The Roots of No-No Boy

With No-No Boy: A Multimedia Concert, Julian Saporiti and Erin Aoyama seek to illuminate the Asian American experience through Saporiti’s original songs, which are performed against a backdrop of projections featuring archival photographs and moving images. The result is an immersive experience connecting the diverse but interconnected histories of World War II Japanese incarceration, southeast Asian emigration, and hyphenated identities.

The seeds of the No-No Boy project were sown while Saporiti was living in Laramie, Wyoming, for graduate school. He made several trips to the Heart Mountain concentration camp in the northwestern part of the state, where the US government had incarcerated more than 10,000 people of Japanese ancestry during the war. These visits had a profound impact on him. Saporiti began interviewing camp survivors and researching the music that was performed in the camps. The No-No Boy project was later born from those interviews and Saporiti’s thinking about his own displaced family of Vietnamese refugees.

Saporiti went on to enroll at Brown University in Rhode Island to complete a doctorate. There he met Erin Aoyama, also a Ph.D. student. For the project, Aoyama draws from her academic research on the parallels between Japanese American incarceration and the experiences of African Americans in the Jim Crow South. Aoyama’s work with No-No Boy is also profoundly personal. Her grandmother was incarcerated in the Heart Mountain concentration camp during the war.

The music they create unmistakably draws from the storytelling traditions of folk and country music. However, there are indie-rock tendencies mixed in. This makes sense considering that in the early 2000s, Saporiti found critical acclaim as the singer of the Berklee-trained indie-rock group The Young Republic. Lyrically, No-No Boy’s songs are sharp and pointed commentaries on identity politics, privilege, academia, and history, delivering what NPR has called, “revisionist subversion.” For example, in Two Candles Dancing in the Dark they weave a story inspired by Aoyama’s grandmother about the joy of finding romance inside an American concentration camp while stressing the horrors of Executive Order 9066, which cleared the way for the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Nonetheless, there is a purposeful buoyancy to the songs that acts as a counterbalance to the serious topics they tackle. With this dose of levity, the music is enjoyable on its face as modern American music and doesn’t require in-depth historical or cultural knowledge to appreciate it.

See No-No Boy: A Multimedia Concert at JANM on Saturday, November 3 in the Tateuchi Democracy Forum. Make sure to stay after the show for a Q&A with the band. Included with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended; you can sign up here.

 

Tell Your Tales of Little Tokyo

Artist Dan Kwong
Artist Dan Kwong

Dan Kwong is a veteran performance artist, director, writer, and native Angeleno, based at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. He is one of four artists who are currently part of the inaugural +Lab Artist Residency Program, sponsored by the Little Tokyo Service Center. The theme of the residency is Community Control and Self-Determination. The four artists are living in the historic Daimaru Hotel on First Street for three months while creating art projects that involve the Little Tokyo community and speak to this topic.

Dan’s project, Tales of Little Tokyo, involves collecting personal memories and stories about Little Tokyo from seniors (as well as some younger generation folks), and shaping that material into a theatrical piece.

“Little Tokyo is a precious and vibrant community with over 130 years of history,” says Dan. Our stories are at the heart of that history, and collectively they become the voice of our community. This project aspires to give that voice a hearing.”

Through the first week of July, Dan is conducting a series of informal “story-circle” gatherings at JANM. Story-circles happen every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, usually from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., and Wednesdays, usually from 1:45 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Gatherings happen in JANM’s Araki Community Education Center.

Members of the JANM community share stories of Little Tokyo

In these story-circles, Dan asks various questions—it’s a bit like an interview—and people share their memories, stories, and anecdotes about Little Tokyo. These are recorded.

In early July, Dan will sort through and edit this material and write a theatrical piece that expresses the significance and value of preserving and sustaining Little Tokyo as a cultural community.

On the weekend of July 28-29, there will be a public presentation (most likely a staged reading) of the piece in JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.

Please let Dan know if you are interested in sharing your tales of Little Tokyo. He would love to hear from you! Dan can be reached at dkbb12@aol.com. A maximum of 10 people can share per session so contact Dan in advance to ensure your spot and confirm the time for the day you want to participate. You can also just drop by one of the story-circle sessions if you’d like to listen in; you might still want to contact Dan to confirm the time. Paid admission to JANM is not required, but there are great exhibitions now on view so you may want to take full advantage of being here. Admission is only $12 for adults and $6 for seniors.

