd draw female figures with Asian features, but with very full lips and wavy hair. Obviously they looked like me, but since most people could never determine my ethnicity, they didn't know who my drawings represented either. It was just a matter of time before being biracial became acceptable and now, 15 years later, my art is considered chic. Meanwhile, I didn't always get a lot of work when I first started because my clients wanted me to draw people that looked Nordic. After all, I do live in Seattle, home of the flagship store for Nordstrom."

In her four-part series titled Watermelon Sushi, Winfrey illustrates animated female figures in a linear style using pen and ink colored in with electric neon pencils.

"It must be the Japanese in me. My mother taught my sister and me to draw when we were kids and our models were always the comic book heroes our cousins mailed from Tokyo. Before Speed Racer became a fad, my sister and I were into all kinds of manga action heroes. If you check me out in person, you'll see that I have big eyes, yet I've always drawn faces with narrow, slanted eyes. My mom thinks it's weird because, like a lot of Japanese, she admires round eyes. They say people tend to be attracted to faces similar to the very first one they ever connected to--their mother's. My mom's got some big old lips for an Asian woman. Especially back in the day when she wore ruby, red lipstick."


The Garden of Earthly Delights shows a fluid figure of a woman dressed in a black and white checkered dress looking over her shoulder as she holds up half a watermelon. All around her, strange plants spring from the earth--watermelon slices and norimakizushi or sushi rolled in seaweed at the tip of their stems.

 "In 1998, I directed a feature film based on a screenplay I wrote the year before called Watermelon Sushi. It's a story about two sisters who are Afro-Asian and how each one, because of her physical looks, experiences racism differently. When I was invited to participate in the Japanese Consulate-sponsored Cherry Blossom Festival Exhibit this April, I decided to create illustrations using the same theme. A good friend who is a photographer suggested I make everything Watermelon Sushi until I get the funds to re-shoot the film."


"Kung Fool Fightin' -- or foo', which is how I pronounce it in Ebonics -- shows two women in a martial arts stance. The Asian woman in front of the huge slice of watermelon is dressed in clothing sprinkled with little sushi rolls all over them while sistah girl in a gigantic afro is fighting her and wearing a watermelon-patterned outfit. Both women have balloons over their heads indicating what they're thinking. The sushi girl is all for sushi and watermelon chicky-poo is making her statement about watermelon. Which one wins the fight? And, why are they fighting? That's why I call them fools, or foo's. Besides, the title reminds me of that 1970's tune of the same name by Carl Douglas. Even though some Asian Americans say the lyrics are racist as it refers to "funky Chinamen from funky Chinatown", I think it was just the way folks talked back then. It was a satire on all the hype about kung-fu movies."

The piece that won Winfrey third prize is called Continental Divide and features a woman divided exactly in half. One part of her is a traditional Japanese woman wearing a kimono while the other half is a Black woman.

"I drew a conventionally-dressed Japanese girl holding a bowl of rice because the side she represents of me is more Japanese than Japanese American. Technically, I'm issei. I know more about Japanese culture than I do about Japanese American culture. My watermelon woman wears a big sassy afro puff on the side of her head and flashy costume jewelry. She's more like a hip-hop 'round the way girl as opposed to an African-American female executive at a Fortune 500 company or even a traditional African sistah from Benin sportin' a gelee. Being primarily a fashion artist, I'm more into kicky, kitschy cool than stuffy portraits. If you want realistic landscapes and stern oils of old wrinkled people, call my mom. She's a damn good artist, but she likes the old school stuff. In fact, she often asks me why I draw dead people."


Related Readings



Born in Tokyo, raised in America and Europe, Yayoi Lena Winfrey is a Japanese-African-American writer, visual artist, filmmaker, metaphysician, free spirit, and vegan yogaholic with a "New York soul living in a California body." She attended the Art Institute of Seattle, and has worked as a freelance writer and illustrator for International Examiner, Northwest Nikkei, Mavin, Metropolitan Living, and others. She currently contributes regular arts and entertainment features for the Northwest Asian Weekly. An archive of her columns and artwork for AAV appears here.

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