Works by four Nisei artists – the term refers to the children of parents who emigrated from Japan – on view at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria offer an opportunity to reflect on distinct and intertwined stories within the Canadian mosaic. Born within a few years in the late 1920s, the artists lived in different parts of the country and had unique practices. Certainly all were affected by the prevailing prejudices of the time, and three of them were among the 21,000 Japanese Canadians on the west coast who were uprooted from their homes and interned in remote camps during World War II.
Common artistic threads emerge in the show, start here, on view until January 22nd. One revolves around abstraction, particularly among the three male artists – Roy Kiyooka, Takao Tanabe and Kazuo Nakamura. Also evident is an interest in the natural world, particularly in the show’s representational work. The fourth artist, Shizuye Takashima, is more of an outsider, with her gentle expressionism that sometimes veers into childlike or magical realism.
Takashima, who had many health problems in her youth, is known for her 1971 book. A child in the prison camp, the first significant publication by a Japanese Canadian discussing this experience. After the war she attended the Ontario College of Art, where she was an instructor from 1976 to 1994 and died in 2005.
Her work on the show is muted and sometimes done in pastel colors. The Awakening / The New Age, a 1978 oil painting, shows a roughly sketched human figure leading a horse through a misty haze as the sun rises over a beach and bathes the rocky foreshore in a peachy light. Nearby, an intriguing if darker work, The judgeIt shows two masked figures – maybe doctors? – with only her eyes visible. The ambiguously masked figure has gained renewed traction in recent years.
takashima’s painting, Macrocosm & Microcosm, from 1970, bridges a spiritually imbued abstraction with two spheres, one pale pink and the other white, meeting at the center of the canvas beneath a four-pointed star. She had the least established exhibition record of the four artists, perhaps unsurprising for an artist of the time whose intersectionality encompassed not only her cultural background but also gender and disability. Curiously, her work was not included in the graphic banner promoting the exhibition on the gallery’s website.
Meanwhile, Vancouver artist Roy Kiyooka is represented with vibrant geometric abstractions. bast, a large acrylic painting from 1963, reads almost like a landscape with a horizontal band of blue at the foot of the flat orange field that dominates the canvas. His Untitled – Geometric Summary, from the same period, explores the relationship between two blue spheres and an orange cross. Compared to Takashima’s more delicate but somewhat similarly textured piece, it’s a decidedly rigid and muscular work.
Born in Moose Jaw, Sask., and raised in Calgary, Kiyooka was also a poet. His artistic practice included photography, a selection of which is shown here. He taught art at universities across the country for two decades, eventually settling in Vancouver. He died in 1994. Kiyooka’s brother Harry was also an artist and taught at the University of Calgary. He died last April at the age of 94. I’m curious as to why he wasn’t included on this show.
Nakamura, on the other hand, is credited with co-founding the influential Canadian artist group Painters Eleven, which came together to exhibit abstract art in Toronto in the 1950s. Born in Vancouver, his family was interned east of Hope, BC and later settled in Toronto. He engaged in his study of patterns, both in nature and in science. A brief reflection on Toronto gallerist Christopher Cutts’ gallery wall recalls Nakamura as “a man of intellectual zeal, obsessively curious.”
Nakamuras Number Structure #9, an oil painting from 1984, shows columns of numbers painted in blue on a light background. The tiered construction of the columnar numbers and the repetitive but slightly varied template do suggest an underlying pattern. Yet somehow I don’t feel the need to decode it and instead revel in the visual qualities of the work. It feels comfortable, almost familiar.
Similarly, Nakamura’s small, densely patterned, untitled green painting suggests a forest. In the foreground, a flat surface with a different surface treatment is reminiscent of a standing pond. Neither seems to demand full visual resolution. So the work becomes a quiet place to rest your eyes, much like the experience of being in a real forest, an interesting feat for such a small piece. Nakamura died in 2002.
Finally comes Tanabe, who also dabbled in abstraction but eventually moved towards representational landscapes. The early works here are loosely painted and atmospheric with markings that feel almost calligraphic. For example in Forest Impressions #8, a 1953 watercolor, rapid dark linear markings depicting trees are deposited on multicolored whitewash under what appears to be a humid sky. its landscape, Gulf Islands, Fog, is made from thin muted gray washes so reminiscent of a coastal winter. His later landscapes are almost photorealistic.
Tanabe, 98, who lives on Vancouver Island, is the only living artist on the show. Born on the West Coast, he was interned as a Japanese foreigner during World War II. His education included studying calligraphy and sumi-e, Japanese ink painting, at Tokyo University from 1959 to 1960 on a Canada Council scholarship, building on his time at the Winnipeg School of Art, the Brooklyn Museum Art School and Central School of Arts and Crafts in London.
He has assumed the mantle of a senior statesman by establishing the Tanabe Prize for BC painters six years ago. Works by this year’s winner, Robert Burke, a Métis and Black legacy survivor from the Northwest Territories, a boarding school, are on display in a nearby corridor. Tanabe’s honors include a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts and the 2013 Audain Prize for lifetime achievement in the visual arts.
The exhibition, organized by guest curator Bryce Kanbara, a Hamilton artist of Japanese descent, was held in conjunction with an arts symposium organized by the National Association of Japanese Canadians in September. Though modest, the show feels like a tribute. As Kanbara notes of the artists, “They raised the bar for succeeding generations of Japanese Canadians in the arts, and accounts of their lives provide us all with inspiring examples of what it takes to make a difference.”
I would have welcomed a more detailed discussion of what Kanbara notes as the “adverse effects” of pre-WWII Asian heritage, as well as the “beneficial effects” of Japan’s rich cultural traditions. Kanbara seems to dismiss the latter in a single statement in the teaching material. “They seemed,” he writes, “to approach their shared Japanese-Canadian heritage with alternate forgetfulness and appreciation.”
Start here: Kiyooka, Nakamura, Takashima, Tanabe at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria from 17 September 2022 to 22 January 2023. Curated by Bryce Kanbara.
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