For more information about the +Lab Artist Residency Program, check out the LTSC’s press release announcing the inaugural artists.

This Summer, See Masumi Hayashi’s Work in Glendale

Now through July 8, 2018, three pieces from the JANM permanent collection by artist Masumi Hayashi are on view at ReflectSpace Gallery at the Downtown Central Library in Glendale. The photocollages, from Hayashi’s “American Concentration Camps” series, are presented as part of the library’s exhibition entitled Accused of No Crime: Japanese Incarceration in America, which weaves a personal narrative through photographs, art, and film to highlight stories of Japanese Americans forced into concentration camps during World War II. Hayahsi’s work is presented alongside pieces from Mona Higuchi and Paul Kitaguki as well as archival images from Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, among others. Admission to the library is free. More information about the display can be found here.

Gila River Camp, where Hayashi was born.
Gila River Relocation Camp, Foundations, 1990, panoramic photo collage. 22″x 56″

Born in the Gila River War Relocation Camp in Rivers, Arizona, just after the war ended, Hayashi spent her childhood in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she worked at her parents’ neighborhood market. She briefly attended UCLA before moving to Florida to be with her husband, who had joined the Navy. Hayashi later enrolled at Florida State University where she earned both her BA and MFA.

In 1982, Hayashi joined the Cleveland State University faculty as Professor of Photography. While at CSU, Hayashi received awards and fellowships from a number of institutions, including the Ohio Arts Council, the Civil Liberties Educational Fund, and Arts Midwest. She worked at the university until her death in 2006.

Hayashi developed a systematic photographic style that involved taking multiple exposures of a single subject and assembling them into large panoramic scenes that could be six feet across or larger. She is probably best known for her series “American Concentration Camps,” which centered on the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.

According to the artist’s statement in 1997, preserved on her online museum’s website, “The viewer can instantly see a 360-degree panoramic view which would otherwise circle around her, thus the viewer becomes both prisoner and guard within the photograph’s memory.” Her work is often described as eliciting contradictory sensations. Former JANM curator Karin Higa in 2003 noted that there is a “suggestion of dysfunction between what you see and what you know—what you can’t find out” in her work. The “American Concentration Camps” series is no different, moving viewers to take in both the beauty of the landscape and the memory of what happened there as well as that which can never be known about either. As Hayashi once remarked, “What we’re living with is not always on the surface.”

Manzanar Relocation Camp, Monument, 1995, panoramic photo collage, 48″x 80″

Don’t miss the opportunity to see Hayashi’s work and all of Accused of No Crime.

Kodomo no Hi Learning at Lunch

In conjunction with Kodomo no Hi—Children’s Day—in Japan, the JANM Collections Unit presented a Members Only Learning at Lunch session on Saturday, May 5. A group of artifacts from the collection, including Boy’s Day Festival in May, was shared with members. The watercolor painting is one of several donated to JANM in 2002 by Charlotte Opler Sagoff. While the other pieces donated at the time are signed and dated by the artist, this painting alone is not, leaving some uncertainty about its origins. It is stylistically similar to a number of the others donated from Sagoff, making its identification as close to positive as our collections team believes to be possible.

Boy’s Day Festival in May, 1945

Sagoff taught high school at the Tule Lake incarceration camp while her husband, Marvin Opler, was stationed there for three years as a government anthropologist, social psychologist, and community analyst. Unlike other anthropologists the government assigned to camps, Opler was critical of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As Minoru Kiyota notes in Beyond Loyalty: The Story of a Kibei, “Opler regarded the residents of Tule Lake as essentially normal human beings, while [Tule Lake Director Raymond] Best considered them fanatics.” Historian Peter Suzuki holds up Opler as a model for the positive influence anthropologists could have had on the War Relocation Authority.

Opler further criticized the segregation of “loyal” and “disloyal” internees at Tule Lake, and showed a respect for Japanese culture that went against the mores of the time. Sagoff enrolled their son in the Japanese nursery camp at Tule Lake, making him the only white student. Opler’s willingness to think of the Tule Lake prisoners as real, normal people perhaps stemmed from his ability to situate their culture within a wider worldview. He likened the prisoners’ renewed interest in Japanese traditions to when Plains Indians returned to the Ghost Dance religion, calling both reclamations and affirmations of identities too long sublimated to colonizers. Opler had in fact begun his anthropological career observing Native Americans, alongside his brother Morris, in New Mexico. (While Opler was assigned to Tule Lake, Morris was stationed at Manzanar.)

