Nikkei National Museum, Burnaby, B.C.
May 19 – Aug. 25, 2012
By Beverly Cramp
As I walked into the gallery, a painting in green hues caught my eye. Titled Spring Forest (1963), the impressionistic landscape glowed with the intensity of a television screen in an unlit room. The oil on canvas by Kazuo Nakamura (1926 - 2002) is a bit of a mystery because he is better known for linear, mathematical abstractions produced as a member of Painters Eleven, work more akin to his other painting in the show, Inner Structure (1955). Is the forest a refuge or a prison? Wilderness could have represented both to Nakamura, who spent five years with his family in an internment camp in the B.C. Interior, part of the mass incarceration of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War.
Nakamura’s work is included in this group show at the Nikkei National Museum that marks the 70th anniversary of the internment. The exhibition explores the legacy of this traumatic and tragic period by bringing together eight contemporary artists of Japanese-Canadian ancestry. Four of the artists lived through the internment as children. The others were born in Canada after the war, descending from people who experienced the incarceration.
What do these works tell us of the memory, place and identity of a group of people whose country once treated them so abominably? There are scars, as evinced in Shizuye Takashima’s (1928 – 2007) oil painting, Judges (circa 1964). This work of two bound judgmental figures, looking at times menacing and, at others, somewhat furtive, begs questions of repression and imprisonment. Takashima and her family were interned in New Denver, B.C., and her work in the 1960s was dominated by tortuous figures that look down on the viewer.
Some pieces are sorrowful, as in the paper-based works of Emma Nishimura, who grew up in Toronto listening to her grandparents’ stories of wartime struggles. Four years after her grandmother died, Nishimura found a box with hundreds of paper mock-ups of clothing, items her grandmother had made before sewing actual, life-size outfits. The box also contained patterns with Japanese names and measurements, dated 1943, for people who would have lived in the same internment camp. Nishimura recreated some of the paper mock-ups, carefully stitched them together and placed the exquisite re-creations within faded landscapes, evincing a three-dimensional quality. Through these sad remembrances, Nishimura explores ideas of assimilation and cultural integration in Fading Away (2008), Longing for something other (2010) and Carried Along (2008).
Jon Sasaki’s 2009 video, Ladder Stack, suggests existential angst. Once a member of the Instant Coffee art collective, he is a third-generation Japanese-Canadian who feels completely assimilated into Canadian culture. Ladder Stack reveals no cultural signifiers as we view Sasaki from the back, placing three ladders one atop the other by precariously climbing to the top of each and balancing a new ladder on the bottom one. Will he fall? Is he having fun? Viewers must decide for themselves.
And finally, there is healing in Nobuo Kubota’s Zen-influenced serigraph, Chant (1986), which nods to his Canadian identity with maple leaves that seem to float out of his mouth. Taken alongside a video of Kubota chanting, which he calls ‘sound singing’ because he is mouthing gibberish not words, one can’t help but chuckle.
On leaving the gallery, I felt the artists in this show – which also included Cindy Mochizuki , Louise Noguchi and the late Aiko Suzuki – honoured the concept of yo-in: the ringing of a bronze temple bell with the intention that bad experiences and wrong deeds will fade away with each reverberation.