The 2-year Battle To Bring Tom of Finland To Tokyo

The gay icon’s first show in Japan has opened after years of rejection.

“I thought it would be a fun and nice thing to do. I didn’t expect it to be as difficult as it was.” That’s how Tokyo-based curator Shai Ohayon describes the experience of bringing Tom of Finland’s art to Japan for the first time, a process that took over two years, from start to finish. 

“There was a sense of feeling let down, of frustration, and of getting to a point where I was thinking I really, really need to give this up,” Ohayon recalled. 

As every museum and gallery he tried turned him down – or simply failed to return his calls – Israeli-British Ohayon, a Tokyo resident of 11 years, realised that he’d been living in a bubble. 

“The people I work with, people I socialise with, from the art scene of Tokyo, they’re very tolerant and open-minded,” he said. “Now it’s a little bit difficult to forget how little awareness there is in the rest of society.”

In an artistic career spanning almost forty years up to his death in 1991, Tom produced over 3,500 works, mostly featuring his trademark stylised, erotic depictions of men – sometimes explicit – usually clad in leather or in uniform. 

Ohayon said that while the homoeroticism of Tom’s work made it hard to put on an exhibition in Japan, this wasn’t simply due to homophobia on the part of museum and gallery curators.

“In Japan, people find a way to avoid things they don’t like,” Ohayon explained. “No one said ‘eww, it’s gay!’, but they did say it might be difficult, that their clients might not like it or people associated with them might not like it.”

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