“Venus Jar 2: I Accept,” 2019. Clay, glaze, porcelain, casein paint • Photo by Sarah D. King

We are greeted at the entrance to Hanako O’Leary’s exhibition by a wall of over 300 small masks. They represent, according to the artist, facets of the underworld and small goddesses who represent many emotional states.

The title of this exhibition is Izanami, which refers to the goddess of creation and death in the Shinto pantheon. Izanami, with her husband Izanagi, gave birth to Japan’s many islands. But she also gave birth to the god of fire, which burned her up. She went to the underworld, or Yomi, where her story ends in traditional Shinto.

But O’Leary has given the goddess a new identity, based on feminism and Japanese folklore. Born to a Japanese mother and American father, O’leary was taken by her mother for several months every summer until she was 18 to her ancestral home in Japan on the Setonaikai Islands. There, she learned from her four aunts, Nagako, Nobuko, Atsuko, and Masako.

“I descend from my mother Sumiko, and her mother, Hatsuko. I am one in a long line of Japanese women who dared to defy tradition and forge their own path,” said the artist. “I make art because I believe it is through my hands that the deepest secrets, oldest stories, and most potent magic of my ancestors are preserved.”

O’Leary has literally resurrected Izanami in her new exhibition at the Frye Art Museum. The goddess becomes the queen of life and death, realizing her own potential. Hundreds of small masks protect her as she moves through the underworld.

12 life size masks, in a piece called “War Masks,” hang on another wall. They encompass different aspects of female power such as ‘The Queen,’ ‘The Dreamer,’ ‘The Strategist,’ ‘The Healer,’ ‘The Assassin,’ ‘The Veteran.’ The artist has placed a vagina in place of a mouth.

Hanako O’Leary explaining her work • Photo Susan Platt

These masks are inspired by the Noh theater tradition, in which masks represent gods, females, males, spirits, and demons.  Traditionally Noh drama centers around a woman who has been wronged. With these frightening masks by O’Leary, the female takes back her life and asserts her secret weapon.

Between the two sets of masks are 12 ceramic vessels, each an original shape that expands on established ceramic traditions of vessels in their unusual shapes and imagery. Collectively they make another feminist statement: hands reaching from a center, women clustering in closed circles of support.

The artist identified the small compact figure as her  mother in “Venus Jar No. 1: I Am.” “Venus Jar 2: Utsuro Bune (Hollow Ship)” refers to a folklore tale of fishermen finding an abandoned ship with only a women lying inside. She does not speak Japanese so they put her back to sea.

The vessel shows many hands reaching up, a statement of her self sufficiency , according to the artist. Fingers form various mudra. A common mudra here, and in many of the figures in the exhibition, is the third finger pointing upward. The gesture has a specific meaning in our American culture, but O’Leary is playing with an intersection of meanings by describing it as a mudra. But it is, unquestionably, a statement by the artist about rejection of passivity.

We see anger as well as magic in these ceramic forms, transforming traditional Japanese stereotypes of women. They are often dressed in elaborate clothes and hairdos, like geishas, for example, although these women certainly hid their very real powers under those elaborate clothes and rituals. Recently, artgoers saw many examples in Renegade Edo and Paris at the Asian Art Museum and the current Hokusai show at the Seattle Art Museum.

Above all, in O’Leary’s Izanami exhibition, we experience a powerful feminism that looks at women holding each other and life size masks transformed from historical traditions to suggest the many sides of strong women.

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