Ota leads first Asian studies colloquium


This painting, “Hongonko” or
“Spirit Returning Through the Incense,”
was the topic of Professor Ota’s talk,
during the first Asian studies colloquium.

The first Asian studies colloquium took place on the third floor of Harrison this past Wednesday when Assistant Professor of Art and Art History, Pauline Ota, shared her research on a sacred Japanese painting.

These talks are mainly put on for the Asian studies majors on campus, but anyone is welcome to attend. There will be one held each month.

This is just a start, but they are hoping by next year it will be in full swing and both staff and students will be giving talks.

The goal for right now is simply to get all of the Asian studies professors to meet the people majoring in their field.

Professors Ota’s talk was titled, “Rising from Scented Smoke: Lessons from China Via a Ghostly Beauty.” She will be giving the talk at the College Art Association’s annual conference.

“It will be a very creative and abstracted talk,” Ota warned the audience.

With the room completely filled and some students even standing, Ota gave her talk about a sacred painting of the Kudoji Temple in Japan.

The painting, entitled “Hongonko” or “Spirit returning through the incense,” by Maruyama Okya, features a woman whose lower half of her body falls away as if in mist.

It is one of four surviving paintings of female ghosts attributed to Maruyama Okya.

“The painting marks a particularly rich moment and shows the dialectical relationship between Japanese artists and legends of China,” said Ota.

The woman has on a simple robe, no feet and her hair down, all signs of a ghost in Japanese paintings.

Professor Ota’s speech focused on how she believes the painting represented an old Chinese legend of Li Fu-Jen, who died and whose family apparently saw her spirit returning through some incense they were burning.

“She has a regal nose and crescent eyebrows with red lips, which implies royalty,” said Ota. “Her eyes are looking down to the right, which would make sense that she is looking down from above since the ghost was rising above her father weeping.”

Other possibilities include that the painting is supposed to represent either Okya’s deceased wife, mistress or very ill sister. No document survives however that would say anything of who she is.

The box that housed the painting reads the name of the painter and the name on the outside and on the inside lid describes how the painting became a “secret treasure of the temple over the generations.”

Many other 18th century works discusses incense and spirits coming out of them as well.

Whether it be of Li Fu-Jen or another spirit, Ota reminded everyone that the painting’s mystery lies in its representations.

“The painting best serves to remind us of the power of imagination,” said Ota.

Our understanding or imagination of another country outside of the United States becomes almost our actual interpretation of them and vice versa, which is very much like this.

Ota’s trajectory as a scholar deals with Japanese art and she teaches a class on the subject, Supernatural Japanese Art.