finding family stories

Glenn Kaino/Karen Kimura/Linda Nishio

By Karin Higa

The initial impulse behind the finding family stories project was that cultural institutions, especially those representing different ethnic communities, could learn from each other and that the best way to learn is through doing-through the actual process of initiating, conceptualizing, and completing a project. At the same time, many cultural history institutions have not adequately explored the relationship between contemporary artistic practice and the articulation of ethnic and cultural identity in the United States. finding family stories grew out of these dual concerns. It was conceived as a two-way mentorship between the Japanese American National Museum and the Korean American Museum, and as an opportunity to explore recent trends in the work of contemporary artists, especially those who have a shared ethnic heritage and whose work investigates the complicated constructions of personal and community history.

Artists have long mined personal and familial histories for the creation of art. Autobiographical investigations-where personal experience becomes the source of artistic work-are not unusual. Sometimes the stories are transformed, sometimes they are carefully reproduced. However, for artists of minority communities in the United States, the impulse to create art that investigates family history takes on a particular urgency. Asians and Asian Americans are virtually invisible within the larger sphere of representation. When Asian Americans are represented, their complex histories, specific experiences, and diverse identities are often presented in simplistic, and in many cases, offensive forms. Excluded from the larger narratives of history, many artists have stepped in to fill the void by creating art that establishes alternative scenarios for self and community representation. It is important to examine this art in the context of the shared ethnic experiences from which it is generated. For Japanese Americans, this experience inevitably includes the history of restrictive immigration which created specific patterns of adaptation and assimilation; the World War II incarceration and the loss of identity; and the transmission and transformation of language and cultural beliefs originating from Japan.

The emergence of the Yonsei, or fourth generation, within Karen Kimura's family provided the initial impulse to incorporate the history of her parents and grandparents' generation into her art. As older relatives passed on and memories faded, the continuity of her family history was in danger or being lost. In particular, Kimura was interested in the experiences, recollections, and opinions of the women in her family. Using traditional and contemporary binding techniques to create intricately fabricated, unique books, Kimura utilizes family and archival photographs, quotes of family members, and fragments of text to explore history in a non-narrative, non-linear and visual way. Portrait/Self Portrait is a meditative juxtaposition of Kimura and her mother. Two dates-1942 and 1992-serve as the evocative markers of chronological time and experience. Executive order 9066 was issued in 1942 and authorized the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. Kimura acknowledges that the significance of that event fifty years earlier to her own contemporary sense of self and self-identity. Inside the book, War Relocation Authority photographs of the camps and family snapshots are woven together literally, making it impossible to distinguish which part of the book is the portrait and which is the self-portrait. The fact that Kimura's explorations are in the format of a book is all the more interesting since books are the primary method of transmitting, interpreting, and institutionalizing history. Kimura transforms the book form to reinvent and reclaim the history of Japanese Americans through a personal exploration of her mother.

The World War II experience of Japanese Americans provides the critical backdrop for the art of Glenn Kaino. As a young emerging artist, Kaino had been encouraged to apply for the James D. Phelan Art Award, funded by the estate of the former San Francisco mayor and United States Senator and administered by the San Francisco Foundation to support California-born artists. A few years ago at the Family Expo sponsored by the Japanese American National Museum, Kaino came across James D. Phelan's campaign pamphlet from 1920. Kaino learned in addition to being a supporter of the arts, Phelan was also one of the primary leaders of the anti-Japanese movement in California, fighting for the elimination of Japanese immigration, initiating the passage of the California Alien Land Laws, and campaigning under the slogan, "Keep California White." Phelan's re-election campaign materials proudly stated: "Senator Phelan is the natural leaders of the fight to reclaim California's soil.... the Japanese menace is no passing shadow but a dreadful peril to California and the Pacific Coast which Congress must at once take steps to avert." Kaino's installation, Wheel of Fortune, interrogates the racist legacy of Phelan, the incarceration of his grandfather, and the ironic fact that Phelan's money could go to support the descendants of Japanese Americans he tried so hard to eliminate from the country. The installation incorporates the story of Kaino's grandfather who, as a promising football player, was offered a college scholarship to play football, but whose athletic future was cut short by the outbreak of war and the subsequent incarceration of Japanese Americans. Kaino also casts a skeptical eye towards the use of art to redeem past wrongs. Phelan's years of abominable actions are forgotten in favor of Phelan's posthumous support of California artists.

In Linda Nishio's work, a conceptual interest in language suggests the sometimes fragile relationship between speaking and being understood. Kikoemasu ka? (Can you hear me?) is a series of six photographs of the artist mouthing out the syllables "ki-ko-e-ma-su-ka?" with her face smashed against glass. Beneath the first five photographs is a running text that describes Nishio's childhood growing up as a Sansei in a home where little Japanese was spoken, except for by her grandmother, and her subsequent attendance at an art school on the East coast where intellectualized "iconoclast" rhetoric was encouraged. Nishio found herself gradually using this type of language. She writes, "Upon returning to L.A. I found myself misunderstood by family and friends. So this is the story: A young artist of Japanese descent from Los Angeles who doesn't talk normal." Under the last photograph is an empty space-Nishio's inability to communicate is made visible through the absence of text. The question and piece, Can you hear me? Is a provocative one which resonates on many levels: it calls attention to the generational divide and forces of assimilation among Japanese Americans as evidenced by ability to communicate in Japanese; questions and critiques the "language" of contemporary art and its ability or inability to "speak" to diverse communities; and invokes the experience of many Asian Americans who are often complimented by total strangers on their ability to speak clear English. In the latter case, Asians are assumed to be forever foreign.

The artists of Japanese ancestry in finding family stories explore family and community history in the most diverse way possible. They demonstrate that there is no single way of interpreting one's own life and experience, and that the relationship to ethnic and cultural identity is likewise expressed in varied aesthetic forms. However, does this mean that all work by artists of color addresses inequities of history? Or, that artists who share ethnicity also share aesthetic and conceptual concerns? Of course not. The aesthetic forms of art about family and community history are as varied and manifold as the numerous individual stories that exist. The art in finding family stories demonstrates this. It also begins to suggest the rich and provocative work created by contemporary artists who take and transform family stories.


Karin Higa is Curator of Art at the Japanese American National Museum.

Read Interviews with the artists:

Glenn Kaino
Karen Kimura
Linda Nishio

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