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
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."