Kizuna: Connecting through Generations
On September 22, 2000, the National Nikkei Heritage Centre opened at Nikkei Place, the culmination of a longtime dream for many in the Canadian Nikkei community. The Centre, like the New Sakura-so seniors residence that had already opened in May, 1998, was the result of many years of hard work, planning and fundraising. With the opening of the Nikkei Home assisted living residence in 2002, the Nikkei Place complex was complete.
One of the key components of the Centre is the Japanese Canadian National Museum. The inaugural exhibit, curated by Grace Eiko Thomson, was titled Reshaping memory, Owning History, Through the Lens of Japanese Canadian Redress, and looked how the Redress movement helped shape and revitalize the community in the aftermath of the Internment.
This month, the Japanese Canadian National Museum marks its tenth year as part of the Nikkei Place community with a new exhibition. Titled Kizuna (a word meaning bonds or ties), the exhibit brings together four young artists of Japanese ancestry who work in a variety of disciplines. The artists are Natalie Purschwitz (interdisciplinary artist working with fibre and textiles); Greg Masuda (photographer/filmmaker); Miyuki Shinkai (painter and glass artist); and Mark Takeshi McGregor (musician and contemporary music collaborator).
Looking for a way to explore the Museum’s collections through fresh eyes, JCNM Curator Beth Carter invited the four artists to meet with older community members to engage in a dialogue and dynamic interchange across generations. They were also given access to the museum collections—photographs, archival materials and artifacts—to serve as means of inspiring discussion and as a visual inspiration for the artists. In sharing their stories and exploring their interconnections, the artists gained fresh perspectives and insight into their own identity, leading to new works reflecting on cultural concerns in the contemporary world.
Over the course of the project, the artists made entries on a blog set up for the purpose (kizunaproject.blogspot.com), documenting the creative process as it unfolded.
This month, The Bulletin spotlights two of the artists, Natalie Purschwitz and Greg Masuda. The November issue will feature Miyuki Shinkai and Mark Takeshi McGregor.
Museum Director-Curator Beth Carter spoke to The Bulletin about putting together the Kizuna exhibit.
Interview: Beth Carter
It’s the tenth Anniversary of the National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre. You’ve chosen an interesting exhibit to mount on this occasion. What was your thinking behind it?
When we celebrate an anniversary, it’s usual to look back at past accomplishments. But I also saw this as a turning point for the museum and the centre—a time we could look back but also give a sense of where we want to move to in the future. The goal of Kizuna is to start a dialogue and dynamic interchange across generations which provides an innovative, fresh perspective on cultural concerns. I started thinking about intergenerational exchange since the NNMHC Board has recently been discussing ways to involve youth in the Centre. So I invited younger artists to think about their own personal connections/bonds to their Japanese ancestry by talking with an older mentor from the community, and by looking at some of the historic artifacts and photos in the museum. To me, the exhibit really reminds us how much we can learn from the past, and how each generation can interpret and bring forward new and critical artistic and cultural perspectives on the Japanese Canadian experience within a Canadian framework.
We think of museums as places where artifacts from the past are exhibited, yet the museum has been focusing a great deal on contemporary art. Is this show a way of reconciling that duality?
It is my goal to present an exhibit schedule that balances history, culture and contemporary art and issues. Our collections also cover that range. That being said, I have to work with what is available and it can take much longer and cost more to put together a significant history exhibit. So for this year, we definitely did show more art exhibits—and each had its own unique flavour. We have also been doing a lot of work on the collections behind the scenes—with our new database, cataloguing and digitizing projects and a new storage unit. Once that work is farther along, the collections will be much more accessible for exhibit use.
For this exhibit, I definitely wanted to use the museum collections in some way—I love having contemporary artists explore and take inspiration from the museum artifacts and archives. No two artists ever create the same thing from the collections!
You have a visual artist, a fabric artist, a glass artist and a musician. Did you purposely choose artists from four different disciplines?
I chose the artists for a number of reasons—their diverse perspectives on Japanese Canadian experience as younger emerging artists, the range of media they represent, their desire to build connections within the community, and the importance of their work in relation to cross-cultural understanding. I thought that different artistic media was really important—new work is often interdisciplinary. So I specifically looked for artists who were open to combining media—and I wanted to shake things up by using some artists working outside directly visual media. I also wanted to balance out different backgrounds. For example, Miyuki is a more recent immigrant, Natalie’s mother came to Canada in the 1960s, Mark has strong roots in Steveston, and Greg’s family lived and worked in Vancouver, on the island and on the prairies. I didn’t consciously choose people of mixed ancestry, but the fact that three of the artists are hapa pretty much matches current statistics on intermarriage. When I think back, I really gave quite vague instructions to each artist—so I am really pleased by how they took the project to heart and came up with four unique but complementary installations.
What do you think this exhibit says about the community and where it is today?
What’s incredible to me is how splintered the community is through the physical separation across Canada, and also the huge diversity of experiences based on which generation you are, where your family was located before and after the war, intermarriage, or recent immigrant experiences. David Suzuki spoke at our recent 10th Anniversary gala, and he stressed how diversity is so important and how Japanese Canadians have a crucial role in teaching significant lessons about democracy. In the museum, we get so many people anxious to learn about Japanese Canadian history, and we have so many generous elders willing to share their stories. I hope this exhibit is an indication of how with very little effort, young people can start to feel connected or reconnected to their heritage, and how much they can gain from that.
You’ve been at the Centre for over a year now and feel at home I hope. How has the experience been so far? Are you surprised by anything you’ve learned or experienced?
I’ve been at the museum for just over one year—I started full time last July—and it has been an incredibly busy time. I love the job, the museum staff are really great, and I like the grassroots community connections. We are a small museum with a big mandate and a ton of potential. While our collection is small, it is also very unique and important. And there is so much to do—the most frustrating thing is having to pace ourselves to take on one project at a time.
Now that the Tenth Anniversary is behind us, how do you see the next ten years unfolding?
The first ten years have had a lot of ups and downs for both the Museum and the Centre—but I think we have proved that we can move forward as a professional, sustainable organization. We have a new strategic plan, we’re discussing some new branding and signage, and we are attracting larger and more diverse audiences. For the museum, we have some big goals for the next few years: we definitely want to create a larger permanent gallery that looks at Japanese Canadian history. This will be essential for our education programs, and for general visitors. We are also looking for ways to expand and develop our national mandate through partnerships and collaborations with other groups across the country. Funding is an ongoing problem, especially in these days of declining public funds. But we have an important legacy to maintain—community volunteers worked so hard to envision the NNMHC, to raise all the funds, and build this beautiful building—it is now our responsibility to see it continue as a thriving, dynamic Centre.