Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world
Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world, a new exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, features personal perspectives on the exile, dispossession, and internment of Japanese Canadians during the 1940s through a series of artworks interspersed throughout the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada. The installation features contemporary artists who experienced this history first hand, and those who grapple with their parents and grandparents’ experiences. Being Japanese Canadian prompts visitors to reflect on the long-lasting ramifications of this historical Canadian injustice, and what it means to be Canadian today.
Bryce Kanbara and Katherine Yamashita
Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world showcases powerful, personal stories varied in approach, technique, and emotional tone. The exhibit consists of a series of works interspersed throughout the ROM’s Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada. The installation was conceptualized and co-curated by Dr. Heather Read, Rebanks Postdoctoral Fellow in Canadian Decorative Arts & Material Culture at the ROM. The other co-curators are Dr. Arlene Gehmacher, the ROM’s Curator of Canadian Paintings, Prints & Drawings, artist/curator Bryce Kanbara, and artist/educator Dr. Katherine Yamashita.
Bryce Kanbara is Hamilton visual artist and curator, and proprietor of you me gallery. His work and involvement in the arts community and the Japanese Canadian community have been concurrent since the early 1970s. He was a founding member of Hamilton Artists Inc. artist-run centre; held curatorial positions at Burlington Art Centre, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Glenhyrst Art Gallery of Brant; and worked at the Ontario Arts Council as Visual Arts, Crafts & Design Officer. Bryce served on NAJC boards at local and national levels and was Director of the Toronto Chapter NAJC. Currently, he is Curator/Chair of the Art Committee at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, Toronto.
Katherine Yamashita PhD, is a retired high school art, photography, and technological design teacher, practicing artist and lecturer in education at the graduate level. She is also a member of the JCCC Art Gallery committee.
When Aiko Suzuki was putting together her 1994 book, Japanese Canadians in the Arts: A Directory of Professionals, I was asked to submit my resume. I remember wondering how many of us there could be – our community seems so small, after all. I was pleasantly surprised when this thick little book arrived in the mail, full of names I’d never heard of – because, of course, there are all these artists in central Canada that we are not necessarily aware of out here on the coast.
Then a few years back I had the honour of taking part in the development of the website, japanesecanadianartists.com, which used Aiko’s book as its jumping off point, and we really got to see the broad spectrum of artists spread out across the country, working in all different mediums. Some artists identify very strongly as Japanese Canadian, others not so much, if at all.
Can you each talk a bit about your own art practice(s) and how they relate, if they do, to your own sense of “being” Japanese Canadian.
BK My art making was shaped, very early-on, by exposure to the history of Western Art and my love of it. When I began to look deeper into the dynamics of this love, I realized that my personal identity was a reflection of the object of my love; and that I needed to look into the mirror. And that’s how I, as many others, eventually arrived at my own, oscillating sense of being JC.
KY My own art practice is varied, but I have been aware of my connection to Japanese culture from childhood. I studied classical Japanese dancing from the age of four. I studied karate for five years during high school, however I did not actually use my creative skills to explore and comment on my identity as a Japanese Canadian until later. Reading Ken Adachi’s book and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan brought the humorous and interesting stories my parents told me about their childhood and being in the “camps” into critical focus. My doctoral dissertation, which included a multi-media installation based on the life histories of my mother and her seven sisters helped me overlay family history over factual history and also to explore the complexities traumatic and difficult personal histories and how they are, or are not passed on.
The two of you were brought in partway through the curation of this exhibit, How did that come about?
BK Back in March, 2018, the ROM conducted community consultations about the project, and the resulting feedback convinced them to add a couple of JC curators to the team.
KY Heather Read, a curator and the originator of the exhibition had read my dissertation. I think my connection to the JCCC was also a factor as an exhibition consultation was held there.
Bryce, you’ve curated group shows of Japanese Canadian artists before. How is this show different than others you’ve put together?
BK First, I’m part of a curatorial team that’s part of a much larger project team. There are levels of accountability that quickly reminded me why I left the public art system to operate my own gallery. I was wary of the likelihood that things may become difficult, and of course differing opinions arose on some matters. But I was delighted by the openness of the ROM curators and staff to our input. It was Heather’s very bright idea to intersperse the works of JC artists among the long-term works of art and artefacts in the Sigmund Solomon Gallery of Canadian Art, to suggest a parallel history of Canada. So, the challenge was to make sure the JC works were given a chance to assert themselves and convey their individual messages.
