By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
Art is activism. Whether you do it in your own home, for a work that will be put in a museum, or for a large public project, the act of creating engenders conversation and change. The Northwest Nikkei Museum (NNM), part of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Washington, on July 16 hosted local fourth-generation Japanese American artist activist Erin Shigaki, as part of its Speaker Series. Along with former NMM curator Tracey Fugami and members of the public, Shigaki participated in an online dialogue about art that makes a difference.
“Art making…is like an activist move. It’s a bringing forth of someone’s voice and ideas, so it’s very powerful,” began Fugami, who then invited Shigaki to discuss the importance of art, particularly in these recent months of pandemic and resurgent racist violence. The event discussed public art, its impact on communities, and the difference in experience for the artist and viewer that a public mural or installation has, compared to an artwork displayed inside of a museum or gallery.
“There is something about engaging in images out in public that reminds us that art is about people,” Fugami said.
Shigaki has been involved in several public art projects since she returned recently to her hometown of Seattle from the “rat race” of New York, as she described it. She credits this homecoming with recharging her as an artist. She said that returning to Seattle, and the supportive community here, helped her realize her artistic mission to make work related to the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, among other racially and culturally charged topics. Since she came home, she has had work shown through Densho and NNM, as well as exhibited outdoors in the Central and International Districts.
She is currently working on a public mural at the University District, which will draw attention to the 449 University of Washington Nikkei students who were forced to leave by Executive Order and go to the internment camps. For this work, she used a photo from a gathering of Asian American students in the fall of 1941.
“We believe that a lot of the 449 Nikkei students are in the photo,” Shigaki explained. “It’s lovely to see it 15 feet wide, where you can really see people’s faces and see our community getting to this place where so many of the kids were in college and the families were prospering—and then things drastically changed.”
Part of the evening’s discussion revolved around how artists choose the images in their work. Fugami brought up the dangers of tokenization and the danger of individual experience being lost in group photos. Shigaki agreed this was a delicate issue and displayed her sensitivity through her careful choices.
“AAPIs have had a particular experience with it by being cast for so long in these particular ways—Yellow Peril—it is interesting to grapple with. When I choose my historic images around the incarceration, I try to make sure that they’re dignified…I don’t use the ones with people smiling, out of pure nervous energy and fear, or the newspapers who were taking pictures of people as they were being carted off. I find those a little disturbing.”
Shigaki’s voice changed when she hit upon an emotional moment in her work or her history. She showed attendees two photos which she uses to “ground” herself when creating her art.
One was of her grandmother, Yasuko Shigaki, former sensei at the Japanese Language School on King Street, who was taken to one of the camps, where Shigaki’s father was born.
The other was of Shigaki herself on “Grandma Yasu’s” front porch, along with a cousin and a family friend who also attended the presentation.
Fugami, who now works as the Human Resources Director at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, complimented Shigaki on her ability to capture shared experiences.
“There is historical trauma…that I feel from my parents being interned, the unsafety, the unspoken, the shame…Some of this is heartbreaking but also it makes sense, these places we’ve held onto so tightly…because we thought everything was going to get taken away.
That still kind of continues in us…[and] when we make work, those are the precious things that turn into beauty.”
Shigaki spoke about what might be one of her most impactful works so far in the Seattle area, which is her mural “Never Again Is Now,” featuring two Japanese American children who were taken to an internment camp. It was shown on the side of the Densho building, and then Bellevue College requested the mural in 2020 for the Day of Remembrance. In what became a highly publicized event, a college vice president whited out a portion of the art label, which had mentioned prominent local businessman, Miller Freeman, and his support of the anti-Japanese movement in the early 1900s.
“My head was spinning for a while,” Shigaki recalled. “A history that had always been erased was then erased in a piece of art that I made about it.”
In response, the college vice president was put on leave and the college issued a statement of apology. The community also held a healing event in which a diverse group came together to recognize what had happened, both during World War II and in 2020 in Bellevue.
“I thank those folks so much for supporting me through an experience that was really traumatic…A few hundred people came, and I think it really represented what our families and ancestors had wanted to see when that Executive Order came down—we wanted to see other people standing up for us.”
The Weekly asked Shigaki how much her identity is woven into her art and her activism. She allowed that it was difficult to separate the three.
“On bad days, I sometimes say to my partner, Clark, ‘I wish I could just make pretty little things…’ because the work can be emotionally heavy, and it has also been censored and whitewashed. But soon enough, the feeling passes, and I become re-grounded in the knowledge that my purpose is to tell the Japanese American story in memory of my ancestors and in service of the liberation of all people.”
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.