art from here and away: Bryce Kanbara
I think mythologies are fundamental and vital to the story of a people. They’re like a river with countervailing currents of cohesion, division, hope, despair … on which we all travel together. And they’re hard to come by. – Bryce Kanbara
Hamilton-based artist and curator Bryce Kanbara is one of eight recipients of this year’s Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts. Shelley Niro, a multi-disciplinary artist and a member of the Six Nations Reserve, Turtle Clan, Bay of Quinte Mohawk, who nominated Kanbara for the award, says it best, “Since 1970 he has made the visual environment of the city a culturally exciting, inviting and vibrant place to live in and be a part of.”
The curator and proprietor of you me gallery in Hamilton, Ontario has a career stretching over fifty years and is an important artist and activist in the Ontario art scene. After graduating from McMaster University with a B.A. in English Literature and Art History in 1971, he was a founding member, administrator, and board member of the Hamilton Artists’ Inc. from 1975 – 1981.
Over the years Kanbara has held curatorial positions at the Burlington Art Centre, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant, and the JCCC Gallery at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto. He was the Executive Director of the Toronto Chapter of the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) and was Chair of the NAJC Endowment Fund and National Executive Member of the NAJC. He was the Visual Arts, Crafts & Design Officer for the Ontario Arts Council; Co-chair of the Board of Directors of the Workers Arts & Heritage Centre; and Governing Council member for the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion.
Kanbara’s work as a visual artist/curator, and his involvement in community art and public art projects are discrete activities that merge into the mainstream of his art practice.
Bryce Kanbara will be taking part as a guest panelist on the third Paueru Gai Dialogues session on March 27 along with fellow curator Sherri Kajiwara and poet Michael Prior. I will be hosting the session, titled On Memory, Mythmaking and Community Resilience.
This year’s other award recipients are Lou Lynn (Winlaw, British Columbia); Luc Courchesne (Montréal, Quebec); Cheryl L’Hirondelle (Toronto, Ontario, and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan); Germaine Arnaktauyok (Yellowknife, Northwest Territories); Lori Blondeau (Winnipeg, Manitoba); Dempsey Bob (Terrace, British Columbia); Bonnie Devine (Toronto, Ontario)
Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts were created in 1999 by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Governor General of Canada. Since then, the awards have celebrated Canada’s vibrant arts community and recognized remarkable careers in the visual and media arts.
Up to eight awards are distributed every year: six awards recognize artistic achievements, one award recognizes excellence in fine craft (Saidye Bronfman Award) and one award recognizes an outstanding contribution to contemporary visual arts, media arts or fine craft. The winners each receive a medallion and a cash prize of $25,000 each.
The GGArts awards are part of the Canada Council’s suite of prizes recognizing excellence in the arts.
Bulletin Interview: Bryce Kanbara
First of all, I want to say that it’s a bit daunting being interviewed by someone who knows JCs so well and probably has a pretty good notion of what the answers will be. I’ll try to keep them fresh.
When the covid lock-down happened about a year ago, I built a partition across the middle of my storefront gallery space so that artwork could be exhibited at the front and viewed through the window 24/7. Customers, lined up for coffee at the popular Synonym cafe next door, peer in. Right now, there’s a series of expressionist paintings of Walter Gretzky which the artist Patrick Carson produced in an unsuccessful bid for a portrait commission in Brantford. The space behind the wall has become a studio/office where I reworked long-abandoned and uncompleted wall sculptures. Some are abstract, crude-looking, and (I think) poetic pieces that most people will not easily cotton to. They reflect my aesthetic sensibilities at this time, and I like them a lot. The other pieces I completed are large, painted plywood cut-outs of birds derived originally from small sketches. As for fellow artists, I see them when they drop off or pick up their works at exhibition-turnover times. My only online presence is the gallery’s announcement of exhibitions on facebook.
I grew up around artists – both my parents attended art school and counted artists like Roy Kiyooka among their closest friends – and the older I get, the more I appreciate the richness that the arts have provided me throughout my life, now as much as ever. What drew you to the arts and what has kept you there?