While at Tule Lake, Opler appreciated the artistic work of those imprisoned. According to Sagoff, he hired artist Dick Toshiki Hamaoka to draw representations of life at Tule Lake because they were unable to afford photographers. Boy’s Day Festival in May, with koinobori in the air, barracks housing, and residents going about their daily lives, is plausibly one such work. According to Sagoff, Hamaoka was 17 at the time he was commissioned and was a cartoonist for his high school newspaper. By her account, after the war, Hamaoka repatriated to Japan.

WRA records indicate that there was a Toshiki D. Hamaoka, a kibei Nisei, from Los Angeles at Tule Lake. However, those records show him to be 25 years of age at the time Sagoff would have known him. Moreover, the WRA shows him as being married, with previous military service, and indicate that he was sent first to Santa Anita and then to the Amache camp (also referred to as the Granada camp) in Colorado. A Bulletin from Granada, Colorado, dated October 21, 1942, corroborates all of this: “Alice Misaye Ouye and Richard Toshiki Hamaoka were married at the Lamar courthouse Thursday. The couple, formerly of Santa Anita, were accompanied by Police Chief Stanley Adams. They now reside at 11G-12F.” The couple was moved to Tule Lake in 1943, perhaps because of responses to the loyalty questionnaire. Final Accountability Records show the Hamaokas arriving at there from Granada in September 1943 and leaving for Japan on Christmas Day 1945. Regardless of his age, WRA records list Hamaoka’s qualified occupation as “artist” and “photographer.”

If Boy’s Day Festival in May is indeed by Hamaoka, it may well be one of his final completed piece before repatriating to Japan.

JANM members look at Hamaoka’s watercolor at a Members Only event on May 5th.

Opportunities to view and hear about artifacts from the JANM Collection, like this Members Only Learning at Lunch event, are a great benefit of membership. Join or renew today!

Artist Mari Inukai Celebrates Girls

Mari Inukai, Sena No Koe (Sena’s Voice), 2017, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

On Saturday, March 3, artist Mari Inukai will lead a sold-out kokeshi doll workshop in celebration of Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day), which takes place that day. It’s no surprise that spots in this workshop went quickly, as the popular artist—whose dreamy paintings and animations often depict and are inspired by the lives of young girls—may be the perfect person to lead a celebration of Girls’ Day.

Born in Nagoya, Japan, Inukai came to the United States in 1995 to study art. After attending Santa Monica Community College, she went on to obtain a BFA in character animation from California Institute of the Arts in 2004. Her short animated film, Blue and Orange (2003), has been an official selection at numerous film festivals, including the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, and was the Japan Grand Prize winner at the Short Shorts Film Festival EXPO 2005. In addition to her animation practice, Inukai regularly exhibits her paintings and drawings. She also designs clothes, toys, and other fun products. She now lives in Beverly Hills with her daughter Sena, who is often a subject of her artworks.

According to her website, Inukai’s paintings are “an expression of her desires, ambitions, and hopes for the future, starting from where she stands now. Like water flowing, seeking its path, [she] channels her direction naturally, finding her importance as she travels forward.” We caught up with Inukai via email to ask her a few questions.

JANM: What inspired you to create this workshop?

Mari Inukai: March 3 is a special day for girls in Japan. Americans may be familiar with Hinamatsuri, but in Japan, that day is also known as Momo No Sekku (桃の節句), the peach harvest festival. The day marks the changing of the seasons, and peach blossoms are said to ward off evil; they also stand for longevity. I thought we should celebrate!

Mari Inukai, Kingyo Hime, 2014, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the artist.

JANM: Why was it important to you to encourage collaboration among participants?

MI: In the past, young Japanese girls would celebrate Hinamatsuri (ひな祭り) together by making dolls, eating sweets, and drinking sweet rice sake. I wanted to recreate that spirit in my workshop, so that we can all inspire and help each other and learn something new together and most of all, have fun!

JANM: What is your own relationship to Hinamatsuri? Was it something you regularly celebrated back in Japan?

MI: I have two sisters, so Hinamatsuri was pretty special when we were small. I remember our mom making chirashizushi (a colorful sushi dish), karaage (fried chicken), or tempura and salad. We would have a cute decorated cake with two dolls on top. There was a lot of laughter. No sake though!

