Most days, the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada is a relatively sleepy corner of the Royal Ontario Museum’s collection, a place where the church carvings, family portraits and antique furniture rest undisturbed. This month, however, eight contemporary artists of Japanese ancestry are subtly disrupting the Canadiana.
The casual visitor may not even notice the first few of their interventions, but by the time you get to the back of the gallery, you have to wonder at what appears to be a stuffed cartoon character, a toy as big as a person plopped down amidst a small display of modernist furniture. Part pillow, part Japanese animé, this friendly creature is an “emissary” of Mission 42, a public art project first launched in Vancouver in 2012 by Toronto artist Laura Shintani and now reprised on a smaller scale.
In Vancouver, Shintani scattered 22 smaller versions of these stuffed toys, each about the size of a hand, in different locations that had meaning to the prewar Japanese community. She then waited for strangers to find them, follow the instructions they included for their return and mail them back to her. Seven of the toys are now hidden in displays in the ROM gallery, and they aren’t that easy to find: Younger visitors might be entertained by this message-in-a-bottle treasure hunt.
So what’s the message? The 42 refers to 1942, the year the Canadian government issued orders to round up the entire Japanese community in British Columbia, eventually interning 22,000 people “of the Japanese race.” These were not “enemy aliens,” but Canadian citizens who were simply stripped of their rights and property. The works scattered through the Sigmund Samuel Gallery are all a reflection on the wartime internment and its legacy, but it is their insertion into the colonial narrative that is so striking. A concept initiated by ROM curator Heather Read and refined by her co-curators Arlene Gehmacher, Bryce Kanbara and Katherine Yamashita, it requires some detective work on the part of the visitor – and then rewards that work with highly effective juxtapositions.
Some of the art is transparent in the way it addresses the legacy of Japanese identity in Canada: Ottawa artist Norman Takeuchi, one of a few here who were old enough to have lived in an internment camp as a child, contributes an abstract composition broken apart by a black-and-white image of the camps and a colourful reproduction of a traditional Japanese woodblock. Lillian Michiko Blakey, of Newmarket, Ont., simply paints a portrait of her young mother standing behind barbed wire. What makes these works haunting is their placement in the gallery: Blakey’s mother’s portrait hangs in a row of 19th-century images of British-Canadian worthies; Takeuchi’s scene from the ukiyo-e woodblock hangs alongside urban landscapes of pre-Confederation Canada.
Calgary artist Steven Nunoda, meanwhile, gets some space to himself to lay out Ghostown, a grid of little tar-paper shacks which he asks volunteers to assemble and place on the floor each time the work is shown. It is combined with Ladder to the Moon, a sturdy wooden ladder leading to an illuminated moon that shines hopefully over this painful village.
Toronto printmaker Emma Nishimura, whose grandparents were interned, addresses that pain directly yet elliptically in an installation of little fabric bundles. In Japan, stores often give customers their purchases packaged in tasteful handkerchiefs, but here, the fabric is printed with fading memories, showing old photographs or merely blank grey.
Shame, forbearance and time greatly affected how much the internees told others about their wartime experiences – there was more public discussion of these events in 1988, when then-prime minister Brian Mulroney issued a formal apology for the internment, and compensation was paid to the community – and Nishimura’s work elegantly addresses the experiences themselves and their legacy.
In an oral history piece, she has taken the text of her interviews with former internees and reproduced it in miniscule lettering to create etchings depicting the same fabric bundles. Those may lead the viewer back to the beginning of the show, where Nishimura contributes a series of geographic maps of the isolated sites in the B.C. Interior where the camps were located: Slocan, Revelstoke, Upper Arrow Lake … You have to know to look but the black lines of these maps are also made up of miniscule words, taken from various texts about the internment. The curators have hung them alongside the Indigenous land acknowledgement that opens the gallery: Here is a different map of Canada with a history of racism hiding in plain sight.
In the end, of course, government paranoia about Japanese Canadian loyalties was merely that: No spying or treason ever occurred in a community that proved truer to the country’s best instincts than its oppressors ever did. In an international political climate that is reviving irrational prejudices against migrants, it’s important to remember the internment. Here, it is artfully woven into the Canadian fabric with small strands of both pain and hope.
Being Japanese Canadian: Reflections on a Broken World continues to Aug. 5 at the Royal Ontario Museum.