The Winnipeg Art Gallery is changing the theme of its Art & Soul fundraiser after complaints of racism.

The theme for the Feb. 22 event was initially called Big in Japan and encouraged people to "grab your chopsticks, show off your jiu-jitsu skills"  and "get noticed by Geisha girls."

Jenny Wills

Jenny Wills wrote a blog post criticising the Winnipeg Art Gallery's theme for an annual fundraiser. The gallery later changed it. (Jill Coubrough/CBC)

Jenny Wills condemned the event in a blog post that has since gone viral. People flocked to Twitter to criticize the event, using the hashtag #WAGOrientalism.

"My initial reaction was that it had to be a joke. The original page has things like, 'This party will be so epic, you'll think you're turning Japanese,'" said Wills, who teaches Asian studies at the University of Winnipeg. "It was just sort of horrifying to me that some of the stereotypes that had been used to make me feel othered as a child were still being used -- and being used by a cultural institution in the name of fundraising."

The website for the event also referenced environmentalist David Suzuki, who was born and raised in Canada. That particularly hit a nerve for Wills.

"This is the same kind of 'forever a foreigner' that was used to intern and deport over 20,000 Canadians with Japanese ancestry during World War 2, more than half of who were born in Canada," she said.

It was surprising that the art gallery didn't realize their event would offend a lot of people, said literature professor David Palumbo-Liu, who specializes in Asian-American studies at Stanford University in California.

"If you had an event and called it 'Let's be Jewish for a Day' And you mimicked various Jewish customs and food. I think the Jewish community would think of it as being anti-semitic," he said. "Just imagine your ethnic background becoming a spectacle."

'We had several people speak to the issue of cultural appropriation and the offence that this theme was causing.'- Stephen Borys, WAG director and CEO

The WAG announced on Wednesday it has changed the event's theme, relaunching it as Hot and Cold: 4 Seasons at the WAG.

“Through social media and emails, several people have expressed their dissatisfaction with the Big in Japan theme,” Stephen Borys, WAG director and CEO, stated in a press release.

“It became clear over the course of the last few days that the event itself was being overshadowed by the issues at hand. However, when the community speaks up, we listen.”

The fundraising event "will feature four floors of décor and entertainment reflecting Manitoba’s distinctive seasons," the press release stated.

“We’ve heard opinions expressed across the spectrum, many who wanted to stay with the theme who believed in the event as a cultural celebration, but at the end of the day we needed to do the right thing,” said Borys.

“The WAG would never want to reduce any culture to stereotypes and we thank those who contacted us directly with their concerns, and we are sorry for any offence that was caused.

Japan theme at WAG

Through social media and emails, several people expressed dissatisfaction with the Big in Japan theme, said Stephen Borys, the WAG's director and CEO.

"We had several people speak to the issue of cultural appropriation and the offence that this theme was causing. The dialogue around what is respectful and beneficial to everyone is important to the WAG, and that’s why we’ve decided to choose an alternative theme.”

Art & Soul is in its 25th year as an annual fundraiser for the WAG. The event takes place throughout the entire building and centres on a particular theme that changes every year. 

Wills said cultural institutions need to be aware of what kind message they are sending with their events.

She has spoken with employees with the WAG about having cultural workshops to avoid something similar happening again, but for now, said she's happy they listened to her concerns.

"I respect them for that very much," she said.