JANM: Looking through your extensive body of work, I see that girls are frequently the subject.

MI: Yes. I paint my daughter Sena most, because she is the most inspiring thing in my life. I paint my friends and their children too. I am really fortunate to have great friends!

JANM: Do you think that Japanese traditions, like Hinamatsuri, have influenced your own artwork?

MI: Absolutely. Not just Hinamatsuri, but all Japanese traditions. In fact, I have curated a special MOMO/桃の節句 group show for Giant Robot that is also opening on March 3. I gathered several talented figurative artists whom I really admire and asked each of them to create their own “Momo No Sekku world.” I am doing a mural in collaboration with Audrey Kawasaki, and perhaps Amy Sol too. Amy has her own solo show opening on the same day at Thinkspace Gallery, so she will be in town. As for myself, I am making paintings with Gansai Japanese water color pigments, so they will look really different from my oil paintings. Please join us for the party!

An Interview with Transpacific Borderlands Curator Kris Kuramitsu

Ichiro Irie, Impermanence I, 2017. Acrylic and permanent marker on canvas.
Photo courtesy of the artist.

Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo features 13 artists and five curators, working in four different countries. It was organized as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a Getty-led initiative exploring Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles. To say that the exhibition is a group effort might be a bit of an understatement; it is more like an expansive spider web of interlacing connections, geared toward shedding insight into the histories and experiences of artists who live and work in hybrid cultures.

First and Central has done several blog posts exploring various aspects of Transpacific Borderlands. This week, we present an interview with Kris Kuramitsu, one of the exhibition’s five curators. A longtime art professional based in Los Angeles, Kuramitsu was responsible for selecting the three artists who represent this region. She will be leading a tour of the exhibition on Saturday, February 24, at 10:30 a.m.

JANM: How did you come to be involved with Transpacific Borderlands?

Kris Kuramitsu: I’ve worked with and curated work by artists from around the globe, but I’ve been based in Los Angeles for my entire professional career, so I was really excited about the parameters of this very global project. I jumped at the opportunity to work on it when [JANM Vice President of Exhibitions] Clement Hanami invited me. Clement was really the driving force behind the exhibition, and the fact that he’s so invested in and engaged with the cultural dynamics that we’re exploring in the exhibition—not only as a curator but as an artist in his own right—really helped shape the project as a whole.

I was asked to bring to the table artists in Los Angeles whose work defines a Japanese Latino cultural space, and my colleagues in Brazil, Mexico, and Peru did the same for artists from their countries. It was such a complex and fascinating conversation, one that we were lucky enough to develop into the exhibition that’s at JANM today.

JANM: Can you give us some insight into your curatorial process? How did you go about selecting the artists you selected? What was it about their artwork that drew you to it?

KK: The three artists I selected to be in the exhibition are really different from one another, but each of them powerfully represents his or her own cultural position in striking visual terms. Kenzi Shiokava is a longtime Angeleno who is originally from São Paulo. He’s one of the oldest artists in the exhibition, probably by a decade or two, and served as a bit of an anchor for me in thinking about the show. His work is such a rich combination of Japanese and Brazilian influences, in both aesthetics and materials, but it is also so deeply grounded in Los Angeles. He literally gathers his materials from the streets and gardens of LA, so they are assemblages that tell the story of the city as well as that of the artist.

Shizu Saldamando makes exquisite drawings that really can stop you in your tracks. They seem to be simple, beautifully rendered portraits of her friends, but the specific moments and gestures that she captures are so precise. Her compositions masterfully balance ornament and abstraction, positive and negative space. Ichiro Irie has such a strong relationship to his materials—as deep as Kenzi’s, but with an interest in stretching them to their limits. He’s also an incredible connector, gathering communities around him through his work, through the international art and culture magazine Rim that he published in Mexico City, and through the gallery Jaus where he is director and curator, showing artists from LA and around the world. I think of all of this as part of his artistic practice, which is deeply connective and connecting.

Kenzi Shiokava stands in front of a selection of his totems, created over a span of many years, during the opening reception for Transpacific Borderlands. Photo by Todd Wawrychuk.

JANM: Did you confer with the other curators at all during the course of this project? Do you think that the various curators and scholars informed one another’s choices?

