“Distillation: Meditations on the Japanese American Experience” opened last week at John F. Kennedy University’s Arts & Consciousness Gallery in Berkeley. It offers a unique portrayal of Japanese American identity through the lens of Sansei, or third-generation Japanese Americans. With more than 70 works of art, the four artists — Reiko Fujii, Lucien Kubo, Shizue Seigel and Judy Shintani — take viewers on a journey of self-discovery.
“I was struck by the overlapping theme of our works,” said Seigel, who first proposed the exhibition and approached John F. Kennedy University. Their artworks, Seigel said, are diverse and yet compliment each other. The coherent theme running underneath is a quest for identity. They are also all a tribute to their ancestors.
“I’ve never felt I fit in,” said Shintani. Raised in a predominately white community in Lodi, the 52-year-old artist said art was a vehicle to express herself. Shintani created “Remembrance Shrine,” a birdcage wrapped in rice paper, to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Japanese American concentration camps. The birdcage houses memories written by the former inmates who responded to Shintani’s Craigslist ad asking them to share their experience.
“It’s a family secret,” said Shintani, whose grandparents lost their oyster farming business when they were sent to the Tule Lake concentration camp. That is why she placed the written memories behind the rice paper on the cage. She also collected 133 responses to “Remembrance Shrine” from seven exhibits she had and created “Pearls Left Behind.” The notes she collected over the seven years are wrapped with barbed wire, and the two works offer an on-going conversation that links past, present and future.
For Fujii, art is a way to capture snippets of what is real.
“I was shocked to see myself in the mirror. I saw a Japanese person,” said Fujii. It was only after she went to college that she finally accepted herself for who she is and became interested in her ancestral history.
Now she finds beauty in the life of hard working people, such as her deceased grandmother, Riki Inaba, who is the inspiration of Fujii’s “Grandma’s Money Canister.” She used Riki’s stitching cloth and a canister, in which Riki saved money from selling vegetables and fresh eggs. Riki’s picture is also sewn into “The Glass Kimono,” an ancestral kimono which holds pictures of her families and relatives printed on glasses. She found those pictures when she visited her grandparents’ farming village in Samoto, Japan.
“This kimono took me to the land of my ancestors, and now I feel close to them,” said the 60-year-old artist.
The exhibit also explores the broader theme of what it means to be a “modern minority.”
Kubo’s “Ode to the Civil Rights Movement” is a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, including pictures of both men. The 52-year-old artist, who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement before she started making art, said Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X inspired many Japanese Americans who also suffered racial discrimination. Her mixed media piece, “Free Tibet” and “Freedom for Burma,” also advocate for the freedom of modern minorities around the globe.
While Kubo honors the struggle of modern minorities, her piece also gravitates toward world peace. As the United States got more involved in wars in the Middle East, she said, the memory of discrimination and racism came back to her. “Hear no evil, See no evil, Speak no evil,” an assemblage, consists of the three monkeys, and includes a booklet about how to survive an atomic bomb blast. The message is clear: We must learn from history and not repeat it.
Shizue Seigel uses painting, photo collage, and sometimes words to explore her Japanese American values.
“When my jiichan died in the 1980s, I started to think about where my value system came from,” said the 64-year-old Seigel, who went to India to learn about Hinduism and ultimately Buddhism. Her work explores achievements by Japanese Americans. Her photo collage, “Dear Wife and Jiichan,” renders the meaning of Issei value such as gaman (perseverance) and mottainai (waste not) and how Japanese Americans established themselves in the new home called America.
The works by these four women expressed messages which, if put in writing, might incite anger. However, Seigel said art makes it easier to express them in non-confrontational ways. “Unlike writing, art doesn’t have any disagreement,” she said. “Yet, it makes a strong impression.”
“Distillations” will be on display Mon.-Sat. through Sept. 18 at the Arts and Consciousness Gallery at John F. Kennedy University 2956 San Pablo Ave., in Berkeley, Calif.