Sansei granddaughters create incarceration artwork


“Heart Mountain Happi,” by Ellen Bepp. photo by Kallan Nishimoto

‘SANSEI GRANDDAUGHTERS’ JOURNEY’ ON VIEW — (From L to R): Na Omi Judy Shintani, Reiko Fujii, Ellen Bepp, Shari Arai DeBoer and Kathy Fujii-Oka’s exhibit is on view at AZ Gallery in San Bruno through Sept. 3. photo by Bob Hsiang

Kathy Fujii-Oka’s “The Legacy of Fujii Nursery” depicts her grandfather and his brother, owners of the Fujii Nursery in the 1920s in Berkeley, Calif., behind bars in acrylic. In the background of the artwork is a photo of her grandfather and his brother surrounded by military trucks with plants headed to Fort Ord in Monterey, Calif.

Fujii-Oka is one of five artists displaying their work representing family and other wartime inmates of Japanese descent in the “Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey: From Remembrance to Resistance” exhibit held inside the AZ Gallery in The Shops at Tanforan in San Bruno, Calif. The exhibit continues through Sept. 3.

Organizers held a screening of the short film “Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey,” followed by a discussion with the artists, on Aug. 14.

Fujii-Oka learned more about her family’s wartime incarceration about a decade ago. She did not consider herself a “political artist” until she created the nursery piece, she told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Fellow artist Na Omi Judy Shintani explained her “Remembrance Shrine” artwork, in which incarceration stories and memories are written on strips of paper underneath a birdcage shutter wrapped in rice paper. She said when people open the birdcage shutter, they are “bringing light to the stories” as many incarceration stories are not told.

People may add their own stories by writing them on a paper strip and tie them to the birdcage.

Shintani explained another piece with a drawing of a child on a cot, which emphasizes that many children were incarcerated during World War II. She said she used augmented reality to help explain her art piece. By pointing their smartphone at the cot, people can use the AR-vos augmented reality app from the Apple or Google Play store, to see a horse stable with barbed wire around the cot, offering them a glimpse of what life in the incarceration camps was like. Part of her narration from the augmented reality component of the piece says, “no windows, floor cots and uncomfortable mattresses…” describing what life was like for children in the incarceration camps.

“Heart Mountain Happi,” by Ellen Bepp. photo by Kallan Nishimoto

“Sansei Granddaughter” artist Ellen Bepp created a piece to honor her paternal grandfather, Kiroku Bepp, called “Heart Mountain Happi.” She photocopied pages from her grandfather’s notebook and arranged them in the form of a happi coat. She said the happi coat gives “a feeling of emptiness” since it is just hanging. On the back of the coat, she drew Heart Mountain, Wyo. barracks, and the text of her grandfather’s will is written from when he was a Heart Mountain inmate.

Bepp also designed a piece about the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki using Japanese indigo-dyed cotton and sashiko (Japanese hand-stitching technique) entitled “Targets.” She wanted to create the piece because of the “irony of doing something traditional and beautiful of a tragic item,” she said during the Aug. 14 event. She stitched a rendering of the atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” which the U.S. military dropped on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945. She stitched Executive Order 9066 and the 10 Wartime Relocation Authority camps onto the fabric, as she wanted to include the “target of people of Japanese descent during the war,” she said during the tour from the event.

Reiko Fujii made a life-size “Detained Alien Enemy Glass Kimono” representing the unjust incarceration of persons of Japanese descent and their families during World War II in U.S. concentration camps. She collected photos from community members whose families were incarcerated, to incorporate into the kimono. She sent the photos to a decal company and she placed them in water. The decals slid off in the water. She put the images in the kiln at 1240 degrees Fahrenheit to fuse the images into the glass. This is her sixth such kimono that she has made. The art piece takes about two to three months to produce. She said when she wears the kimono, the 224 glass squares clink together, like wind chimes, which is one way Obon festivals in Japan call back ancestors.

Shari Arai DeBoer shared her watercolors, including one called “Creating Resistance, 2022,” saying she was inspired by “the crafts that people made while they were incarcerated and how they could use the materials that they could find.” In her art description, she said her “family’s collection of shells — remnants of aquatic life, fossils, stones and shell art are mementos of their life in camp.”

The Asian American Women Artists Association sponsored the Aug. 14 event.

The “Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey: From Remembrance to Resistance” exhibit is on view at the AZ Gallery at 1150 El Camino Real, Suite 254, The Shops at Tanforan in San Bruno, Calif. until Sept. 3. Hours: Wednesdays through Fridays, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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