KK: Thanks to the support of the Getty, this was a really fantastic process that involved conversations among a broad range of scholars and artists from throughout Latin America and the US over the course of a few years. Because it’s such a wide and complex territory that we’re dealing with in the exhibition, it was really important to come together and talk through ideas about identity and the differences (and similarities) in cultural and social contexts that exist for artists in various geographies and generations. We talked about the ways cultural identities form very differently in all of our different homelands—relationships between self and community, self and national identity, and the differences from one generation to another are quite particular. We made our own choices of artists, but once we brought them to the table, there were so many places that their work and approaches overlapped that the sections of the show emerged from those areas of common approach.

JANM: What are some of the insights or experiences that you hope visitors will take away from this exhibition?

KK: I think the sheer diversity of the work is one of the main points; collectively, I think the show does a great job of confounding notions of strict national or cultural identity at every turn. We tried to create rooms that had loose associations around shared subject matter, treatment of material, or related approaches to history, so I hope people see those connections. But primarily, I hope people want to know more about the artists and seek out more of their work!

Join Kris Kuramitsu for a tour of the Los Angeles portion of Transpacific Borderlands on Saturday, February 24, at 10:30 a.m. Tickets may be purchased here. The exhibition will be on view through February 25.

An Interview with Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña

Renee Tajima-Peña

Renee Tajima-Peña is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA. Her documentary projects focus on immigrant communities, race, gender, and social justice, and have included Calavera Highway, Skate Manzanar, Labor Women, My America…or Honk if You Love Buddha, and the highly influential Who Killed Vincent Chin? Tajima-Peña has been deeply involved in the Asian American independent film community as an activist, writer, and filmmaker. She was the director at Asian Cine-Vision in New York and a founding member of the Center for Asian American Media (formerly the National Asian American Telecommunications Association).

On January 27, JANM is honored to welcome Tajima-Peña as the curator and host of Unsettled: Two Films of Japanese Peru. Presented in conjunction with the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, the program will feature screenings of Kaori Flores Yonekura’s Nikkei (2011) and Ann Kaneko’s Against the Grain (2008), the latter of which includes interviews with exhibiting artist Eduardo Tokeshi. Following the screening, Tajima-Peña will moderate a discussion and audience Q&A with Kaneko and Tokeshi.

Through an email interview, Tajima-Peña shared some thoughts on the program, cultural hybridity, the immigrant experience, Asian diasporas, indie film, and other topics.

A still from Kaori Flores Yonekura’s film, Nikkei.

JANM: How did you come to be involved with this program? I know that your work deals generally with themes of Asian diaspora, but do you also have a particular connection to Peru or Peruvian filmmaking?

Renee Tajima-Peña: The exhibition’s project manager, Claudia Sobral, asked me to put together a program of films in conjunction with JANM’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibition. I don’t have a direct connection to Peru itself. But I was raised here in LA, which is so deeply a Latinx city, and my family is mixed race—my husband is Mexican American and my son was raised in both cultures. That’s not just me; cultural hybridity is baked into the Nikkei and the Asian American experience because of immigration patterns and the ways people of color have always lived in close proximity—going to school together, working together, mobilizing together, sharing histories of empire as well as the marker of race. Falling in love. So my work as a filmmaker has always crossed those kinds of borders. I’ve collaborated with Latinx filmmakers to make several documentaries about that experience. The most recent was No Más Bebés, co-produced by Virginia Espino, which is about Mexican American women who were sterilized at LA County-USC Medical Center during the 1970s.

JANM: Could you share some of your thought process in choosing these particular films and filmmakers to feature in Unsettled? How do they complement one another?

RTP: I was really interested in looking at the Japanese diaspora in the Americas. When I first became a filmmaker in the 1980s, I saw the Brazilian director Tizuka Yamasaki’s feature Gaijin, which was inspired by her own immigrant grandmother’s story of landing on a coffee plantation in Brazil. A few years later, I saw Kayo Hatta’s Picture Bride, set on a Hawai’i sugar cane plantation. Japanese immigrants shared the same story, the same struggles, the same spirit—only different destinations.

For Transpacific Borderlands, I landed on Peru because of the films themselves. Ann Kaneko and Kaori Flores Yonekura are women directors who take up that search for the Japanese experience and identity in Latin America. I was really interested in the way they both contextualized how Nikkei lives intersected with the politics of Peru, but during different eras. Kaori’s film Nikkei traces her family’s history of migration to Peru and Venezuela from before World War II, while Ann’s Against the Grain brings the story to the Fujimori regime of the 1990s. I was fascinated by the tension and complexity evoked in pairing those two films.

