After a fruitless two-year search for a venue, Shai Ohayon was on the verge of abandoning his dream of bringing the art of Tom of Finland to a Japanese audience.
Not a single gallery, museum or public space in Tokyo shared his enthusiasm for the artist, whose sensual and erotic depictions of the male body reside in the permanent collections of major museums around the world.
“I was getting nowhere, and I almost gave up in desperation,” Ohayon, an Israeli-British curator and director of The Container in Tokyo, told the Guardian on the eve of the artist’s first exhibition in Japan.
Even the support of the Tom of Finland Foundation, the Finnish embassy in Tokyo and the Finnish Institute in Japan failed to convince potential hosts.
For Ohayon, a Tokyo resident for 11 years, the rejections spoke to residual squeamishness about depictions of gay sexuality in Japan, despite its own tradition of erotic art and increasing awareness of LGBT rights.
Tom of Finland, who died in 1991, produced more than 3,500 illustrations, drawings, woodblock prints, and paintings, but only a small number could be described as sexually explicit. “They do not define him as an artist,” Ohayon said.
Gallery owners in Tokyo, however, thought otherwise. “It wasn’t overt homophobia per se,” Ohayon said. “That’s not very common in Japan. But people don’t like confrontation, and the easiest way to deal with it is to ignore it.
“Most places just didn’t respond – they didn’t want to say no. One person literally told me the works were ‘too gay’. Others were interested, but thought it was too risky. They said they were sorry, but they didn’t want to damage their image.”
His search ended with a chance introduction to the entertainment manager at Shibuya Parco, a shopping mall in Tokyo, who immediately agreed to host the exhibition, which opens on Friday.
“I’m excited and happy that it’s finally happening” Ohayon said. “I had even begun to wonder if I should be involved, but in the end, I’m openly gay in Japan … I’ve never waved the gay flag, but the exhibition quickly became political. The fact that so many people opposed it has made it much more significant.”
Reality & Fantasy: The World of Tom of Finland, which runs until 5 October at Parco’s Gallery X, features 30 works produced between 1946 to 1989, spanning the artist’s entire career.
“The exhibition puts emphasis on Tom of Finland’s role in promoting sensual and erotic depictions of the male body as a catalyst for social change and the acceptance of gay people, while facing a legal and social reality they were fighting to change,” the Finnish Institute in Japan said.
The institute has organised an auxiliary programme that includes a series of lectures about the artist. There will also be film screenings, a satellite exhibition of Japanese artists inspired by Tom of Finland, and a live-streamed virtual party from Parco’s rooftop on 25 September.
“I want people to come along and take a look, and hope they leave with the feeling that it was fun, that it’s OK to be gay, to accept gay people, and to be gay yourself,” Ohayon said.