Mari Matsuda: Founding Critical Race Theorist, Activist and Artist

contemptorary: We are so grateful for your existence and presence in the world. We have been avid readers of your critical race and legal scholarship — and we were so excited to learn that you also have an art practice. We were curious what the field or the practice has offered you. So we wanted to ask you about your legal studies and art relationship — there seems to be a small tradition in which legal experts take up (and take apart) representation; we’re thinking, NourbeSe Philip as the most contemptorary example.


Walter Benjamin describes the necessity of “The Author as Producer”—where the writer of the photograph not only provides the captions and the text, but the labor involved in photography in order to unsettle artistic categories and remain in solidarity against the function of management. Is this how you might describe the dynamics between your legal scholarship, your theoretical work and your art practice: as an undertaking that unsettles labor and author categories? 


Mari Matsuda: No one has ever opened an interview with me expressing gratitude for my existence. Blessings to you for your existence as radical women art and idea generators.  

Poet lawyers abound – Elizabeth Alexander, Pauli Murray – some of my absolute favorites. Many of us chose law because it is a tool for justice. A problematic tool, but not one to dismiss lightly.  

Critical race theorists came to understand law as an ideological support system for inequalities of all kinds. Law allocates wealth, power, life itself. As Woody Guthrie said, some kill you with a six gun, some with a fountain pen. Understanding how law worked as an ideological system, what lies it told, how the lies seduced, how they were resisted, was our work.  

Entering the art conversation late, I find art questions are basically the same as law questions. Like Walter Benjamin, I don’t see aesthetic value as separate from value in the human struggle for just and beautiful lives. My art making is not so much what you are calling unsettling categories (although it ends up doing that) as it is taking sides.

It is no surprise to me that women who are warriors in law would also make poems, or that the anti-racist historian, Nell Painter switched to art. The project doesn’t change. It is about describing a world inhabited by humans, with all its pain and all its possibility.

When I picked up a hammer again after putting it down decades before, I was suffering a bit emotionally and just wanted the joy back that came from having a hammer in my hand.  I am a fan of the great socialist, William Morris who believed human beings are entitled to meaningful work, the work of the hand, the ability to produce and live among beautiful things. He wanted this for everyone. Once one picks up the hammer to make art, inevitably, themes emerge. I make art to remind us that humans need joy and beauty, that we can create together as we always have. As artists in a moment of struggle, the choice is clear: join the killing machine or join the creative commons. Only one is going to emerge victorious from this historical juncture.

My biggest project so far was to make a sound sculpture comprising instruments from the waste stream, with musicians I recruited to a peace orchestra. It came with a Manifesto of Radical Intersubjective Possibility, which ended up feeding my critical race theory work on the role of utopian visions in politics. (an article on this is forthcoming in the McGill Law Journal/Revue de droit de McGill)


contemptorary: We love the image of picking up the hammer as your return to making art, as opposed to the camera or the brush, etc! Under the new rise of fascism that we knew never really went away, we have been looking at our own field to start a conversation about the ways it, too reflects the political landscape that led to this administration. For example, we have found that time and again racist art — also known as “racially insensitive” art — that people of color have spoken against is being defended under “freedom of expression.” What are your thoughts on this rhetoric of civil rights to defend the rights of the oppressor?


MM: In our book Words That Wound, my critical race theorist co-authors and I pointed out that the greatest threat to freedom of expression is inequality. Who gets to speak on what stage to what audience with what authority and what consequence are all functions of power. Any incident of racially clueless, or just plain racist art plays out on a killing field on the American continent. The history of native extermination, chattel slavery, pogroms, night rides, lynchings, are all the background facts critical race theorists start from in analyzing a bit of speech offered up as “free” in the marketplace of ideas. Any discourse of pure tolerance – “any artist can paint any subject and display it anywhere without regard to context or consequences, and that is freedom” – is thin when you insert the power analysis. Intuitive anti-censorship is a useful starting point, but it is not the end of the analysis. That being said, I will add that I am a member of the ACLU. I often disagree with them on this particular point, and in my experience the disagreement is enlightening and hard in the great tradition of allyship.  

contemptorary: “Know your rights:” how important is this imperative in the state of exception? Is it still important to know the law and rights, even when the government is positioning itself above and beyond it?

MM: Critical race theory emerged from a tiny corner of legal theory called the critique of the critique of rights. We were trying to hold on to a contradiction: telling people they “have rights” when any random state of exception snatches rights away in an instant is just participation in mental slavery. AND rights claims have moral power. They have narrative power. They have visioning power. Oppressed people have used rights claims and longed for rights and been willing to die for rights. Their struggle tells me there is something to this form of thinking that has real value. I’ve written a bunch of words about this, but the theory is not my creation – it comes out of struggle. Last month you heard people yelling in the streets all over the U.S. “Health Care IS, A, RIGHT, health care ISARIGHT.” It had a rhythm, a beat, and a radical vision of rights coming out of human need. So yes, know your rights and make your rights. Art is a right.

contemptorary: How can the ways that different racial minorities are reduced via the gaze of whiteness be utilized to build strategic and surprising coalitions (coalitions that do not collapse each other, coalitions that do not replicate pre-existing racial and gender hierarchies, coalitions that fundamentally work against anti-blackness)? Are moments of mourning potent times, times that decay the exceptionalisms we adhere to?