Eduardo Tokeshi, Bandera Uno, 1985, latex on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

JANM: If you have seen Transpacific Borderlands, could you share your impressions of the exhibition? Do any of the works particularly speak to you?

RTP: Yes, I went to the opening, and I was astonished by how rich that visual culture is. I guess I should’ve known, but you really have to see it and get lost in it. I’d seen Eduardo Tokeshi’s work and his interviews in Against the Grain, so I was excited to see his work face-to-face. There’s a lot in his story that is familiar to me as a Japanese American—the cultural duality, being marginalized. But being Japanese while Peru was governed by an oppressive dictator who was also Japanese, brings a whole different layer to Tokeshi’s story and his art. I can’t believe our luck that he’s actually going to be at the screening!

JANM: Your work has taken on a range of social issues that involve immigrant and diasporic populations. Are there or have there been any issues involving Asian populations in Latin America that have caught your interest?

RTP: I always remember a story my friend, the filmmaker Lourdes Portillo, told me about an elderly Japanese guy in her hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico, who swaggered around town dressed like an admiral in the Imperial Japanese Navy replete with a saber and medals. What was he doing there? Was he deranged? Was he an apparition? As a filmmaker, those simple questions—What are they doing there? What happened to them?—open up all kinds of possibilities, real or imagined.

Here’s another story. A few years ago, my son was involved with a youth workshop at the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute on the Japanese American concentration camps. We’d been working with Randall Fujimoto, the educational game designer, on using Minecraft to teach that history. The kids researched Executive Order 9066 and the camps, and then used Minecraft to build their own virtual replicas. It was a very mixed group of kids, and most weren’t Japanese or Asian American.

At the end of the summer the kids presented their projects, and a lot of their families came. I noticed this older Latina woman in tears, standing with her grandson who was one of the workshop students. She told me she grew up in Peru, and her best friend was Japanese. One day during the 1940s, her friend disappeared. It wasn’t until years later that she discovered the family had been incarcerated, I think at Crystal City, Texas. Seventy years later, she still grieved for her friend.

JANM: As a connoisseur of indie film in addition to being a noted filmmaker yourself, do you have any tips for additional Latin American films or filmmakers that we should check out?

RTP: Tizuka Yamasaki continues to make films and television programs in Brazil. One of the artists in Transpacific Borderlands, Shinpei Takeda, makes films about Japanese Mexicans. One of my former students, Elizabeth Cabrera, has been working on a film about the mystery of her great-grandfather, a Japanese immigrant in Baja California who vanished around the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Unsettled: Two Films of Japanese Peru is free with museum admission. RSVPs are recommended here.

Transpacific Borderlands Artist Shizu Saldamando Pays Tribute to Camp Survivors in Upcoming Craft Workshop

Shizu Saldamando, Ozzie and Grace, 2014. Colored pencil and spray paint on paper.
All images courtesy of the artist.

Born to parents of Japanese and Mexican descent, Shizu Saldamando creates exquisite drawings in which she investigates the variety of social constructs and subcultures seen in Los Angeles’ backyard parties, dance clubs, music shows, hang-out spots, and art receptions. By focusing on the subtle details that define different scenes, she captures the unexpected influences at work in America’s social spaces. Saldamando’s work is currently on view at JANM as part of the exhibition Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.

This Saturday, December 2, Saldamando will be giving a Members Only Artist Talk as well as leading a craft workshop titled Paper Flowers from the Camp Archives. We sat down with her via email to learn more about her family background, what shaped her practice as an artist, and how she came to develop her paper flowers workshop, which pays tribute to one of the ways that her family—and others—found to deal with the trauma of the World War II Japanese American incarceration.

JANM: I’ve read that your mom is a community organizer and your dad is a human rights lawyer. Your family life must have been filled with social and political awareness and dialogue. Do you think that influenced your artwork?

Shizu Saldamando: Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1980s, I was very much influenced by my parents’ work as well as by the Chicano art centers in the area, all of whom were heavily informed by activism, the United Farm Workers, the Central American wars that were happening at that time, and other pressing issues of the day. It was the era of Reaganomics and the Cold War, so a lot of the artwork that was being produced in my neighborhood was heavily loaded and spoke about human rights and issues affecting low-income and immigrant communities—the same issues we are dealing with today.

JANM: The Japanese side of your family was incarcerated during World War II. How did that history influence you growing up?

