The Healing Arts

Four generations of Japanese-Canadian artists from across the land gather to explore the intersection of culture, art, and a painful historical legacy.

In mid-September I had the good fortune to attend a symposium of Japanese-Canadian artists at the beautiful new Gorge Park Pavilion in Esquimalt, British Columbia. This place was once the site of the Takata tea pavilion and garden, built in the early twentieth century. In 1942, however, the Canadian government seized the property under the War Measures Act, and vandals destroyed the original pavilion. 

This year marks the eightieth anniversary of the dispossession and displacement of over 22,000 Canadians of Japanese ancestry. This past May, the National Association of Japanese Canadians won a landmark $100 million in reparations from the BC government. The Gorge Park Pavilion itself is another and more tangible measure by Esquimalt to excise that shameful chapter in Canada’s history and help right the wrongs of that time, especially those that devastated the Takata family, who owned the land, the pavilion and the garden.

Susanne Tabata was one of those spearheading the campaign for reparations from the province. She and I had been planning this symposium since fall 2018, after I saw her presentation on the Japanese-Canadian Artists Directory. I suggested that we do something to bring some of these artists to the University of Victoria to present their work and share ideas. This evolved into GEI: Art Symposium. 

While the pandemic delayed matters, it also gave us time to raise funds. With a generous grant from the Canada Council, we were able to gather four generations of artists from across Canada. The youngest were in their twenties; Henry Shimizu, ninety-four, was the eldest. Fortunately for us, the Gorge Pavilion was ready in time for the symposium—one of the first events held there. 

The symposium itself was a closed affair for the artists, but the live-streamed opening ceremony was a public event. The ceremony featured butoh dancers Jay Hirabayashi and Denise Fujiwara, drumming by Uminari Taiko, and dancing and drumming by members of the Lekwungen Nation, on whose ancestral lands the pavilion stands. Tetsuro Shigematsu, who served as emcee for much of the weekend, also performed his funny and touching one-man play about his relationship with his father, Empire of the Son.  

The crowning event of the symposium was “Start Here,” a major exhibition curated by Bryce Kanbara featuring four pioneering Japanese-Canadian artists—Roy Kiyooka, Kazuo Nakamura, Shizuye Takashima and Takao Tanabe—at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The exhibition will run until January 22 of next year. 

The symposium hummed with youthful energy, since many of its participants are still in their twenties and thirties and early in their artistic careers. Older generations of artists who’d struggled with prejudice and a lack of public support for their work got to share their experiences with the younger generations. The latter, in turn, shared their hopes and creative ideas with their creative elders. This event was also an unprecedented chance to bring artists isolated by geography together. Creators presented their work in a wide spectrum of genres that encompassed visual and performing arts, fiction, poetry, drama, film, music and more. Discussions revolved around themes such as what is it to be a Japanese-Canadian artist and how to share their work with their communities. 

A highlight was a talk by Joy Kogawa, author of the 1981 novel Obasan and many other works of poetry and fiction, with her grandchild, digital artist Sen Canute, about her long career and the shadow cast by the Japanese-Canadian diaspora. Joy and Sen collaborated on creating an augmented reality game based on the internment of Japanese Canadians. 

The weekend ended on a celebratory note, with everyone joining in an Obon dance to the ancestors.