Working with deep and wounded history

seeingSometimes it gets to me – working with the deep and wounded history of my ancestors. Today I had a good breakfast conversation with a friend. She understands the work I am doing about the Japanese Internment Camps in New Mexico at the Santa Fe Art Institute. She’s lived here in New Mexico long enough to know that there is rich tapestry of different cultures and communities and that makes researching and making art about the history of the camps even more complicated. Peeling the layers back can be raw, and seeing the crisscrossing histories of: the vets who were in the Bhataan death march and experienced the brutality of the Japanese army, the injustice of the American concentration camps imprisoning innocent people of Japanese ancestry, and the Los Alamos creation of the bomb that killed so many in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’m wrapping my head around it after a month of research.

My friend said, “you are a flag bearer who makes sure people know the history so things don’t happen again.” Yet I find it so discouraging to see the Central American immigrant families being imprisoned right now.

Keeping my heart open is what sustains me. I hope to bring light and witnessing to stories of injustice and imprisonment for all kinds of people. My ritual performance will invite anyone to participate. More info to come soon.

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The 4,555 innocents

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Injustice and disbelief. Those are the words that come to mind as I’ve been working on my SFAI (Santa Fe Art Institute) art residency. I’ve been researching for two weeks the forced immigration of people of Japanese ancestry to the Santa Fe Concentration Camp. 4,555 men came through this prison and none of them had been charged with any wrong doing except that they had the face of the enemy. Even though I’ve made art on the subject of the Japanese American Concentration Camps over the years, it still hits me hard that in America such injustice and racism existed and unfortunately still does. How can America justify putting 120,000 innocents from babies to grandparents in prisons for 4 years? How can police kill people of color over and over? How can Guantanamo still exist?

I’ve started putting feelings and thoughts into color and texture, not worrying about where I am going, waiting to see what comes up. What is appearing to me are figures of men, many men, fathers and uncles and sons, who are in limbo, waiting, waiting, being in the unknown, not knowing if they will see their families again, not knowing if they will ever be released.

A community engagement project is bubbling, forming, rising….to embrace them, to remember them, to teach about them, to acknowledge all peoples’ stories of injustice.

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Visiting the Department of Justice Santa Fe Concentration Camp

IMG_1961_2It is always strange to go visit a place that does not immediately reflect the historical events that occurred there. Driving through the pleasant Casa Solana neighborhood in Santa Fe one would have no clue that before these houses were built, 4,555 men of Japanese ancestry were unjustly imprisoned here from 1942 to 1946. They were separated from their wives, children and families. Most lost their livelihoods and homes.

It is a beautiful Fall day. The light has a golden cast. We soon arrive to the Frank Ortiz Dog Park. It is made up of winding natural trails for hiking and dog walking.  My local guides, Japanese American Sue Rundstrom and Artist Jerry West lead me up to a ridge above the dog park and we looked down on the Casa Solana neighborhood.

A large grey granite boulder with a plaque stands overlooking where the Department of Justice Santa Fe Concentration Camp once was.

IMG_1977_2The plaque reads:

At this site, due east and below the hill, 4555 men of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in a Department of Justice Internment Camp from March 1942 to April 1946. Most were excluded by law from becoming United States citizens and were removed primarily from the West Coast and Hawaii. During World War II, their loyalty to the United States was questioned. Many of the men held here without due process were long time resident religious leaders, businessmen, teachers fishermen, farmers, and others. No person of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. was ever charged or convicted of espionage throughout the course of the war. Many of the internees had relatives who served with distinction in the American Armed Forces in Europe and in the Pacific. This marker is placed here as a reminder that history is a valuable teacher only if we do not forget our past. Dedicated on April 20, 2002.

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Casa Solana neighborhood now where the camp once was.

I asked my friends why there are no signs directing visitors to the marker and why it is not listed on the trail map in the dog park. They said this was done intentionally because there was fear of vandalism. That decision was made over 10 years ago. I wonder now if there could be more signage and acknowledgement of the historical marker? More on that issue, and how the controversial marker came to be is an interesting story.

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Jerry West and Sue Rundstrom

Two pieces on immigration

I (Judy Shintani) just finished up two pieces which had to submit today to the Women Artists on Immigration Show. The show is organized and presented by Women’s Caucus for Art with the Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles.

