New art history professor shares her passion for East Asian art in new spring course

Dr. Wakamatsu is a new professor in the art and art history department at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. Dr. Yurika Wakamatsu explains the core themes of her two upcoming classes offered in Spring 2018 –Introduction to East Asian Art and Gender and Art in Japan. Nora Fujita-Yuhas/Occidental Weekly

Yurika Wakamatsu, the newest assistant professor of art history, will teach two new art history courses at Occidental next semester: Introduction to East Asian Art, and Gender and Art in Japan. The classes will analyze scholarship on the complexity of gender in East Asian art and culture, according to Wakamatsu. This is Wakamatsu’s first semester at Occidental; she currently teaches Gender and Visual Culture in East Asia, a Cultural Studies Program (CSP) course. 

Originally from Japan, Wakamatsu said she moved to the United States at 16 years old. She lived with relatives while attending high school in Illinois, before returning to Japan and studying at Yokohama International School near Tokyo. Wakamatsu earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois and her master’s degree, doctoral degree and postdoctoral research from Harvard University after working as a translator at the National Museum of Japanese History for two years in Chiba, Japan.

Wakamatsu said she originally discovered art history as another avenue of visual art. After exploring a wide breadth of visual art mediums — from ceramics to painting to black-and-white photography — she found her passion for art history in its use of language to describe visual art.

“I immediately fell in love with the art of describing what you see,” Wakamatsu said. “[Art history] was a language I never experienced before. When you enter an art history classroom, it’s very dark. Then, they project beautiful images on the screen and start talking using language and vocabulary that I never experienced before and I was completely hooked.”

Currently, Wakamatsu is writing the book “Painting in Between: Gender and Modernity in the Japanese Literati Art of Okuhara Seiko (1837–1913),” which furthers her dissertation’s research on the intersections between modernism and postmodernism in 19th-century Japanese art. Wakamatsu noted that as industrialization occurred, the images of gender and masculinized women changed, especially for Seiko who dressed as a man and carried a permit to allow her short haircut, which was otherwise illegal at the time.

This semester, Wakamatsu is introducing first-year students to depictions of gender in 12th-century China through contemporary anime in her CSP course. Zachary Schuman (first year) is currently enrolled in Wakamatsu’s CSP course and credits Wakamatsu’s passion and knowledge of her field for the meaningful discussions in class.

Dr. Yurika Wakamatsu teaches her Cultural Studies Program class, Gender and Visual Culture in East Asia to first-years at Occidental College, in Los Angeles on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017. Nora Fujita-Yuhas/Occidental Weekly

“Her love for the class is infectious, and I can’t remember a single dull moment, even while learning about things that one might assume to be incredibly boring, like textile production in ancient China,” Schuman said. “This CSP wasn’t even my first choice, but she made me fall in love with the material and really opened my eyes to art, to which I was admittedly pretty indifferent before taking the class.”

Mary Beth Heffernan, professor of sculpture and photography and chair of the art and art history department, explained that the department reapplied for the Asian art historian position due to the importance of understanding the art and culture of East Asia, especially given Occidental’s location on the Pacific Rim. Exploring East Asian art — Japan, China and Korea — is Wakamatsu’s specialty, and Heffernan expressed the department’s move to balance broader courses with deeper areas of inquiry that drew on faculty’s area of expertise.

“[Wakamatsu is] brilliant, and the care that she brought to her job talk [about] tea houses was so enthralling, so thorough, and it made us so excited about the material she was talking about that we became convinced she could get students equally excited about the material that she is going to teach,” Heffernan said.

According to Wakamatsu, teaching at Occidental has allowed her to connect individually with students, which she values; it allows her to expand her course and incorporate new material students find interesting. Wakamatsu notes her CSP students’ interest in Korean art and gender challenges her to find new scholarly material.

“I really enjoy talking to students individually. That’s why I wanted to come to Oxy because the college really values individual interaction between faculty and students. That’s been the highlight of my teaching experience,” Wakamatsu said.

Wakamatsu will teach ARTH 160 (Introduction to East Asian Art) from 10:05–11:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and ARTH 365 (Gender and Art in Japan) from 3:05–4:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays during the Spring 2018 semester.


*Note: This article was updated on Nov. 8 to correct Professor Heffernan’s statements.