My father was a kika-nisei (born in Vancouver, sent to Japan at the age of six for his education). When he returned, he worked in the Kanbara family confectionary store at Main and Cordova, then at the Canada Times newspaper, and at the Buddhist Church where he taught evening Japanese classes and met my mother, who was a student. He helped my uncle Yukio Shimoda initiate the Nisei Mass Evacuation Group that defied the Government orders forcing young men to be separated from their families and sent to work in road camps. He and my uncle organized rallies, printed and distributed notices, all the while seeking temporary shelter in the homes of supportive JCs. Their location was revealed to the RCMP one night by someone they knew and they were captured and sent to Angler prisoner of war camp in northern Ontario for four years. After the war, my father reunited in Hamilton with his fiancée, my mother. They married and I was their first child. He found a job at International Harvester as a foundry labourer where he worked until he retired. He raised me in silent hope that I would not have a life as disrupted as his. All these things led me to become an artist.
You’re a practicing artist, but it’s clear from your extensive CV that you have always leaned into the other aspect of the arts, including collaboration and curation. Art making can be a solitary vocation, but you’ve clearly gravitated to a more collaborative model – tell me about that approach and why it works for you.
My art practice has been described as a multi-headed monster, in that I’m a visual artist, curator, gallery owner, and community worker of sorts … and I’ve had the opportunity to mix and match these activities often. I suppose that this approach appears scattered, but I’m past feeling the need to justify it. David Fujino once said to me that what he really wanted was to be useful. His words seem to express an essential, sansei longing in JCs of my vintage … they ring true to me.
I think Japanese Canadians as a whole can be proud that we have a good share of highly accomplished artists in our ranks, some with high profiles and others less so. What role do you see the arts playing in coming to terms with our shared history in this country?
Despite the community art projects I’ve been involved in, I don’t like to see the arts promoted primarily as a strategy for social change or elucidation. And it would be a misunderstanding of what artists are here for, to expect that of them. Art to me makes us feel and think about, and realize ourselves as human beings. When it works, a channel opens between the artwork and the viewer and connects them. It’s intensely personal and revelatory. If it’s not that, I’ll look somewhere else.
Along those same lines, how have you used the arts to address your identity as a Japanese Canadian. Is it a coming to terms with, do you think?
My very early works were monotypes made on an etching press I bought the year after I graduated from McMaster University. I was living alone in a small, rented north-end house on Oliver St. and these Japanese faces began to emerge as I wiped the black ink from the zinc plate. They were really explorations of my self-identity. To many people, they are the most memorable works I’ve made, black and white, and suffused with psychological unease.
Why the name you me gallery?
You Me is the name of a department store chain in Japan. I’ve lately noticed that several other “you me” websites have popped up, but in 2002 when I opened my gallery, it seemed just right. The words on my business card have not changed: art from here and away / art consulting for office and home / public and community art projects and collaborations. There was never much demand for the second item.
I sometimes think we tend to look at our community and our history in a kind of bubble, separate from the world around us. What are some collaborations you’ve been involved in that stretch across communities?
Three community art projects I organized from 2011-2017 aimed to reach out and involve diverse ethnic communities in Hamilton. They were an attempt to chip away at the insularity which, it seems to me, thwarts interaction and mutual understanding. I am not a photographer. I worked with photographers Jim Chambers, Masoud Eskandari, and Mina Ao. The first, titled 55/58, was comprised of faces of 55 Hamilton artists (a community I know well) on one side, and 58 Hamilton Muslims on the other. The visual separation underlined the fact that the artists (including me) had little or no contact with the Muslims in our city. The second project, Our Place, began with an overly-ambitious plan to photograph a wide range of ethnically diverse families seated around their dining tables at dinner-time. In the end, we documented 19 families (Muslim, Hindu, and one Chinese senior couple) and learned a lot about the importance of relationship-building, patience, and trust. And the third project (which also, coincidentally, included 19 photos) was with urban Indigenous people in their homes. It was called, Tesatawiyat which in Mohawk means, “Come in”, as when someone knocks on your door.
You’re taking part in the session On Memory, Mythmaking and Community Resilience on March 27 (yes, we changed the title just yesterday!) I’m wondering if you think we’ve fallen into the trap of perhaps creating a mythology around our community, particularly in regards to the wartime and postwar experiences?
I think mythologies are fundamental and vital to the story of a people. They’re like a river with countervailing currents of cohesion, division, hope, despair … on which we all travel together. And they’re hard to come by.
How do you look at this award, the Governor General’s Award, in terms of your legacy as someone who’s spent most of their life in the arts in Canada?
I had not thought a lot about the award until the day of the official announcement which triggered a burst of wonderful excitement. That’s over now.