ASSEMBLAGE: Meet Queer Japanese Burlesque Performers Una Aya And Michi Ilona Osato

04/28/2015 10:43 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
Azikiwe Mohammed

“ASSEMBLAGE“ is an inquiry into the different ways artists utilize performance and technology to explore and express different notions of identity. An effort to push forward marginalized artists with a focus on people of color, non-western nationalities and those along the queer/trans spectrum, “ASSEMBLAGE” provides a platform for analysis of how art and performance intersect with the lives of these individuals who are visibly and openly existing in the digital age. This is the fifth installment.

Una Aya and Michi Ilona Osato are sisters, performers, writers and educators who utilize burlesque to explore their identities as queer women of color. Born and raised in New York City's East Village, the two have been performers from their early days on Sesame Street to their current work as professional burlesque artists.

For this pair of Japanese, Jewish, self-loving anti-Zionists, burlesque is much more than a form of entertainment. It's a medium for them to explore the nuances of their identities in the Western world while commenting on issues surrounding gentrification, the education system, the political nature of their bodies and natural and human-made disasters.

"Burlesque, to me, and my participation in it is about bringing my whole body in and through my work, which of course includes my politics and identity -- how I see and understand the world," Una Aya told The Huffington Post. "All of the things that happen in the world to bodies and to the earth, burlesque gives us a platform to challenge all of it in ways that audiences aren’t usually expecting. And because of that we’re able to really look at and show the ways that our different bodies are racialized, sexualized and treated. It becomes a place for us all to imagine differently and to change onstage who’s gaze and perspective we’re thinking about and who the protagonist and antagonists of our stories are."

At the heart of Una Aya and Michi Ilona's work is a focus on storytelling, heavily informed by the intersecting, nuanced layers of identity the two navigate on a daily basis. Their work focuses on creating spaces for the stories of historically underrepresented and marginalized groups to be explored through the use of their bodies and performance. The pair began the work they engage in today by recognizing that these spaces don't exist -- particularly for queer women of color -- within the mainstream spectrum of performance.

"During college I started to realize what the acting and theater industry was like for an Asian woman... By the end of college I realized that if no one was going to see me in or have parts for me, it would be up to me to create parts for myself and other people who have been marginalized in the world and from the stage," Una Aya continued. "Those are the stories that are interesting to me -- not the status quo but the lives of people who are rarely heard from."

The sisters' burlesque centers around an understanding that stories are what shape our world. Because of this, the pair oftentimes focus on disrupting dominant narratives of queerness and identity through their work.

Within the spectrum of queer performance, burlesque as an art form is utilized in a number of different ways. For the Osato sisters, the function of burlesque is both an exploration of their own identities, as well as a platform to deconstruct different social and political issues that are at the heart of the feminist and queer movements.

"I think performance can helps us get in touch with different aspects of our identity," Michi Ilona told The Huffington Post. "Through performing we access new parts of ourselves. We are performing our identities all the time -- on the street, at work, on the dance floor, in the bedroom. I find at times that performing pieces of my identity on stage helps me to find the courage to perform them off stage as well... With all the work I make I seek to intentionally use burlesque and drag as vehicles to discuss the interconnectedness of systems of oppression as well as how queering can aid in a mind-body-spirit liberation."


The sisters also complicate the idea of "sexiness" through their work, a concept that tends to be at the heart of mainstream understandings of burlesque. The expectations surrounding sexiness and burlesque provide a point of entry for the two to complicate and challenge these ideas.

"Sexuality is a part of everything and what’s so exciting to me about burlesque is that it brings that to the forefront," Una Aya elaborated. "I love that burlesque is an art form where facing sexuality is something that cannot be escaped. Most people coming to a burlesque show have their expectations of what sexuality means, which is something often different than how we express it. That becomes just another layer of what we’re all uncovering together."

Una Aya and Michi Ilona also perform, at times, alongside their father, including a clown show the three engage in together that focuses on natural and human-made disasters (see below).

As the Osato sisters continue to gain notoriety and success on an international level, they will continue to do valuable political and social work through their burlesque. Some of their shows so far include a piece about the education system ("Recess"), being Jewish and Japanese ("JapJAP"), finding themselves in the world as women of color ("Keep It Movin’"), and exploring the political nature of the body ("exHOTic other").

In the words of Una Aya, "Through art and performance, burlesque, it allows for us all necessary acts of being able to laugh and enjoy ourselves together. The movement for liberation of all peoples’ is a long haul we’re committed too -- art and culture gives us all space where we’re seen and heard, a time to reflect, release, and re-energize. Performance allows for us together to have cathartic experiences. Even if it’s just us crying together, we need to have a real life process that moves us towards actual liberation."

Want to see more from Una Aya And Michi Ilona Osato? Head here to visit the Una Aya's website or here for Michi Ilona's.

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