You’ve written, “For me, curating exhibitions by Japanese Canadians has been both satisfying (for their feeling of communality), and problematic (in justifying a collective artistic intent). And, because I am interested in Japanese Canadian identity, I have regarded these infrequent group show projects as necessary check-ups on the thinking of artists of Japanese descent.” Now that this exhibit is up and running, what are your current thoughts on that “thinking”?
BK This collection of JC work reinforces the suspicion that JC artists, independently of one another, are exploring the importance of self-identity and cultural heritage as an unignorable step in their practices. None of the work – except for Hayashida’s, and an add-on to her installation piece by Laura Shintani – was produced specifically for this project. For me, it’s heartening that artists (in all disciplines) are doing this. Artists are leading the way for JCs and the JC community.
Katherine, you’ve been a long-time educator, as well as an artist yourself. How much emphasis do you put on identity in your teaching, and does it come more to the foreground when dealing with students who identify as coming from a non-dominant culture?
KY As an educator in the GTA, the idea of dominant culture may be a factor when it comes to what and how we teach, however when I look at the faces in the classroom, especially in Toronto, that culture is not dominant. This creates a complex set of cultural expectations and realities. My focus is more on student voice and the exploration of self and students’ social reality. Creative challenges in my classroom often explore social issues and sometimes cultural ones.
Further to that, perhaps ethnic identity is these days only part of the equation, which other forms of identity (sexual, etc) taking on an equal or greater emphasis. What do you think?
KY Racial, cultural, gender, sexual orientation and economic background are all part of the mix. Artistic expression as well as critique and art appreciation can be a powerful way to develop a better understanding of the “other”. Tolerance I think can only really come from understanding and building community and relationships is critical for students.
BK For me, ethnic identity is the prime concern when the context is the JC community. Our community has teetered on the brink of defunctness, and so, notions of intersectionality are superseded by – perhaps, encompassed by, is a better way of putting it – the primacy of JC community building.
What was your criteria for selecting these eight artists?
BK We wanted to include a wide range of responses to questions of identity and cultural heritage. The artists are from across Canada; they work in a variety of media, and their sensibilities are as far-flung from one another, as the places they live. The works are poetic, political, visceral, funny, distanced and personal.
I’ve always been curious about the east-west divide, and I’ve asked this question of others I’ve interviewed over the years. From the mid to late 1800s until 1942, virtually all Japanese Canadians lived and worked on the west coast. And then in a heartbeat everything changed. Do you see anything that differentiates those who remain/live in the east and those who returned/live on the west coast? It’s a very broad question, I know.
BK That’s a provocative question. I often say that the West Coast is the heartland of JC experience and has mythological force – my uncle used to talk about walking down Powell Street on a Saturday night, feeling the energy, knowing everyone and where his friends were gathered, the poker and mahjong games in back-rooms, feeling totally exhilarated and at home. In the East we don’t have those close at hand references to the past – or the present-day realities. We’ve romanticized the West Coast with long-distance yearning for yesteryear and what was lost.
KY I have distant relatives that returned to Vancouver, but as my grandfather took the family to Japan, the family dispersal is far greater: Japan, Denver, New Jersey, Hamilton and Toronto. I am not sure about an east west divide, just a family dispersal. My mother’s family has not been together since Tashme.
For the most part, the artists in this exhibit did not experience the internment first-hand. Another broad question: what does this exhibit say about how we as a community, process what happened to our parent and grandparents?
KY The work of Emma Nishimura eloquently portrays the problems of translation and transference of difficult personal histories. Simple lines when examined reveal more detail – memories are sharp in some cases, and in others, they fade away, or are denied. To really understand the work, takes time, and patience and it is important that we take the time with the work and with those who are left to tell their experiences. Steven Nunoda’s simple and haunting Ghost Town hits with a visceral emotion. My mother says she really felt Tashme and what it was like being there when she saw it.
BK In the post-redress years, we haven’t done a good job as a community to process the internment. BJC makes this point through the painful, rueful, sublimated expressions of eight artists.
February 2, 2019 to August 5, 2019
Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world
Royal Ontario Museum
Level 1, Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada