Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World and Colors of Confinement at the Japanese American National Museum

Two exhibits at the Japanese American National Museum are worth visiting if you get a chance. The first is the must-see Perseverance: Japanese Tattoo Tradition in a Modern World. 

As the curators point out: "Perseverance features the work of seven internationally acclaimed tattoo artists, Horitaka, Horitomo, Chris Horishiki Brand, Miyazo, Shige, Junii, and Yokohama Horiken, along with tattoo works by selected others. Through the display of a variety of photographs, including life-sized pictures of full body tattoos, these artists will cover a broad spectrum of the current world of Japanese tattooing."

The impetus for the exhibition is: "Often copied by practitioners and aficionados in the West without regard to its rich history, symbolism, or tradition, the art form is commonly reduced to a visual or exotic caricature. Conversely, mainstream Japanese culture still dismisses the subject itself as underground, associating it more with some of its clientele than with the artists practicing it. Both of these mindsets ignore the vast artistry and rich history of the practice."

And this in particular captures my attention, and what the parallel counterpart issues would be within the Lao community. As our arts step into the modern world, there are many of us who are working to revive the traditional arts and pass them on to the next generation. If Lao art became deeply popular and imitated, what would such a world look like, but what will we lose as we see non-Lao artists merely copying, rather than contributing to the deeper intentions of the art forms.

I might compare it to concerns regarding traditional Lao weaving, where much of mainstream Lao culture is beginning to dismiss the art and craft of the sinh and other traditional Lao textiles in pursuit of modernity they associate with affluence.

Looking at Perseverance, I also wonder which of our arts we might connect with the underground, the forms we're ignoring because of the "clients" who are its patrons, rather than examining what our artists are doing.

The other key exhibit I would call visitors attention to is Colors of Confinement, which is presenting 18 rare Kodachrome photographs taken by Bill Manbo during his incarceration at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming in 1943 and 1944.

The Japanese American National Museum makes the argument that "It shatters preconceptions about this episode of injustice by showing it to us in vivid and beautiful color," which to me continues our standing conversation: How do we appreciate art addressing tragedy, the aesthetics of the documentary. Much like exhibitions of art and images connected to the Killing Fields of Cambodia, how can we dare to have a conversation like "Is it beautiful?" or "Is it well composed?"

I think back to our work with the Legacies of War exhibition at Intermedia Arts in 2010, and the memories it brought back for those who lived it. The way it reconnected their children to the parents. The conversations it obliged us to have after nearly 40 years. We have to place a value on these moments, but when do we become ready, and how do we display this question?

Colors of Confinement gives us one perspective of how and why we must approach the topic.

You can learn more about these exhibitions and the others by visiting: http://www.janm.org/exhibits/

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