Etching the Language of History

“Memory is the crux of my practice,” says Toronto-based printmaker, sculptor and installation artist Emma Nishimura. When she interrogates how memory functions in her work, a series of questions emerge: “How do we share it, how does it weigh on us, how do we pass it on?” Nishimura, who won the prestigious Queen Sonja Print Award in 2018 from a list of 42 nominated printmakers around the world, is currently one of eight artists included in a compelling exhibition at the ROM called “Being Japanese Canadian: Reflections on a Broken World.” By interspersing their work among the historic art in the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada, the exhibition draws attention to the shameful treatment experienced by Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Thousands of Canadians of Japanese ancestry had their property seized and sold by the federal government, and while an official apology was issued in 1988 and symbolic redress paid, the emotional and cultural trauma of that tragic history continues to be felt today. Nishimura’s grandmother was interned and her grandfather was forced to work on a section of road outside Revelstoke. Her family, out of embarrassment and a desire to assimilate as quickly as possible, rarely spoke about the experience. But Nisei and Sansei (second- and third-generation Japanese Canadians) are more vocal in coming to terms with the implications of that history.

Emma Nishimura, Collected Stories, detail, etching and handpainting on gampi with wax and thread, 7.5 inches high x 8.75 inches wide, 2017 to present.

For Emma Nishimura, that engagement has taken the form of labour-intensive sculptures and prints that employ an unusual combination of language and image. In a series called “Constructed Narratives,” she becomes a cartographer of loss by drawing maps of the places in British Columbia’s interior where her grandparents were interned. The drawn lines that connect roads and waterways are actually skeins of words taken from the stories of men who were forced labourers. Similarly in “An Archive of Rememory,” she uses photo-etched images printed on handmade paper that are then shaped into delicate bundles called “furoshiki.” The texts on her maps and her bundled and wrapped images are meticulously rendered but difficult to read. You get portions of the stories, but the unreliability of memory makes the full story fugitive; you can see fragments of the photos, but you can never see the whole picture. Nishimura sees something appropriate in this sense of incompletion: “I’m still negotiating how much I want to be visible. It’s a way of commenting on how inaccessible these stories have been. Sometimes what gets passed down is a lack of knowledge.”

An Archive of Rememory, detail, photo-etching and photogravure, 2.75 x 2.75 x 1.25 inches (left furoshiki), 3.5 x 3.5 x 3 inches (right furoshiki), 2016 to present.

Nishimura refers to a phrase that was commonly used by the generation of Japanese Canadians who were interned. Shikata ga arimasen translates as “it cannot be helped.” As an attitude that was both pragmatic and deflective, it drew attention away from the troubling history to which the first-generation Japanese Canadians were subjected. But by using image and words to speak directly, Nishimura and the other artists in this important exhibition are calling for a society that will be aware of the possibility of repeating an equivalent form of racial prejudice and institutionalized theft. In a time when countries are building walls, resisting legitimate immigration and incarcerating children at borders, the conciliatory phrase has to be reversed. It’s new translation would read “it must be helped.” Emma Nishimura’s dignified and quietly powerful work is speaking to that aesthetic and ethical necessity.

“Being Japanese Canadian: Reflections on a Broken World” continues at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto through August 5, 2019.

Volume 38 Number 1 : Language + Art

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #149, published March 2019.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.