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Japanese American National Museum – Transpacific Borderlands: The Art Of Japanese Diaspora In Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, And São Paulo

September 17, 2017–February 25, 2018

 

Part of PST: LA/LA, this eye-opening exhibition reveals the complexities of identity categorization in the 21st century, while also providing opportunities for exploring an intriguing commingling of aesthetic and socio-political themes. Organized collaboratively by six curators, the exhibition presents works in a wide range of media by 13 artists from four cities with sizeable Latin American or Latinx populations. The common bond among what is a genuinely diverse group is that all the artists are Nikkei, people of Japanese heritage living outside Japan.

Installed on two floors, the works are loosely divided into four categories, with ground level sections devoted mostly to themes of homeland and mestizaje (racial mixing) and the upstairs galleries focused largely on hybridity and cosmopolitanism. At the exhibition entrance, informative wall text familiarizes viewers with region-specific terminology for ethnic identities of people of Japanese descent living outside Japan in predominately Latin American communities collectively referred to as “Japanese Latino.”

 

Transpacific Borderlands. Shizu Saldamando, La Sandra

 

As might be expected from grouping works by artists whose backgrounds and experiences reflect multiple cultural influences, no single emergent style or issue dominates the exhibition. Some thematic overlap can be found among artists concerned with immigration, displacement, and transience. Several are also influenced in one way or another by Japanese culture and traditions.

Immigration is the focus of Mexican artist Taro Zorrilla’s video documentary and accompanying sculpture which recounts the stories of men who flee Mexico to the U.S. to earn enough money to build their dream houses back in their homeland. On a related theme, Sandra Nakamura’s site-specific installation uses vintage equipment to project a faint photographic image documenting the arrival of Japanese migrants in Peru in 1899. The installation was created in response to a poem by one of that country’s most acclaimed poets, José Watanabe, who is of both Japanese and Peruvian descent. One of the more captivating works in the exhibition is a video by Mexico’s Yuriko Rojas Moriyama presenting the story of a Japanese couple lured to Mexico for land. Reinforcing the cultural and linguistic overlays, the story unfolds in three languages simultaneously: in sign language by a narrator with a black bar over her eyes, in Spanish by a typewriter that operates continuously at the top of the screen, and in English via subtitles along the bottom.

Although born in Brazil, Erica Kaminshi turns to the traditional Japanese subject of cherry blossoms, but presents them in clusters of suspended Petri dishes, objects commonly found in scientific laboratories. The overall effect is a soft interplay of light and shadow, an ephemeral sensation that has affinities to Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms. A Zen-like experience is also attainable by engaging with the centers or interiors of Kiyoto Ota’s exquisite vessels that look like fine ceramics but are actually made from common materials such as wood, cardboard, and mirror. In the exhibition catalog, Ota comments, “The final purpose of all things is to be one with the universe, and at the same time, for all things to remain separate.”

Some of the freshest works in the exhibition are by Los Angeles-based Ichiro Irie and Shizu Saldamando, who respond more to contemporary culture than to tradition. Irie, who was born in Japan but views his identity as distinctly Angelino, poignantly calls attention to the transient nature of the Los Angeles car culture in a large-scale canvas depicting smashed-up automobiles. With imagery painted in acrylic and details drawn in markers likely to fade over time, the medium itself functions as an expressive metaphor for impermanence. Saldamando’s exemplary drawings of typical Millennials, shown set against barren backgrounds accentuated with spray-painted smudges, effectively capture the ethos of an assimilated generation. A related series of drawings on wood panels, meticulously rendered images of lunch boxes covered with pop culture decals, is particularly intriguing as documentation of a generational fad.

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DAVID S. RUBIN is a Los Angeles-based curator, writer, art critic and artist. He has held key curatorial positions at museums and contemporary art venues in Southern California, San Francisco, Cleveland, Phoenix, New Orleans and San Antonio.

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