Isshoni: Henry Shimizu’s Paintings
of New Denver Internment
A Curatorial Journey with
Samantha Kuniko Marsh
by John Endo Greenaway
Henry Shimizu was fourteen when he and the rest of the Shimizu family were uprooted. Unable to return to BC, the family moved to Edmonton in 1946. There, Henry graduated in medicine in 1954, going on to become one of Canada’s preeminent plastic surgeons. He chaired the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation from 1989 to 2001. He retired from clinical work in 1999 and retired to Victoria in 2006 with his wife Joan. Active with the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society for many years, he is a recipient of the Order of Canada. The University of Victoria bestowed him with an honorary doctorate in 2012.
In 1999, Henry created Images of Internment, 27 paintings commemorating the years he and his family lived in the New Denver internment site after being uprooted from Prince Rupert in 1942.
Ten years ago, a thief walked into the University of Victoria’s Maltwood Gallery, took down one of 27 paintings of Dr. Henry Shimizu’s paintings, stripped the painting from its frame, and walked out the door with it.
The theft resulted in the early closure of the exhibit with little done to recover the painting. The exhibit languished in storage for the next ten years.
In the wake of the anti-racist uprising of 2020, University administrators revisited the events of 2012 and decided it would be appropriate to re-exhibit the collection. Substantial financial support facilitated the retention of a dedicated curator for the exhibit, and the Legacy Art Gallery agreed that the hiring would be directed at young Japanese Canadian artists.
On April 22, the paintings will once again see the light of day as the University of Victoria remounts the exhibit as Isshoni: Henry Shimizu’s Paintings of New Denver Internment.
The exhibit is curated by Samantha Kuniko Marsh with mentorshiop and assistance by Bryce Kanbara, recipient of the Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2021. On Saturday, April 23, Bryce will provide a keynote address to mark the launch of the exhibit, with opening remarks from Samantha.
Isshoni: Henry Shimizu’s Paintings of New Denver Internment is an exploration of Japanese Canadian identity, community, and family. Centring the voices of three generations, issei, nisei, and sansei (first, second, and third-generation Japanese Canadians), this exhibition provides insight into the intergenerational impacts of Japanese Internment on the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the uprooting and exile of Japanese Canadians from the province.
The Faculty of Humanities provided a Lansdowne Award to Bryce Kanbara, allowing him to support the initiative, come to Victoria for the exhibit opening, and present on the topic “Japanese Canadians in the Arts: Did you think it’d come true?”
The stolen painting, Vegetable Garden, is represented in the exhibit with a giclé reproduction.
SAMANTHA KUNIKO MARCH AND JOHN PRICE
Samantha Kuniko Marsh is a mixed-race yonsei cultural worker and independent curator, currently based in Vancouver, the traditional and unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Sel̓íl̓witulh peoples. She was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area on the unceded territories of the Chochenyo and Ramaytush Ohlone peoples.
John Price, who helped conceptualize the remounting, is a retired professor, writer and eactivist. Having lived and worked in Japan for a number of years, he did graduate work at UBC on the history of the labour movement in Japan. He began teaching in the history department of UVIC in 1997 and began working with the Japanese Canadian community in Victoria a few years later.
I spoke to Samantha and John about the upcoming exhibit.
Sammy, tell me a bit about yourself and your relationship to your Nikkei heritage.
SKM I think, like many other fourth-generation Nikkei, I grew up celebrating Japanese holidays, traditions, and eating/making Japanese foods, but perhaps not fully knowing the origins of those customs. On the Japanese side of my family, my grandfather grew up in Hawaii and my grandmother grew up in Idaho close to the Canadian border. This led to our oshōgatsu celebrations always having a unique mix of Japanese and Japanese Hawaiian foods! I have lived in Canada now for seven years, and truly see it as my home. I completed my BA in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia and went on to complete an Msc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow. Since 2020, I have worked with the Powell Street Festival Society and the Japanese Canadian community to create intercultural and intergenerational programs, events, and initiatives. Both within my personal and professional life, I am passionate about making art and culture engaging, relevant, and accessible for underrepresented communities.
John, this exhibit was triggered by the theft of one of Henry’s paintings, but your relationship with Henry goes back many years.
JP In 2007, Jo-Anne Lee, Michiko “Midge” Ayukawa, and I helped form the Asian Canadian Working Group at UVIC to promote Asian Canadian studies. This came on the heels of the big Anniversaries of Change conference and banquet marking the 100th anniversary of the anti-Asian race riots in Vancouver. I got to know Dr. Shimizu and other folks in the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society around this time. In 2011, Henry encouraged me to investigate the role of Victoria City Council in the uprooting. The 70th anniversary of the uprooting was coming up in 2012 and there were lots of activities being planned, including a symposium at which Henry was to speak. The University exhibited Henry’s paintings in the library gallery at this time.
