Core Program


Open Edo: Diverse, Ecological, and Global Perspectives on Japanese Art, 1603–1868

–Kristopher W. Kersey (Art History, UCLA)

“Panoramic Map of the Tōkaidō Highway.” Shōtei Kinsui, drawn by Kuwagata (better known as Keisai). Published by Sanoya Ichigorō, Izumiya Hanbei, and Izumoji Manjirō, n.d. (likely 1810). Polychrome xylography, 52 x 24 inches. Richard C. Rudolph Collection of Japanese Maps, Special Collections, UCLA Library.

The art of Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868) presents a paradox. On the one hand, the nineteenth-century proliferation of ukiyo-e—polychrome woodblock prints of the “floating words” of theater and sex work—made the popular visual culture of this city a familiar component of modern art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Yet the outsize fascination with ukiyo-e outside Japan has sorely obscured Edo’s far more diverse social, material, and artistic landscapes. In an effort to countervail the enduring stereotypes of early modern Japanese art, Open Edo will present a suite of conferences addressing three interlinked themes: the representation and agency of marginalized groups, the ecological horizons of artistic production, and the ongoing need to counter the myth that Japan in early modernity was somehow disconnected from the rest of the world. Throughout the year-long series, the focus will be both historical and historiographical inasmuch as Open Edo asks how Japanese art history might challenge the discourse of early modernity writ large. Each conference will incorporate a site visit to an Edo-period archival resources in Southern California. At the conclusion of the year, selected papers will be assembled for publication in the UCLA Clark Memorial Library Series.

Conference 1
Global Edo: Edo in the World and the World in Edo
October 13, 2023

The subject of this initial conference is the longstanding myth that Japan was hermetically sealed from the rest of the world from the 1630s to 1853. While international travel and trade were indeed forbidden, Japan remained networked with the those beyond its shores through trade with the continent, the Dutch, the Ainu, and the Ryūkyūs. During this period, fantasies of Japan proliferated abroad, just as fantasies of the outside world proliferated in Japan. Yet the restrictions on international exchange did not mean that Japan was somehow isolated from modernity. In fact, the metropolis of Edo actually exhibited many of the aspects that would later come to be seen as “modern” by the European definition of the term. Put more forcefully, early modernity seemed to thrive in a society that eschewed the Eurocentric model of “globalization.” Likewise, one should not conflate the Edo metropolis with the eponymous era, for an exciting feature of early modern Japan is the existence of multiple metropolitan centers, from Osaka and Kyoto to Nagasaki. As such, this initial conference seeks papers that will reframe the Edo period in more porous, global, networked, and dynamic terms.

Conference 2
Eco Edo: Ecological Perspectives on Early Modern Japanese Art
February 2, 2024

The highly urbanized nature of the Edo period—with its three metropolises of Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo—resulted in massive changes to the natural and built environments. The bustling economies of these cities fueled wide-reaching networks of production, trade, and environmental exploitation. The concept of nature itself, as well as the iconography of natural history, were likewise in flux. Accordingly, this conference seeks papers that will contribute to the emergent discourse of ecological art history by directing attention to the material and ecological horizons of early modern Japanese art. What were the aesthetics of environmental exploitation? How were industry and labor depicted? What were the religious perspectives on ecological manipulation? How were materiality and ecology themselves conceived? Where is the intersection of ecological ethics and artistic production?

Conference 3
Edo Outsiders: Ainu and Ryūkyūan Art
April 19, 2024

To this day, many mistake Japan for a culturally homogenous society, yet this nationalistic myth is far from the truth. In an effort to underscore the diversity of early modern Japan, this conference will direct attention to two groups who are often marginalized if not absent in narratives of early modern Japanese art. To the south are the Ryūkyūans, whose Kingdom of Ryūkyū was reduced in the Edo period to a vassal state. To the north are the Ainu, an indigenous society progressively dispossessed of its lands throughout Japanese history. Recent anniversaries—the 150th anniversary of settler colonialism in Hokkaidō and the fiftieth anniversary of the reversion of the Ryūkyūs from the USA to Japan—have brought renewed critical attention to the art of these two marginalized groups. While much scholarship on Ryūkyūan and Ainu art has focused on modernity, this conference seeks to shift the focus deeper in the archive, to the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries.


View of a hut, and a dance of the Yuracares Indians, Bolivia.From “Voyage dans l’Amérique Méridionale,” vol. 3. Paris, 1835–1847.

The Forgotten Canopy: Ecology, Ephemeral Architecture, and Imperialism in the Caribbean, South American, and Transatlantic Worlds

organized by Stella Nair (UCLA) and Paul Niell (Florida State University)

Co-sponsored by the Terra Foundation for American Art

The core conference program to be held by the Center for 17th– & 18th-Century Studies at UCLA’s Clark Library (2022–2023) will convene scholars around the topics of “Ecology,” “Ephemeral Architecture,” and “Imperialism” in the early modern (16th–19th-century) world. The circum-Caribbean is our starting point, specifically we use this term to refer to the deep connections between the peoples and places of the Caribbean and South America, along with parts of North America. Due to national politics, language barriers, and scholarly divisions that have their roots in the European colonization of the Americas, the long and complex history of exchange among these regions and peoples have been greatly understudied. In truth, this history of entanglement across water and land stretches back millennia, resulting in a rich and diverse built environment that is deeply tied to ecological change. This dynamic did not end with the invasion of 1492, but rather continued to expand and accelerate when people, plants, and empires came from across the Atlantic. Using ephemeral architecture, in particular the complex and exquisite creation of thatch roofs as the leading thread in these tapestries of exchange, this series of conferences highlight the profound ways in which environmental practices, botanical knowledge, technological development, architectural innovation, and creative expression were deeply tied across these distinct regions and peoples, and shaped by imperial actions. This conference series brings an unusually diverse number of disciplines together in order to unpack these complex dynamics, which challenge how we understand the built environment, the early modern Atlantic World, and the intersections between the local and the global.

The Forgotten Canopy: Ecology, Ephemeral Architecture, and Imperialism in the Caribbean, South American, and Transatlantic Worlds

Topic 1: Ecologies
November 45, 2022

Ephemeral architecture has been long overlooked by scholars, with few exceptions, because of its relatively short life span, the lack of extant structures, and most importantly, the need to understand its complex ecological context.  Our first conference, “Ecologies” (November 4–5, 2022), seeks to address this lacuna by exploring the complex and dynamic ecologies from which ephemeral architecture arises in the Indigenous Caribbean and South America worlds, and their transformation with the arrival of Africans and Europeans (with their flora, fauna and technologies). Scholars from a diversity of disciplines and countries are brought together to explore and challenge a variety of perspectives and theoretical approaches to local and cross regional ecologies and histories, from unique plants and cultural knowledge, to complex ecosystems and critical human interventions. In the case of thatched roofs, which often drew upon short-lived grasses and had to be remade regularly, even slight ecological changes would have had profound impacts. It is precisely the material condition of this ephemeral architecture that ties its existence to even subtle changes in local ecologies, while also revealing overlooked histories and silenced voices of the early modern world.

Topic 2: Ephemeral Architectures
February 1011, 2023

Having explored the dynamic conditions, complexities, and perspectives of ecology in the first gathering, the second conference “Ephemeral Architectures” (Feb. 10–11, 2023) will bring into focus the ways in which distinct peoples, regions, and states used their local ecology to design, shape, and transform their built environments–often in the face of threats from imperial states. By shining a critical light on the fascinating but fleeting (and often overlooked) ephemeral architecture, in particular, thatch roofs, we will begin to see how ecologies and architectures became deeply entangled, such as in the form of technological, cultural, and environmental knowledge as well as artistic innovation. Scholars from multiple disciplines along with builders will come together to share and discuss a strikingly diverse and dynamic corpus from across the Americas and West Africa. These scholars will explore these “forgotten canopies” in all their material complexities, including the larger structures (built of out of wood, adobe, wattle and daub, brick, and stone), spaces (single, multi-room, rectangular, round, etc.), functions (political, religious, and domestic) and environments (tropical island, dry deserts, highland mountain, etc., as well as urban and rural landscapes) of which they were a part.

Topic 3: Imperialism
April 1415, 2023

Critical consideration of the interrelationships between ecologies and ephemeral architectures sets the stage for the theme of the third conference “Imperialism” (April 14-15, 2023) which will address the imperial transformations of the Caribbean and South America and their impact on and entanglement with the larger early modern Atlantic world. Participating scholars in this conference will use studies of ephemeral architecture, especially thatched roofs, to focus attention on processes of imperialism and landscape transformation relating to Indigenous and Black Americans.  In particular, this conference will highlight the complex ways in which Imperial authorities impacted, transformed, and were transformed by, long standing ecological practices and ephemeral architectural knowledge. In doing so, the conference underscores the vital role of ephemeral architecture, such as thatched roofs, in telling histories, even that of global empires, and thus is a reminder of the critical need for the study and preservation of this “Forgotten Canopy.”