MM: I have a piece in Stanford Law Review that I hand to students when they come to me in tears because someone was mean to them in the struggle. It quotes Bernice Johnson Reagon: “If it feels good, it’s not coalition.” We are in the fight of our lives. We have a chance to make things so much better, in vast, revolutionary ways, if we work together with all kinds of people who are at different places on the learning curve. This is hard, messy work. Some people will do a better job if they stay in a relatively safe place and shore up their own community. Take care, survive, hold close. Some brave souls are going to step up and out. When it comes to fighting racism, we can’t do that without centering anti-Blackness. Ours is the country, after all, where anti-Blackness was used to consolidate empire and build wealth for elites to a degree never before seen on planet earth. That empire went on to wreck the homelands where most of us, immigrant descendants came from. In the Asian American community, there is a strong left tradition (read Karen Ishizuka on this) of fighting anti-Asian racism while standing in explicit solidarity with Black and Brown communities.

Intersectionality is hard. Anyone who says they are practicing it is probably making mistakes left and right. We try to do it, but most of us are products of a monolingual/monocultural U.S. education system. We are largely ignorant of the history of the places where our nation drops bombs. We are largely new to emerging understandings of gender identity. The list of what I don’t know about other faiths, non-faiths, sexualities, indigenous knowledge, immigration stories, is long. I try to teach a skill set that includes asking “tell me more about why you feel that way,” when you step on a landmine of intercultural conflict. “I’m sorry, I should know this, and it is not fair that my ignorance becomes your burden, but if you want to tell me anything, I promise to listen, and work hard to educate myself further.” I’ve had students leave the room when it gets too hot, but some stay and become richer, stronger. I titled one of my books Where Is Your Body, from an old movement query – it asks what you have done lately to show up for racial justice. If you show up and participate in actual anti-racist struggle, it becomes easier to have the hard conversations. Much of the pathetic, casual racism that happens in the art world occurs when people decide to start doing racial commentary when they haven’t ever shown up.

The rise of fascism has helped us show up! There were threats at synagogue and mosque on my small island last month, and beautiful interfaith, multi-racial  coalitions are fighting back and supporting our attorney general’s lawsuit against Trump. The real “exception,” if you will, is climate. People are showing up for the Science March and Climate March, with the predictable stumblings over intersectionality. We are in danger of losing stability in our water table in Honolulu. If you can’t form a coalition in order to have water to drink, then it’s over.


contemptorary: In this powerful interview you mention a few things that we wanted to ask you about. We wanted to ask you more about your reference of Hearst papers, and your thoughts on the relationship between the Hearst papers, to the fake news of today. We can’t imagine a world in which, fifty years from now, Breitbart or Infowars are the main communications conglomerates, owning everything from right-wing economics to fashion magazines. Could you elaborate on the impact of the Hearst papers on the internment, and if you see parallels between the Hearst and the fascist propaganda publications of today?   


MM: The Hearst papers carried on a tradition of violent xenophobia that existed on the West Coast since the 19th century. Chinese immigrants faced lynching, police violence, and “riots” where whole communities of Chinese were destroyed through murder and arson, from California and up through the Pacific Northwest. No coincidence that this violence coincided with slavery and reconstruction. The words and images depicting Asians as oversexualized, villainous, vermin, were regular fodder for decades before my ancestors even arrived. The unconstitutional incarceration of my father, a U.S. citizen born in Boyle Heights, could not have happened without this propaganda.  Words, like art, have power that can take down  bodies. My father’s family were Okinawan internationalists. They opposed militarism, opposed the Imperial Japan that had taken over their homeland and forced their emigration. None of this mattered, Dad was labeled the enemy “non-alien,” subject to lock up.

The neo-fascist false news distributors today use an old tactic, stirring up resentment to kill working class solidarity, as the Workingman’s Party did in old California. This nativism has resiliency and deep roots, I am not surprised to see its resurgence, with analogs all over the world, in this time of globalized economic misery.

contemptorary: You mentioned that your father was from Boyle Heights — we were so excited to learn this, as we’ve been closely following the protests and conversations surrounding gentrification and artwashing there. There’s this very long, arcane and rooted discourse of the value imported art objects bring to underserved and working class, immigrant communities — and hopefully, an emerging discourse that critiques the imported gallery approach through critical race theory as a form of colonialist discourse. What are your thoughts on the ways in which art is discussed as a foreign, outsider element, particularly in Boyle Heights, which is a neighborhood with long and variegated immigration histories?