Henry’s painting was stolen ten years ago, what was the impetus behind putting this exhibit together now?
JP The theft of Henry’s painting was shocking. Koko Kondo, a Hiroshima survivor, was giving a keynote lecture at UVIC. The afternoon before her lecture, we scheduled a visit to the exhibit in the library only to find it closed without a word of explanation. It took 36 hours to finally find out what happened – UVic administrators basically tried to stop any word about the incident becoming public. There had been a security breach a few months earlier. My sense was they feared public disclosure of the theft of the painting would severely hurt the University’s reputation. At the time, I was in close contact with Henry and his lifetime partner Joan and they decided not to go public – they didn’t want to embarrass the University. Still, the incident stuck with me, and I approached Henry and Joan after I retired to see what had happened with the exhibit. It has been in storage ever since being taken down in 2012 but they hoped it would be shown again. So, in 2020, with the anti-racist uprising as background, I approached UVic and recounted what happened in 2012. Darcy Alexander, the associate dean research in Humanities, and the new vice-president external, Chris Horbachewski, fully appreciated the need to make this right, and they did.
Although you weren’t involved in the jury process (full disclosure, I was), you helped set the parameters for selecting the curator.
JP Discussions with Henry and Joan, the University, and Legacy Art gallery resulted in two decisions. The first was that monies would be provided to hire a curator for the new exhibit of Henry’s work. The second decision was applications would be limited to young Japanese Canadian artists. It was a directed hire that I think was entirely appropriate given the circumstances and the results have been great.
You also suggested bringing in Bryce Kanbara as a mentor/advisor for the exhibit. What was your thinking behind this?
JP As discussions were taking place with the University, Maryka Omatsu and I, with others, were finishing off the final editing of Challenging Racist “British Columbia”: 150 Years and Counting. We wanted to make sure those exiled and who stayed out of BC had representation. That led to an introduction to Bryce Kanbara of Hamilton who had just won the Governor General’s Award for outstanding contributions in visual and media arts. Thanks to the generous support of the Faculty of Humanities, the University provided Bryce with a Lansdowne award that allowed him to act as an advisor to the project. It also allows him to come for the opening of the exhibit on April 22, and he will be giving a keynote address on April 23 at the Legacy Art Gallery.
Sammy, the paintings were created in 1999, almost 25 years ago, and have been exhibited a number of times. What curatorial approach did you take with Isshoni that sets it apart from previous exhibits?
SKM Henry created this series as a way to share his bittersweet memories of New Denver, and this exhibition aims to demonstrate how internment and its prolonged effects have impacted three generations of Japanese Canadians in a direct and personal way. Previous curatorial approaches displayed Henry’s paintings to chronologically capture Henry’s internment experience: beginning with Henry’s painting of the Notice of Removal, followed by the internees’ train journey from Prince Rupert to Hastings Park, and finishing with their time spent in New Denver. We have decided to take a different approach to this exhibition. We aim to demonstrate the intergenerational impacts of internment by exploring the themes of Japanese Canadian identity, community, and family by focussing on the voices of three generations (issei, nisei, and sansei). In particular, we chose to display quotes from Kimiko (Henry Shimizu’s mother) along with those from Henry and his son Greg. I found the intergenerational discourse around the concepts of Removal & Displacement, Dispossession & Belonging, and Restitution & Reconciliation particularly fascinating and I hope that visitors enjoy the honest intergenerational narrative. None of this would have been possible without the Shimizu family’s generosity with their time and their openness in sharing their story – something I am truly grateful for! The paintings have been grouped to centre the faces of Japanese Canadians, showing how they have impacted and have been impacted by the physical and social landscape of New Denver. These non-linear groupings are further meant to allow the voices of Kimiko, Henry, and Greg to show how memory and identity are impacted by our ancestors and community. A final important aspect of this exhibition is that all the content will be in both Japanese and English. There is a thriving Nikkei community on Vancouver Island and I felt it was crucial to make this exhibit inclusive and accessible to this community.
Not long ago in The Bulletin we featured Henry’s son Greg and his quest to transform the wood from the cherry trees that his grandfather donated to Prince Rupert into taiko bachi (drumsticks). Does this factor into the exhibit at all?
SKM Yes, it does! During my research into Henry and the Shimizu family, I came across your article and Greg’s involvement in the taiko community. This ultimately led me to interview Greg and incorporate his quotes into the exhibition. A particularly powerful quote from Greg that resonated with me personally was: “Having the Japanese community allowed an opportunity to engage in activities and events. Without it life would be less rich and diverse for me.”
What drew you to throw your hat in the ring in the first place, to take on the challenge of curating this exhibit?