SS: My mom helped develop a curriculum for the schools in San Francisco that taught about the Japanese American concentration camps, so I was able to make connections between their experience and that of other immigrant communities. I saw the various ways that immigrants and people of color are easily scapegoated and targeted in order to further whatever agenda the current administration is seeking to implement. In my community, I was exposed to artists who used their work to re-contextualize and assert an alternative narrative to what was playing on the news, and that was very influential.

In my own practice now, a lot of my work is not overtly political in that there are not many slogans or protests signs. However, I choose to depict friends and family who occupy a space outside of mainstream circles and who consciously construct their own creative communities. These people are the legacy of many historical struggles; they have, out of the need for survival, created their own supportive spaces.

Shizu Saldamando, Raquel’s Lunchbox, 2017. Graphite and spray paint on wood.

JANM: Yes, you’ve said that your art is about “subculture and perseverance.” Perseverance, of course, is one of the cornerstone themes of Japanese culture and Japanese American history, as embodied in the popular saying gaman (“bear the unbearable with patience and dignity”). Can you talk some more about your experiences with subcultures?

SS: In the mid-1990s, I moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA’s art school. There, I was also very influenced by many different musical scenes. Every week, I would go to various punk shows and dance clubs that would be playing anything from gothic industrial music, rock en español, punk, or British pop. Being part of these different scenes in Los Angeles was very special in that most of the people who inhabited them were Chicano/of Mexican descent. There was always a large queer presence as well. Being politically conscious and active was a given within these scenes, especially in the ’90s, so they became very comfortable places for me to inhabit. I made a lot of friends and chose to depict them in my artwork.

I like to think of the community of Japanese Americans who survived the camps as their own subculture as well. They are such a specific group of people, who all went through this awful historical trauma together, and whose descendants carry that weight whether they like to admit it or not. I know for a fact that my own family members who survived the camps all suffer different forms of PTSD in some way or another. Their coping mechanisms differ but I like to recognize one that is always close to my heart: communal crafting.

JANM: Was this the inspiration behind your upcoming workshop on paper flowers?

SS: Yes. Being very influenced by my aunt’s crafting circles and the different projects that she and her friends created, I thought it would be nice to give a nod to her and the communal crafting that happened at the camps. She was only a child when she was incarcerated in the camp at Rohwer, Arkansas, so I’m not sure if she worked with the same flower patterns I’ll be using in my class, but I still think of this workshop as an homage to her and her love of craft.

Paper flower wreaths from Shizu Saldamando’s workshop at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality, May 2016. Visible behind them are instructions from a Woolworth’s catalog that was found at Manzanar.

JANM: I understand that your research on this topic actually stretches back several years. Tell us how it all came about.

SS: One day, I was walking through JANM’s Common Ground exhibition and I heard one of the volunteer docents talking about how, in the photos of funerals at the camps, the funeral wreaths were actually made out of paper. Real flowers were not available at the camps since most of them were located in harsh, remote environments. When people passed away, the community would come together and make paper flowers for the funerals.

Later, I was asked to make an altar for Día de los Muertos and I chose to do a piece in honor of my aunt’s husband, who had been incarcerated at Manzanar and passed away around 2000. I decided to make a paper flower wreath as a nod to camp tradition. I wanted it to be historically accurate, so I made a research appointment with one of the archivists at JANM. The archivist provided me with a huge amount of material. She wheeled in carts of flowers made out of scrap wood, flowers made out of shells, flowers made out of pipe cleaners, you name it, along with several files full of information.

Among those was a book that documented the excavation of the gravesites at Manzanar, providing a complete rundown of all the people who passed away there, how they died, and what was found at their gravesites. There were photos of wire remnants that were once paper flower stems, photos of broken glass jars that once held paper flower bouquets, and photos of people making flowers in the camps. In addition, she found a small catalog insert from an old Woolworth’s catalog that was an instruction manual on how to make paper roses. I made copies of that manual and used it to make the wreath for my altar.

I keep revisiting this project in different forms. When I was invited to participate in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s CrossLines: A Culture Lab on Intersectionality in May 2016, I chose to do an interactive wreath-making workshop to call attention to the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment that is running rampant with our current administration. Tragically, the paper flower project remains pertinent and timely not only because of the current political climate but because now, so many camp survivors are passing on and taking that history with them. I think it’s important to keep their legacy alive and always in our minds.

