An Exhibit of works by Nikkei Artists

February 27, 2015 at 8:11 am

Emma Nishimura, Hitoko Okada, Laura Shintani, Naomi Yasui

@JCCC Gallery, 6 Garamond Court

January 12 to March 29, 2015

by David Fujino
photo by Yosh Inouye of artwork Laura Shintani

Nikkei artistsOf the four artists, Naomi Yasui’s photographs and ceramics were perhaps the most stylistically conceptual. Three gold-framed colour photographs hung on the wall. Each was a portrait of a single ceramic piece. After gazing at a photograph, I’d then walk over to a box filled with an assortment of ceramic shapes and try to find the piece that was in the photograph. Sometimes I wondered if the elongated ceramic on a pedestal was in the photographs; in any case, I thoroughly got caught up in the artist’s game of, what’s real? — the photograph, or the photographed?

But there was much more to Yasui’s work. Upon closer examination, each photograph revealed a single ceramic shape and the white paper backdrop it sat upon, plus two strips of masking tape and two clips that held the whole backdrop in place: so that the photograph was both a photo portrait and a photo documentation of how a portrait is made. The lesson I took away was that art can manipulate reality for its own purposes and for its own amusement. It also struck me that Yasui’s section — unlike the other three artists’ stations — had no accompanying artist’s statement: there were no words of intent. Coincidentally or not, this absence of a public written statement made Yasui’s work appear, by simple comparison, somewhat cerebral.

In the case of Emma Nishimura, she grew up hearing her grandparents’ many stories about their childhood travels back and forth between Japan and Canada before World War 2, and the internment camps they were later sent to, as well as her father’s tales about the B.C. city where he was born after the war. Three generations of stories became the “family narrative”. In an effort to gain a perspective on the complex threads of this family narrative, Nishimura began by reading historical books such as Ken Adachi’s “The Enemy That Never Was”, the novel “Obasan” by Joy Kogawa, copies of Tommy Shoyama’s first hand accounts, and Ann Gomer Sunahara’s “The Politics of Racism”.

Out of this research, the printmaker created “Constructed Narrative Series” — a series of black and white maps that bear no names of any cities, towns, internment camps, rivers, or mountains. Unlike the typical maps of historical memory — with their strict adherence to the naming of places — these maps instead are all about lines and shapes. Nishimura’s maps are clearly a triumph of visual memory and bold artistic choice. In her piece, “Bundled Thoughts”, the focus is on beautiful objects — objects that evoked, at least in this viewer, a sombre scene of baggage all lined up on a platform as Japanese Canadians waited for a train to take them to the internment camps. Inscribed with Japanese characters, these tiny dark paper bundles sat on white shelves … silent, waiting to release their thoughts.

I next looked up at white clusters of paper honeycomb cells hanging from the ceiling, then looked down and saw more white cells scattered on the floor in a circular pattern. This was “HIVE DRESS 1” by Hitoko Okada, a dress that was all cells and no body, but contained within its embryonic cells was the promise of future growth.

In “HIVE DRESS 2”, the biological metaphor was vividly embodied by a black paper dress with a noticeable golden bulge emerging from the dress’s bottom. (As it turns out — according to her artist’s statement — Okada is descended from a family of kimono makers who, historically, made paper kimono for the poorer classes and mendicant monks; and it seems that Okada sees herself — and rightly so — as a cultural worker, a creative labourer in line with her predecessors.)

The last dress, “HIVE DRESS 3”, with its folded-over neck line and cut-on-the-bias structure, happened to be the most kimono-like piece. Protruding from its hemline was a black ovular sac adorned with silver spatters and gold beehive motifs. The piece was, shall we say, fully pregnant with meaning.

With these paper-based sculptures, Hitoko Okada has surely reached a peak of personal growth and fully realized creative expression — and has demonstrated the power of a well-executed metaphor (beehives) that represents the struggles and glories of living. But let’s not forget the lovely texture and patina of her dresses: they got me thinking about classical Japanese artists’ fascination with nature and an art that expresses a love of ‘beautiful things’.

The work of Laura Shintani made my head turn in a new direction, which is how it should be with art. Intellect, emotion, and craft, are immediately evident. Shintani accurately describes her art as a “Hybrid of work, creativity, and study”.

I found it was best to approach Shintani’s piece, “Google Volterra”, slowly, as it’s installed in a dimly lit corner and should be viewed in a state of calmness. Placed on a light box and softly lit from beneath, the white and waxy form presented itself in two ways — as a wrinkly textured cabbage leaf, and as a relief sample taken from the rib cage of a small mammal. Here the scientific and the artistic were intriguingly combined in one quietly expressive form. Nearby, the miniature 5-piece “Ribs” sat on a small wood shelf attached to the wall, its variously sized pine wood ribs held in place by a petroleum jelly fixative. Was I looking at the rib cage of a small creature, or was I staring through multiple versions of the St. Louis (Missouri) arch, or more absurdly, perhaps, fixated on five MacDonald’s arches? “Synthetic Organic”  was comprised of two boxy wall works solidly made, it seemed, of thick white cotton batting. Dark blood red stains had seeped through and bled out from the sides of the fluffy white boxes, and thoughts of a hospital Emergency room quickly sprung to mind. I was face-to-face with human illness and mortality. Her last piece lay on the gallery floor like a large uncoiled sea conch. Attached to the tip of its umbilical cord was a white braided cap.

Shintani’s work easily incorporated her craft and intellectual experience in an impressive array of fields — among them are applied arts and archival presentations, semiotics, fashion design, and textile preservation — and yet her work consistently posed the important and urgent question: What does it mean to be human?

There can be no easy summation of these four artists’ works, for their art is too diverse and layered. But what we can do is thank them for bringing to life what passes through their minds and hearts.We can thank them for sharing their art with us. Thank you.

– David Fujino – Toronto – February 2015 –