SKM I have always been fascinated by how objects and images can tell non-verbal stories. This was one of the reasons I pursued an Msc in Museum Studies with an intention to pursue curatorial work as a career. In addition to this, I have been building stronger connections with the Japanese Canadian community through my work with the Powell Street Festival Society. Thus, when this exhibition opportunity arose with mentorship from renowned artist and curator Bryce Kanbara, I leaped on the opportunity!
Is there anything you learned in the course of the curational process that surprised you?
SKM Curating an exhibit during a global pandemic is challenging!… Being unable to physically see the paintings proved especially difficult. When it comes to physical artwork, nothing replaces seeing the real thing in-person! In fact, initial exhibition installation plans (outlining where to place the works within the Gallery space) ended up changing drastically once Covid travel restrictions allowed me to visit and appreciate the size of the artworks and Gallery space.
What was the biggest challenge?
SKM The biggest challenge was holding back so many of the powerful quotes from Kimiko, Henry, and Greg! In order to truly showcase the artwork, I needed to keep the text concise and intentional, which meant omitting many moving and insightful quotes collected in interviews. The lived experiences of the Shimizu’s must not be lost to future generations. I hope this exhibition helps to keep their stories alive and perhaps even spark interest to further document and preserve them.
What insights, if any, has it given you into your own family history, your own sense of yourself as a Japanese Canadian?
SKM This exhibition has highlighted to me that it’s never too late to talk with your family members about their lived experiences. Our time with family is precious, and I know I have so many more questions to ask. As someone of mixed heritage, I have always found questions of identity ever-changing and challenging. I believe that your relationship with identity is part of a lifelong process of self-discovery and community building, and the exhibit has emphasised to me that identity is forever being molded by everyday events and our surroundings.
Your generation, and the ones to follow, are increasingly removed from the wartime experience of the issei and nisei. What do you think can be learned or (shared) across generations from exhibits like this?
SKM This is a great question! Through Henry’s artwork, we see scenes of injustice contrasted with the everyday life of a teenager growing up in internment. For example, the most poignant work to me depicts Japanese Canadian soldiers outside an ice cream shop during a visit to their interned families. This particular image underscores that it’s always possible for intolerance to become normalised in society unless we speak out. I believe that by sharing and learning from stories of injustice we can build solidarity intergenerationally, both within the Japanese Canadian community and beyond.
This exhibit was deliberately set up to give experience to young and aspiring curators like yourself. What have you gained from this experience that will help guide you going forward?
SKM In addition to this being an incredible career opportunity, this experience was deeply personal and culturally meaningful to me. While I’ve worked in museums and galleries before, this is the first time I’ve curated an exhibition on a topic that relates to my own family history (my grandparents’ assets were seized during WWII). This personal connection with the exhibit material created a sense of drive that I had never experienced in museum work before. This has taught me that I need to be aligned with my work on a deep level to be truly fulfilled by it.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with Bryce Kanbara on a couple of projects, and have a great deal of regard for him. What was it like working with him on Isshoni?
SKM It was a great honor to have Bryce’s mentorship on this project. Bryce has been such a strong support system and incredible guide through this curatorial process. Since this was my first project as an independent curator, it was daunting to be faced with so many possibilities for curatorial directions. His incredible guidance and expertise as an artist and curator instilled confidence in my abilities and have inspired me to pursue future artistic endeavours. It has truly been a privilege and a joy to work and learn from Byrce, and I am ever grateful. I hope we stay in touch in the future!
Apart from the paintings, what else can visitors expect when visiting the exhibit?
SKM For supplementary material, there will also be a brochure with additional background on Kimiko, Henry, and Greg with information on how to support the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre in New Denver. For additional materials included in the exhibition there will also be two framed photos of Henry’s family from the 1940’s (his parents pre-internment in Prince Rupert and his entire family in New Denver just before the war ended). The Gallery has also just posted the opening program for the exhibition here, where Bryce will be giving a talk: www.uvic.ca/legacygalleries/eventsand- programs/index.php
Is there anything you’d like to add?
SKM I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Shimizus, Henry, Joan, Greg, And Kimko, for their generosity in sharing their family’s story. This exhibition was made possible thanks to the support and mentorship of Bryce Kanbara, John Price, and the Legacy Gallery Staff.
If you want to help preserve and share the knowledge and history of internment with future generations, please consider donating to The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre located on the site of the former New Denver internment camp to continue this work. You can donate by visiting: tinyurl.com/NikkeiInternmentMemorialCentre
Isshoni: Henry Shimizu’s Paintings
of New Denver Internment
April 22 – June 18, 2022
UVic Legacy Art Galleries
630 Yates Street, Victoria, BC, V8W 1K9
Opening Reception and Lansdowne Lecture with
Governor General award-winning artist Bryce Kanbara
Saturday, April 23, 7pm
Opening remarks by Curator Samantha Marsh