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Canadian Nikkei Series

The Remarkable Life and Times of Grace Eiko Thomson - Part 5

Read Part 4 >>

Your career path? What might be lessons for emerging artists and curators?

I began as a studio artist, however, perhaps because I began so late in life, in short order, I had moved to curating exhibitions and to teaching art history.

When I began my university years, I was thinking not so much about a career choice in art, but in soul searching, as I never felt comfortable in my environment, always feeling a lack, an inadequacy as a Canadian. However, through the years, I found what was most satisfying and what helped me to find myself, was through inter-cultural practices, as a curator and as a historian, and as a person. Even today, I continue to find myself at my creative best when I am working with others, listening, and sharing.  

For the last several years, I have been taking part in Downtown East Side (DTES) issues of housing, homelessness. When I was asked to speak to the City of Vancouver Apology, by the Human Rights Committee of the GVJCCA, as a senior who experienced internment, I spoke not only to the Apology offered to Japanese Canadians, but to a further pledge from the City that such injustices will not happen again to any other residents. The Apology would be meaningless (at least to me, as an elder living in this time witnessing the conditions of DTES residents) without this pledge.  

I am encouraged by the fact that there are artists and young student academics from our own community speaking out on issues and discussing ways to preserve Japanese Canadian heritage in DTES, at the same time offering support to residents, including the Aboriginal communities, who are endangered today by developers moving in, and the rise of land value.

Revitalizing Japantown? A Unifying Exploration of Human Rights, Branding and Place, an exhibition (based on academic research done by Jeff Masuda, Audrey Kobayashi, and Aaron Franks, of Queens University), was held from October to January 2016 at Nikkei National Museum, expanded upon an exhibition, Right to Remain, which opened earlier at Gallery Gachet (DTES). Among participants were several artists.  Herb Varley of Nuu-chah-nulth and Nisga’a heritage (actor and activist), and Japanese Canadian artists, Greg Masuda (artist/photographer), who earlier produced a Lightjet photograph mounted on aluminium, 1/3, 26” x 113”, and contributed to this exhibition an installation, King Rooms #31, 2015, an interactive panoramic photographic projected in 10’ x 12’ room),  Andy Mori (artist/facilitator of Right to Remain), Mary-Anne Tateishi (painter), and several other DTES artists.

Program Cover, Heart of the City Festival, Against the Current, December 2015

I was invited, in 2015, by Vancouver Moving Theatre and Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, to take part in a collaborative cross-cultural performance, Against the Current, held on November 6, at the Vancouver Japanese Language School & Japanese Hall. The performance focuses on the salmon’s struggle upstream to lay eggs, as a metaphor for Japanese and Aboriginal fishermen’s struggle. The production of some sixty participants, opened with a welcome song from Salish singing group, Tzo/kam, with procession of dancers and drummers and Fishstix, in partnership with the Vancouver Taiko Society (five taiko groups), including Vancouver Okinawa Taiko and Artistic Director, John Endo Greenaway. Rosemary Georgeson (from a long line of fishermen) storyteller, offered a story of Aboriginal fishermen (told through her father) sharing with Japanese Canadian fishermen. I was invited as a narrator to accompany her with poetic lines written by Greenaway and Savannah Walling (VMT) Artistic Director.

This was an incredibly stirring performance that affirmed for me the value of intercultural/cross-cultural art produced in collaboration, in trust, and in love.

As you are aware, the annual Powell Street Festival, which has become the City’s longest lasting festival with about 10,000 participants during the August long weekend (Saturday and Sunday), is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. It has, through the years been highlighting local artists and performers, working with local residents, and the City. This is followed two weeks later by the Asahi Tribute Game, held in Oppenheimer Park which draws players from both among local residents and the Japanese Canadian communities.

Also, with reference to the story of the Vancouver Asahi Baseball Team, including the installation of a bronze plaque at Oppenheimer Park (September 18, 2011) commemorating the team as of National Historic Significance, you may already be aware, also of the impact of the film, The Vancouver Asahi, directed by Japan’s Yuya Ishii, launched here at the Vancouver International Film Festival, December 2014. 

In the production of this film, as curator of the exhibition at the Japanese Canadian National Museum earlier, I was privileged to be contacted for consultation, to read and comment on the script, and to meet with the producers here in Vancouver. However, there is no doubt that if not for the foresight of Pat Adachi, who first documented this story in her book, Asahi: A Legend in Baseball, this story may have remained buried in history.

And it is being contemplated at this time to use this baseball team story as a vehicle for education about Japanese immigrant and their descendants’ struggles. For instance, to begin this process, a few of us in the arts and in education are proposing a special event during Vancouver’s Asian Heritage Month (May), which this year is with focus on the theme, `Japanese Canadians.’  Re-screening of The Vancouver Asahi film is planned, at the Vancouver Public Library, open to the public, partnering with B.C. Sports Hall of Fame, followed by a panel discussion with some people of baseball distinction and with historians.

