Michelle Kumata | Regeneration at BONFIRE Gallery • Seattle, Washington

Wednesday, March 02, 2022 1:01 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

We are compelled to enter “Regeneration,” Michelle Kumata’s exhibition at the BONFIRE Gallery by the banners in the gallery windows. Kumata is addressing the difficult subject of the long term legacies of the illegal incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. On the left of the entrance hangs “American Tragedy,” banners depicting barely referenced facial features against a vague gray background behind real barbed wire. One has the face split between two banners, much as the experience of incarceration split the lives of those who were sent to those remote camps for up to four years.

In the facing window, the banner “Regeneration” in brilliant color, suggests flying through the air. Nearby paper butterflies, made by a young Gosei (fifth generation) artist flutter toward the ceiling. Inside the gallery “Shine,” features a face that rises up between butterfly wings. Other banners also suggest soaring and healing. “What We Carry” requires a close look: inside the wings of these flying faces are bare outlines of luggage, the weight of the past trying to pull them down.

Michelle Kumata, a three and a half generation Japanese American artist, explores the long term effects for her parents, the Sansei generation, who were born in incarceration during World War II as a result of Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. This generation is the last to have a direct connection to that brutal violation of their human and civil rights. It is a cautionary tale that points directly to contemporary racism and its ongoing violent manifestations.

Michelle Kumata offers a multimedia approach to recovering memory and experiencing loss after decades of suppression.

The largest expression of that, at the back of the gallery, is the lower section of the artist’s trademark work “Song for Generations.”

The entire banner represents a dignified husband and wife at the top, with their lush fields behind them, cleared from forest; in the next panel, strawberries fall to the ground and a house is burning. The bottom section, in the BONFIRE exhibition, dramatically represents the ongoing pain of the incarceration with barbed wire in the open mouths of two Nikkei and flames around their heads. The strawberries become children, those born in the camps amidst barbed wire, but at the very bottom, a girl lets fly away a paper crane. You can see the whole mural in a small print nearby.

The next section of the exhibition features photographs of the artist’s maternal and paternal grandparents that document their lives before, during and after incarceration. These touching images speak to the real family stories of immigrants who had businesses and lives destroyed in 1942.

A similar feeling comes from paintings based on formally posed portrait photographs from the Takano Studio Collection from the late 1930s to early 1940s, called here “Nihonmachi portraits.” Nihonmachi is the name of the Japanese business area of the International District before the incarceration destroyed it.

Facing these is a creative expression of memory: handkerchiefs with inscriptions such as “Generations were taught to keep your head down, study hard, and not be in front.” Nearby are “furoshiki” traditional Japanese wrappings for packages, here holding unspoken memories. Over generations as the artist states “the knots slowly loosen, releasing the pain, shame and anger. And we allow ourselves room to carve and define our own unique identities, to transform and fly.”

In addition to all of these thoughtful approaches, a slide show of photographs alternates with quotes from a broad selection of members of our contemporary Japanese American community. The destruction of the heart of the Japanese community, Nihonmachi, and the unwillingness of survivors to speak of it are two major themes.

Michelle Kumata has a second major installation at the Bellevue Museum of Art “Emerging Radiance, Honoring the Nikkei Farmers of Bellevue.”

It features an immersive mural that uses augmented reality that enables us to actually hear three Nissei farmers of Bellevue tell their stories. The stories are based on interviews recorded in the Densho Digital Archive an incredible online resource that expands our understanding of the lives of those who were incarcerated.

Michelle Kumata boldly experiments with representing the ongoing psychological damage of the original historical event of Japanese incarceration. She creatively makes audible what has been unspoken and makes visible what has been buried. 

Susan Noyes Platt

Susan Noyes Platt writes a blog www.artandpoliticsnow.com and for local, national, and international publications.

“Michelle Kumata: Regeneration” is on view until March 26, Thursday through Saturday noon to 5 P.M. at BONFIRE Gallery, located at 603 S. Main Street in Seattle, Washington. For further information, visit www.thisisbonfire.com.

“Emerging Radiance, Honoring the Nikkei Farmers of Bellevue” is on view until March 13, Wednesday through Sunday from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. at Bellevue Arts Museum, located at 510 Bellevue Way NE, in Bellevue, Washington. 


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