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This piece is called Motion. I am conveying the push pull nature of immigration. Events which may push some one to move to another location are: natural disasters, wage rates, war, genocide, abuse. Education, relationships, jobs, self expression are things that could pull one to move to another country, state, town. I wanted to convey these different motivations that cause a stream of people to move small distances or around the world. I think about my grandparents who moved from Japan to the USA. People have been immigrating for a long time and they will continue to do so. The deteriorating propeller gives that sense of time.

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This piece is called Bottom Drawer. While I was working with my friend Carla to remove overgrown plants from their pots, all these lovely, crawly, dark, roots appeared. They were completely root bound and had to be pried out. They had grown around and around into a big ball in the bottom of the pots. It made me think of unsaid, unseen things. For example what were the experiences of my grandparents immigration? I know some of their hardships. I know they were imprisoned on American soil during the war, but these experiences I did not hear about from their lips. They either died before this could be communicated or were not discussed. Bits and pieces have been expressed by their children but I do not have the whole story. My life goes on and I acknowledge I am here because of their desire to leave their homeland and explore something else. I don’t think about it that often. We put a lot of things in the “bottom drawer” and they see the light of day when we decide to pull it open.

Telling our grandmothers’ stories to seniors

Well we did it. Lisa Petrides and I (Judy Shintani) did our “Honoring Grandmothers from Far Lands” performance at the Ted Adcock Senior Center in Half Moon Bay.

Though we have done it 2 times before, this was a bit different. 1) we did not have a lot of time to practice 2) we were performing for an audience of over 80 people! 3) The audience was 65 – 85+!

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While the seniors were enjoying their mother’s day luncheon of crab, lobster, and shrimp frittata, we spoke about our grandmother’s journeys to America, life in America, questions we had for them, and the gifts of their lives. We both tried really hard to project and speak slowly since we knew some of these elders had hearing problems.

We wondered how this much older audience was going to relate to the stories of our family members who were probably in their own age range. Would they relate to the stories themselves? Would they see their own life moments?

After the event we did get some feedback. A Japanese woman came up to us immediately and related her own story of a stranger approaching her in a Japanese American History Museum and finding out that their parents had both been in the same internment camp. Another woman told me about her mother getting dressed up in her best white starched blouse to wear as she stepped off the ship on to Ellis Island, only to be immediately sprayed with delousing chemicals. Another woman told us why her parents did not want them to speak their native German – it was too dangerous and not American. My dear friend Charlene, came up to me in tears, saying that the part about my grandmother’s internment experience was very moving, and that she was now thinking about her own grandmother.

The experience was very powerful for me. This performance stuff is challenging – I was raised to be one of those “be seen and not heard” kids. I guess I’m not that kind of adult. It is good to get out of the box once in a while and see how much I can stretch.

Telling an Ancestor’s Story

Telling a story about an ancestor can be a gift to oneself and to one’s family. It is powerful to have your stories heard. Here is how Lisa and I did it.

Capturing the memories
We did a meditation to ask our grandmothers what they wanted conveyed in our storytelling. Then we both took some individual time to write down some of the things we remembered about our grandmothers. We thought about their history, things we liked about them, some hardships, our relationship with these women.

Collaborating – the similarities and contrasts
We got together and shared these stories and discovered that there were similar veins, for example, both our grandmothers had arranged marriages. It was through these marriages that they came to America. We also began to notice how different their lives were in America. Lisa’s grandmother lived in a city and my grandmother lived in a houseboat. Culturally their temperaments and styles were also a contrast we worked with.

Following the flow
We used the time line as the flow of the story. We started in their native countries and traveled over the ocean to America. We walked, following the shape of an infinity sign, to tell about the long ship journey. We brought in props which anchored their stories and clued viewers into where they were and what they were doing. As we took turns speaking, the other person swept the floor behind them. Lisa spoke in her grandmother’s voice as she washed dishes, and I was my grandmother as she washed the rice.

Practicing in the space
If at all possible practice in the space you will be performing in. This allows you to be more familiar with the sound level, lighting, seating, etc. If that isn’t possible, envision the space as you practice elsewhere.

Invite critiques
Before two shows we invited some folks in to critique our performance. We got some great feedback about background music and adding movement. We were able to make some changes which improved the show.

Promote
We did some advertising and promotion through the local newspapers, email, postcards, and posters. After doing all that preparation, it is nice to have an audience! Of course that all took some advance planning since the pr had to be out almost a month ahead of time.

Performing it
On the day of the performance try to take it easy so you will be at your best. We passed out brief programs so the audience could have something to read and follow what we were doing. We did a little introduction and then went into the 15 minute performance. At the end we invited the audience to participate by standing and speaking their own grandmother’s name and many did so.