Vancouver Asahi Baseball Team, 1941. Nikkei National Museum.

I believe art is about finding one’s place, the journey not limited by one’s own history, but about expanding one’s thoughts through sharing with others. It is, in my opinion, solely about living. Living and doing without necessarily having to consciously interpret, define, or choose.

I was in the last couple of years been privileged to take part in (Gwawaenuk First Nation) Chief Dr. Robert Joseph’s Reconciliation Canada. In the process, I took a three day Circle workshop, in which I participated with various ethnic and community group members to learn the significance of sharing through the Circle. It culminated in myself and a Chinese Canadian (immigrant) young woman, coordinating our own Circle workshop (courtesy of Vancouver Buddhist Temple which offered us space). It was an incredibly important experience not only for me, an `elder’ as I was called, but by all who attended of all ages, largely academics and community workers.  When leaving at the end of the three day workshop, the word heard most was ‘amazing,’ some with tears in their eyes, in describing their experience of learning, from both young and old, how to share, and to trust, with love.

In his own way, Chief Dr. Joseph, through the Circles held in various communities, inviting everyone to join with him and with the Indigenous people, showed most importantly how reconciliation must begin firstly as within oneself.  

So these are some of the thing happening in Vancouver’s artistic community. Most are very much involved in storytelling aspects of art, often told in art installations.

Nisei artists had quite an impact on the Canadian art scene after WWII. Can you describe this in some detail?

It was, as mentioned earlier, at the post-Redress Homecoming Conference held by the National Association of Japanese Canadians at Hotel Vancouver in 1992, that I met for the first time national Japanese artists, poets, writers, sculptors, painters, potters, etc., who attended. I was at that time living in Prince Albert and had attended this conference out of curiosity, also since my sister and brother-in-law were very much involved (Art and Keiko Miki). Too, my parents had earlier moved to Vancouver.

At that Conference, two regional conferences were approved for funding out of the Redress Foundation, one to be held in Toronto and the other in Vancouver. On April 16, 1994, Toronto artists held the eastern regional conference, Ai/Love: A Symposium for Japanese Canadians in the Arts.

When I moved to Vancouver to work at the Burnaby Art Gallery, in 1995, I was invited to chair a coordinating committee to produce the symposium here in Vancouver. At that time, I knew only the writer and poet, Roy Miki, and the visual artist, Haruko Okano, who I had met at the Homecoming Conference in 1992. (Of course, undoubtedly, I knew about Japanese Canadian artists who were already known as among Canada’s foremost artists.)

This was my first introduction to the Japanese Canadian artistic community of Vancouver. Tsudoi/Gatherings. Japanese Canadians in the Arts was held in Vancouver on March 17-19, 1995, and was dedicated to the memory of the artist, Roy Kiyooka. Remember that I had come from a community of about 300 Japanese Canadian families in Winnipeg, and had little contact with or knowledge about national Japanese Canadian artists, even as I had myself studied studio art, and was for several years acting as curator in Canadian contemporary art galleries, and teaching Western art history. My interest was focused firstly on cross-cultural activities.

It was a very successful conference, and for the first time I was offered the privilege and opportunity of meeting writers, poets, performers, visual artists, sculptors, potters, etc., many of whom remain my friends to this day. There remains a documentary report of the Symposium, written by Jay Hirabayashi (Kokoro Dance), listing the participants in the various workshops, etc. Most continue their work to this day, many having achieved major status as national artists.

If you were going to design a Nikkei Artists 101 course, who would you include in the syllabus and why?

As already mentioned, as curator of contemporary art for some twenty years, in various sites and existing conditions as in Winnipeg, Baker Lake, Prince Albert, and Burnaby, before moving into museum practice, my work was not based on Japanese Canadian artists, per se, but more specifically on cross cultural productions. In fact, it is not until I had moved to Vancouver that I came to realize the number of practicing artists in our own (JC) community.

And even so, I would hesitate to categorize their work as “Japanese Canadian”, but like other Canadians of various cultural and generational backgrounds, Japanese Canadian artists also produce work which relate to their environment, conditions, and personal experiences. If we were to categorize this as “Japanese Canadian” which most certainly it is, as related to their heritage, then we would have to look at all artists living here in Canada with eyes that examine their cultural/heritage background, not simply as artists affected by their personal environment.

In my work for a few years in the development of JCNM, my focus was on the unique history of Japanese Canadians, largely pre-war and wartime internment history.  However, I had also included in my five year plan at JCNM (which I was not able to complete) an exhibition of Takao Tanabe’s work produced in Japan, which dealt with identity issues that he was grappling with, related to his experience as a Japanese Canadian living in post-internment conditions. In curating this work, I had planned to include, with the sumie paintings he produced in Japan, paintings he produced immediately after his return to Canada from Japan, that is, as revealing his before/after identity through his art.

