I have been working to establish a family memorial garden on my grandparents’ old farm land, and after several years of preparation it has recently become reality. I’ve also just completed a first draft of the family story that will eventually be displayed onsite. So, with the garden project and its complex bundle of meanings top of mind, it was a profound coincidence to come upon two deeply moving and meaningful exhibits in Ottawa last week.
The first exhibit was at the Canadian Photography Institute (in the National Gallery of Canada). “Hanran: 20th Century Japanese Photography” follows socio-political life and change in Japan during the Shōwa-era (1926–89). The timeline of this era was bookended by two earthquakes, with interim events of equally earth-shattering magnitude. For art history and photography enthusiasts, Hanran also presented a fascinating story of how photography as an artform evolved in Japan over the 60-year period. (Watch a brief video of curator Eriko Kimura here)
The second exhibit was “Sites of Memory: Legacies of the Japanese Canadian Internment” at the Carleton University Art Gallery. It’s a collaboration of three Japanese Canadian artists – Norman Takeuchi (Ottawa), Emma Nishimura (Toronto) and Cindy Mochizuki (Vancouver). I learned of this exhibit through Nishimura’s website which I think I found through a CBC article. Her packaged memories — stories told through the generations and wrapped in images of old family photographs — were most compelling, particularly with my family memorial garden as mental backdrop.
The photographs, video and sculptural art were all very powerful but the back stories added an important dimension for me. In the case of Hanran, all of the images were brought to life with the Japanese perspective on socio-political events of the time. For Sites of Memory, it was family stories reconstructed through the art of Japanese Canadian descendants (i.e. sansei and yonsei).
Walking through these two exhibits, I felt like I was walking with my own grandmother’s ghost looking over one shoulder to the country she left and the life she would never know. Then, looking over her other shoulder to the path she and grandfather followed half a world away – with bundles of collected family memories being carried alongside life-colliding events.
Just as we were preparing to leave the Sites of Memory exhibit, my eyes were drawn to a Takao Tanabe (b. 1926) watercolour, titled “Banff” (1953). The painting was a gallery collection, and not part of the exhibit. But Tanabe’s work and the accompanying statement by Laura Modokoro conveyed a sentiment that beautifully summed up my combined personal experience of the exhibits and family garden project:
… The contrast between light and dark, between broad strokes and fine lines, speaks to a world of contradictions…. The tendency to focus on wartime injustices means that it is easy to forget the rich dynamism that has characterized the community from the nineteenth century to the present. Tanabe’s work, which expresses myriad influences, is a reminder that internment is only one aspect of the Japanese Canadian experience. To limit our perspectives to this aspect alone is to do further injustice to a complex and very human history, tinged with blemishes and beauty both. Laura Modokoro