MM: The Boyle Heights I remember is corridos emanating from storefronts, and somber gatherings of Nisei vets at Evergreen cemetery, where they honored the many who died in the war after volunteering from behind barbed wire. The magical Boyle Heights of my dad’s memory goes back to before the war. He describes a place where he heard a dozen languages every day, where everyone used public transportation, and the skies were so clear you could see Mt. Baldy. He learned about the whole world from his neighbors. From “Zionists” who were anti-racist, anti-war, anti-capitalist. From Armenian refugees who told first hand stories of genocide. From Russians and Irish who apparently came color coded, black and white. From “Okies” – dustbowl refugees who he says were treated the worst by the police, worse than Asians or Mexicans or Blacks. The theaters and swimming pools were segregated, but the schools and the track meets and football fields were not. My dad had a rich life with classmates – many the children of highly educated refugees – who pushed him academically and athletically. When my dad was sent to Italy during the war, he quickly learned Italian because he had learned Latin in high school in Boyle Heights. Of course the war clouds made his teenage life hard – he was beaten up and left shirtless in the street by a white mob downtown once – but at home in Boyle Heights he lived in what sounded to me, from his stories, like an intercultural paradise. This was his childhood before the war. Then he was yanked out of school and sent to Heart Mountain internment camp. His classmates and teachers sent letters, reporting on the status of the chess club, and the track team he had held records for. But he had gone on to more serious things, and was advocating Nisei enlistment in the war against fascism.  

The last time I took dad to Boyle Heights we heard Spanish everywhere, just as my dad had as a child. People forget that Spanish was the language of Ciudad LA since before the U.S. existed. English is the second language. English wants to go to first and I am glad there is a resistance. The invasion of the land-snatchers is happening in my town, too, and everywhere on this planet where city places once overlooked by elites now smell like money. They let the artists and hipsters form a beachhead, then the billionaires move in. The artist is a welcome mat. You get to live there for a second while they step up, wipe their shoes on you, and take over. The greed machine killed Soho, and now it wants Chinatown, Manhattan. It is taking Kaka’ako, Honolulu, and this is enraging. Huge canyons of concrete obliterate the view plane we once collectively owned, from mountain to ocean. The slums and rabbit warrens of warehouses and small businesses, where my mother’s impoverished immigrant family once lived, were replaced by condos for billionaire speculators. I made a print of the last house standing – with the handcut fishscale shingles left by immigrant carpenters – in Kaka’ako. Now it’s all  concrete and glass monoliths. In the shadows of these towers, you see families with infants and children living under plastic tarps on the sidewalk. The police conduct “sweeps”– they actually use that term – to remove unhoused citizens from the sidewalk. The Honolulu of my youth – a truly middle-class-in-ascendency post-war place when ordinary workers had nice homes – is over.  Artists have to understand their role in this land grabbing. The non-profits and struggling collectives that seek the same cheap rents that immigrants and workers seek do not intend displacement, but they are used by developers to mark a neighborhood as “OK for investors and white people.” The demand should remain affordable housing for all, and subsidized full employment for artists, so that desperate freelancers aren’t involuntary conscripts in the process of moving poor bodies out and rich ones in.

I have to add one thing my dad told me never to forget: this displacement in LA started in Chavez Ravine, when they destroyed a beautiful, vibrant working class community to build a stadium.

Photographs by Reese Kato, courtesy of Mari Matsuda

contemptorary: There’s currently a standstill dialectic about the gallery circuit. Chin-Tao Wu writes that museums have been ancillary public relations vehicles for multi-national corporations. In order to get away from the art object, art historian Jane Blocker argues that artists turned to performance. Though this argument does not account for the ways in which documented performances too become objects for sale, and circulated as rare originals. The object vs. performance debate is currently circular, and does not account for the fact that the most expensive and most sought after objects are still the ones made by white male artists.  From the standpoint of a legal scholar and artist, could you speak to us about your relationship to objects, property, sales and the gallery system?

Photographs by Reese Kato, courtesy of Mari Matsuda


MM: The problem is the market, not the object. Saying we are post-object is a bit elitist since so many ordinary people like to go to museums and look at objects. Because I started as a metalsmith, objects are precious to me. I reject the role of the object in the market: to hold wealth, speculate, and signal that you are better because you have fancier objects. I embrace the role of the object as the expression of the human, of the desire for beauty, pleasure, justice, and liberation from suffering. Because beauty and justice are linked in my work, people are naturally invited to join in and interact. Performance visits my art practice. I made a little talismanic Codex of letters to the future about how we survived the Great Destruction. I thought the Codex was a static object, but when I posted a picture of it in process, people started sending me poems to put in it, and it became an interactive object. I was honored to receive a poem from Red Fawn from a North Dakota prison. She is awaiting trial for defending the water at Standing Rock, facing a possible life sentence. #FreeRedFawn   

When you make art, the universe brings you gifts.  It is a sad thing when art is reduced to just another commodity. Receiving words from Red Fawn made me think about forms of connection, value, and recognition we make completely separate from the greed-based economy. (This is what you are doing, by the way)

Thank you, women art warriors, for the chance to exchange thinking with you.

contemptorary: Thank you for everything!

Mari J. Matsuda is an American lawyer, activist, and law professor at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii. Matsuda returned to Richardson in the fall of 2008. Prior to her return to Hawaii, she was a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Georgetown University Law Center, specializing in the fields of torts, constitutional law, legal history, feminist theory, critical race theory, and civil rights law.