One of Japanese Canadian National Museum’s mandate is to preserve, but also to examine, and to reveal JC history, not only through archival remains of objects and personal interviews, but also as contained in artwork (cultural productions) particularly by those who had experienced, as a child or a young person, the internment years that disrupted their lives.  For instance, Roy Kiyooka, Aiko Suzuki, Joy Kogawa, etc., and also the next generation who were involved in the Redress campaign and its achievement, such as poet and writer Roy Miki, filmmaker Linda Ohama, documentarian and digital media producer, Susanne Tabata, dance performer Jay Hirabayashi, etc. Also, current generation of artists, who are very conscious of their Japanese heritage, but many, now of mixed ethnicity, accepts, unequivocally, Canada as their home (something my generation took many years to believe), a multi-cultural country, as expressed in their own mixed identities and in their art. 

Are these examples of “Japanese Canadian Art?”  I don’t think so.

Recently I attended the Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award for Film and New Media.  The recipient of the New Media Award is Cindy Mochizuki, who is producing art, most recently with Contemporary Art Gallery, here in Vancouver, but also producing work that reaches to Japan (working with curator, Makiko Hara, former director of Centre A, Japanese immigrant, continuing close connection with Japan’s art communities and galleries). Also, there are those who work as facilitators of art, such as Naomi Sawada, Programmer, of Belkin Gallery, UBC.  No doubt these are the kinds of practitioners that I would include in a 101 course in art, but not specifically ‘Nikkei’, which is a word I have problems with as related to Japanese Canadians, particularly of my generation.

I asked Haruko Okano, another keynote speaker at the arts symposium in Toronto that you spoke at on April 2nd the same question: What is the real value of having a well connected national community of JC artists? How do we accomplish this?

I grew up as a Japanese Canadian, well connected with Japanese Canadians in Winnipeg, who shared my history and anxieties, and worked together to resolve our lives. Some of us early married outside of our community, but raised our children in a society that is markedly changed from the one we had been raised in, thus, even as our children experienced some discrimination in their daily lives, knowing Canadian laws now protect them, we were more at ease.

I wonder, in this new century, whether there is a need for a well-connected national community of artists, JC artists, as we participate in cross cultural art events, attending each other’s book launches, exhibition openings and discussions, some working at reviewing, critiquing, etc., as we work together in a more shared society.  I personally don’t think so, and would like to hear practicing artists’ opinions.

Any final words that you might want to direct to JC artists?

In being asked to take part in this Arts Symposium, I had mixed feelings about what I can out of my own experience, contribute, at this time in my life, except to share my life experience (not an easy one) living at the edge of various events, not directly in art.

However, as I said earlier, art for me is a way of life, so it is never far from me, and I continue to take interest in what artists are thinking, making, and doing, especially those who work here in Vancouver. I realize also, very happily, that most artists, those interested or involved in the arts, are also interested in community issues, especially human rights issues. I find this not surprising as to make art is about soul-searching, and soul-searching includes examination of not only one’s own situation but the environment that influences directions.

As you can see from the above, my career path was motivated by my own desire to make sense of a life that began in Vancouver with my parents who had with optimism, immigrated to Canada, but soon after uprooted to spend the next seven years moving from place to place, and finally back into the larger society resolve to begin their lives again.

From teen age into adulthood, while learning to live in the City of Winnipeg, as a minority, without seriously planning, I had begun my journey of reconciliation through artistic practice, to this date.

Thank you….


© 2016 Norm Ibuki

artists Canada curator Grace Eiko Thomson nikkei

About this series

The inspiration for this new Canadian Nikkei interview series is the observance that the gulf between the pre-WW2 Japanese Canadian community and the Shin Ijusha one (post-WW2) has grown tremendously. 

Being “Nikkei” no longer means that one is only of Japanese descent anymore. It is far more likely that Nikkei today are of mixed cultural heritage with names like O’Mara or Hope, can’t speak Japanese and have varying degrees of knowledge about Japan.

It is therefore the aim of this series to pose ideas, challenge some and to engage with other like-minded Discover Nikkei followers in a meaningful discussion that will help us to better understand ourselves.

Canadian Nikkei will introduce you to many Nikkei who I have had the good fortune to come into contact with over the past 20 years here and in Japan. 

Having a common identity is what united the Issei, the first Japanese to arrive in Canada, more than 100 years ago. Even in 2014, it is the remnants of that noble community that is what still binds our community today.

Ultimately, it is the goal of this series to begin a larger online conversation that will help to inform the larger global community about who we are in 2014 and where we might be heading to in the future.