By Elysha Rei
Elysha Rei is one of the artists in residence as part of the Past Wrongs Future Choices project – a seven-year (2022-29) multi-sector, interdisciplinary partnership on the mistreatment of people of Japanese descent (Nikkei) in allied countries across the Americas and the Pacific in the 1940s. Elysha will be hosted by the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) and the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, from February-April 2023. Elysha is a Japanese-Australian artist who explores narratives of cultural identity, site-specific history and environmental elements through paper cutting and public art. She is Chair of Nikkei Australia (2022-2025).
After 20 hours in transit and with 23 kg of luggage, I arrived in Victoria, British Columbia, wide-eyed and in anticipation of the next eight weeks of a new world in Canada.
The view from the short transit from Vancouver to Victoria on a light plane revealed a collection of picturesque islands dotted within the seascape, each covered in thick dense trees. The sun rose over the ocean, adding a warm welcome to my arrival.
The first week of my residency was a hive of activities including an artist talk to the Fine Arts students, a graduate seminar, artist studio visits, and morning teas, meeting and greeting the Past Wrongs Future Choices (PWFC) project team and the people in the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) and Faculty of Fine Arts, who are hosting me during my stay. I was gifted a studio space in the Visual Arts Department, where I was instantly drawn to the large cutting mat available for my paper cutting.
Within a couple of days, I had oriented my way between my accommodation, the CAPI office, and my studio in the Visual Arts Department, pocketing the Google Map on my phone and instead, being delighted by the local wildlife which greet me along the way – squirrels, deer, and robins everywhere.
I aimed to visit Vancouver on my first weekend in Canada, making the four-and-a-half-hour journey by bus – ferry – bus – train, to travel across from the island to the mainland. I met with Diane Wong, the Programming Manager of Centre A: Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. The centre boasts an incredible library of art of journals, publications, exhibition catalogues, and texts related to Asian and Asian diasporic projects, where I found texts relevant to the Japanese–Canadian narrative. My research had officially begun.
The following day, I made it to the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre to meet Director and Curator Sherri Kajiwara, and PWFC Research Assistant Naomi Keenan O’Shea. The museum was hosting a family day, which meant the building was bustling with activities of demonstrations, food stalls and community energy. I received a personal tour of the displays, in awe of the curatorial rigour of exhibiting contemporary Nikkei artists alongside archival objects from the collection. The static display of Nikkei Canadian history provided a thorough overview of the pre-war, internment, and re-dress moments in time. I left with resources and inspiration which sparked the beginning of my creative investigations.
This trip led to a week of research into culinary plants that were cultivated in internment camps, particularly the Japanese Butterbur or Coltsfoot, which is known as fuki in Japanese. Adorned by large leaves in the summer and small dandelion-like clusters of blooms in the spring, I was inspired to create hand-cut paper studies of its forms as I learnt more about gardens, farming, and food during the internment era.
When trying to source visual images of the fuki plant, the local online search results instantly came up with biosecurity sites of local councils, identifying this plant as an invasive species that needs urgent control and elimination, a poignant connection to the Japanese-Canadian story here.
Native to Japan, the plant was brought over with the issei (first-generation Japanese-born Canadians), who cultivated it in their gardens. The stems and the young flower buds can be eaten in traditional dishes. The plant was uprooted from homes and transplanted into internment camp gardens during the war years, with descendants of those plants still flourishing in those areas today.
My second weekend once again in Vancouver, was greeted with a generous dump of snow. With a thrifted pair of snow boots in hand, I fearlessly ventured outside, in awe of the almost unnaturally white bright vista around me. I ventured to Powell Street in the downtown eastern side of the city, which was known as little Japan before World War II. The Vancouver Japanese Language School and Japanese Hall building is the last remnant of architectural history still standing.
As each day passes, I have connections finding their way to me via conversations around internment, Nikkei history, gardens, plants, and creative practice. I enjoyed a great meeting with Project Co-Director Dr Jordan Stanger-Ross, learning more about the archival treasure trove developed through the Landscapes of Injustice project, and a conversation with Faculty of History Associate Professor Neilesh Bose, sharing my Nikkei Australian and artistic practitioner perspectives.
Connecting with visiting scholars Dr Andrea Mariko Grant and Jonathan Van Harmelen has been incredibly insightful, exchanging ideas and knowledge that were relevant in our areas of arts, culture and literature. Mike Abe, PWFC’s Project Manager on secondment for 12 months, generously provided an insightful tour of the Japanese Gardens at the Gorge Park in Esquimalt, a bus ride away from the university, where we were also greeted by the Deputy Consul-General Satomi Okagaki .
Through these connections, I’ve managed to meet with renowned Canadian writer and poet Sally Ito. We shared a morning tea together with Andrea, discussing the nuanced differences and similarities between the Nikkei experience in Canada and Australia. We were also fortunate enough to receive a personal invitation to Japanese-Canadian artist Heather Midori Yamada’s studio, where she gave us an incredible insight into her practice with washi paper, as we exchanged stories of our family histories.
Although it’s been just over three weeks since my arrival, the value of connections made, knowledge garnered, and experiences collected has already made for an incredible and unforgettable time as artist in residence. Each time I walk to my studio and catch a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains in the distance I pinch myself at the thought of how privileged I am to be here and be part of this amazing project.
As I continue to learn more about Nikkei history across allied countries, I find myself being drawn to threads of narratives that are calling to be explored further. I look forward to spending more time in the studio in the coming weeks, bringing these ideas to life.
All photos supplied by author.
Read Elysha’s Blog 2.…