There are still a few spaces left for Shizu Saldamando’s flower-making workshop on Saturday, December 2. If you are a JANM member, you can also sign up for the Members Only Artist Talk she is giving earlier that day. Visit janm.org for more info and to RSVP.

Also check out JANM’s short video on Saldamando’s practice, made to accompany the Transpacific Borderlands exhibition.

Transpacific Borderlands Sneak Peek: Erica Kaminishi’s Prunusplastus

The beginning of the installation of Erica Kaminishi’s Prunusplastus.
Photo by Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.

It’s a big week here at JANM as we prepare to open Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo, a group exhibition that examines the work of 13 artists of Japanese ancestry born, raised, or living in either Latin America or predominantly Latin American neighborhoods of Southern California. The show is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a Getty-led initiative exploring Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.

Shipments of artwork have been arriving from all over the world and artists have started to arrive as well, to supervise the installation of their works and to participate in our festive opening weekend activities. One of the first artists to arrive from abroad was Erica Kaminishi, a Brazilian-born Nikkei who now lives in France. One of her featured artworks, titled Prunusplastus (2017), is a large-scale, site-specific installation made up of hundreds of petri dishes filled with synthetic cherry flower petals. The dishes are strung up with nylon threads so that they form a dramatic cascade of decorative plastic flowers.

Kaminishi’s ambitious concept required the assembly by hand of 3,300 petri dishes filled with 60,000 synthetic flowers. Work on this project actually began weeks ago, right here in Los Angeles, and became a massive group effort among JANM interns, volunteers, and staff members. Leighton Okada, JANM’s summer intern in public programs and media arts, was particularly instrumental in this effort, as he enlisted several of his own family members and provided meticulous quality control over the production process, which required hot gluing the flowers into the petri dishes.

Leighton Okada, right, assembling cherry flower petri dishes with members of his family.
Photo courtesy of Leighton Okada.

Last Friday morning, shortly after arriving in Los Angeles, Kaminishi and project manager Claudia Sobral held a small coffee and pastry event to thank some of the people who volunteered to assist with the project. During an informal Q&A, Kaminishi explained the meaning behind her artwork: “In Japan, the celebration of flowers blooming in the springtime, such as the famous cherry blossoms (sakura), is a major tradition. I wanted to reproduce this atmosphere in a contemporary way, while examining the ways that we appreciate and nurture culture. The work touches on the Japanese concept of mono no aware, which holds that while beauty is very affecting, it is also, like all things, ephemeral. Nothing is eternal.”

One of the volunteers pointed out the irony of putting static plastic flowers in a petri dish, which typically holds living specimens. Kaminishi remarked that while she was doing her PhD studies in Japan, she took classes in biology and chemistry, which influenced her art practice. Indeed, the word Prunusplastus is an alteration of Prunus serrulata, the Latin name for the Japanese cherry flower. The word plastus means “something modeled” in Latin, and the work employs a quasi-scientific framework to isolate the cherry flower as a cultural object/concept in order to contemplate and investigate its nature and origins. Being an artist of mixed cultural background, concepts of shifting identity and blended DNA also figure into Kaminishi’s work.

Erica Kaminishi contemplates the installation of her work, Prunusplastus.
Photo by Vicky Murakami-Tsuda.

Although Kaminishi has been thinking about the concept for Prunusplastus since her time in Japan, this is the first time it’s been realized. In addition to this installation, she also has four drawings from her Clouds series in Transpacific Borderlands.

Transpacific Borderlands opens to the public on Sunday, September 17.

Mike Saijo Workshop Attracts Artists of All Ages

All photos by Ben Furuta.

This past Saturday, May 20, artist Mike Saijo, who is featured in the exhibition Instructions to All Persons: Reflections on Executive Order 9066, led a free art workshop titled Reconstructing Memories. The daylong drop-in workshop, held in conjunction with the exhibition, invited all JANM visitors to explore their connections to history and current events.

Saijo took a photograph of each interested participant, which he then printed onto a section of newspaper that the participant chose out of several available stacks. Guests completed the artwork themselves, with Saijo’s assistance, by mounting the print onto a wood panel with glue.

Visitors of all ages stopped by to participate in this simple yet provocative exercise. Each visitor was able to take home his or her own “self-portrait.”

Mike Saijo, a contemporary mixed-media artist based in Los Angeles, was recently profiled for JANM’s Discover Nikkei project. Read the profile here.