Japanese-Ghanaian Artist Toshiko Tanaka Shares How a Multicultural Identity Has Shaped her Work
Jul 29, 2020 05:02PM
By Nana Ama Addo
In a time of racial turmoil, FunTimes Magazine brings balance by celebrating multicultural identities of the African Diaspora. We speak to Japanese-Ghanaian artist Toshiko Tanaka to learn about her journey, insight and inspiration as biracial artist in Ghana and America.
I first met Tanaka in 2015 as an undergraduate at the College of Wooster in Ohio. Immediately, I recognized her Ghanaian accent and noticed her reserved and friendly aura, which is also very Ghanaian. Since then, I have watched her artwork blossom and mature over the years. Through her creations, she wows global audiences and inspires the expanding creative economy throughout the African Diaspora. This visual artist, born to a Ghanaian mother and Japanese father, is a cultural maverick. Currently, she resides in the United States, where she utilizes her BA in Communications Studies and Studio Art to develop her illustrative skills and grow her painting expertise. She also creates unique artwork pieces for clients.
As an adolescent, Tanaka’s multicultural identity posed a conflicting viewpoint on her sense of self. She says: “I grew up in a lot of places – short spurts of living in different countries, but mostly in Ghana. Being biracial was difficult in my early childhood. It was always noticeable and impressions were always based on where I was from, or where people thought I was from. Playing both sides of the field as a child was not easy. I ended up being a people pleaser because I so badly wanted to fit-in and not feel alienated. I wanted to feel like I belonged and to prove the naysayers wrong--but it was also like I had to pick between my two identities.”
However, she is proud of being both Japanese and Ghanaian and celebrates her two cultures. In highlighting the cultural influences that have shaped her growth, Tanaka muses: “My childhood was centered more on my Ghanaian heritage, but I have also been exposed to Japanese culture. I enjoy a quick yakisoba meal, or some takoyaki starters. Japanese food and film are what I truly adore. With my mother being my main support system, Ghanaian culture was a huge performing factor in my life: the language, food, film, music and clothing were mostly Ghanaian.”
For Tanaka, moving to the US granted her more freedom of expression and allowed her to strengthen her cultural foundations. Tanaka recalls: “I visited the US for the first time when I was about 10, to see my family. I did the usual tourist activities, like visiting Six Flags. Full immersion into American culture happened when I studied at Wooster, Ohio in 2015. I was always quite independent. I went to boarding school at an early age and had two working parents, so the independent life was a key factor in my development, but being far from home within a different cultural context did have an effect on my identity. For one thing, I allowed myself to experiment with more of my identities. Also, I was much more deeply connected to my roots as my identifiers within this new context. I do not think there has been a shift in my identity as a biracial woman, but there is definitely more self-awareness and an assertiveness in who I am and who I want to be.”
In this new age of social justice, Tanaka encourages readers to consider the Black Lives Matter movement within a historical context – a microcosm of the global fight to dismantle western imperialism. She says: “Racism is not a new concept. Growing up in a formerly colonized nation, I also witnessed the effects within the culture, which is largely responsible for the inequity we still experience as a nation today.
MY GOD, BLACK PEOPLE ARE RESILIENT, BLESS US, BECAUSE WE NEED IT.
My God, Black people are resilient. Bless us, because we need it. The racial context and prejudices evident in the U.S. are more explicit to me now. Living in the U.S. was still a new experience for me because of assimilation and accommodation factors. I grew up in more homogeneous societies - I was either a foreigner, or I was just Black. Here I am Black, a foreigner and an immigrant. The Black experience here is very relatable: the shared sense of commitment to justice, the deliberate violence towards Black lives has seen the rage, the sorrow and the stories seen firsthand. These are extremely powerful.”
“The Black lives movement was a catalyst for change in my personal life. It was a means of self-growth and self-awareness as an individual, and it was very much needed. It brought a sense of clarity on legislations that are critical to benefitting Black lives, and the fact that this sense of blackness is worldwide, as well as the impact of anti-blackness. I have committed myself to healing, cooperating and co-creating with others, and fighting for the collective – is eye-opening. It is important. I had this introspective moment like, is this our condition, being Black? Our Lives Matter.”
For Tanaka, art has been a method of healing. “Art has always been 100% therapy for me. What better way to heal than to exert your whole being into a work? Living away from home also made me explore this narrative of being an immigrant, being Black, and the transnational generation of women I began to see all around me.”
“Art has always been 100% therapy for me. What better way to heal than to exert your whole being into a work? Living away from home also made me explore this narrative of being an immigrant, being Black, and the transnational generation of women I began to see all around me.”
In advocating for communities to practice active self-care, Tanaka says: “The way our world is unfolding right now, with the difficulties we are facing, I would encourage everyone to take care of themselves and each other, and take time to check in with themselves. One of my favorite quotes for new days and beginnings is “One more day to be yourself.” Hopefully that mantra proves empowering for someone struggling (like myself) to wake and tackle each new day.”
Tanaka reminds us that as the African Diaspora, we are of many shades, and it is impossible to paint us with a broad brush. We thank Tanaka for sharing these unique and intimate moments with us, and appreciate the vibrant creations she shares with the world. To explore or discuss more of her work, connect with her on Instagram at @tosh.002 or contact her at [email protected].
Are you a person of the African Diaspora who would like to share your story and impact? Email us at [email protected].