Fique Quieto (Be Quiet), 2020. Acrylic and pencil on paper by Michelle Kumata • Courtesy

What We Carry / O que nos carregamos is an exhibition of work by Michelle Kumata, a 3.5 generation Japanese American artist. The exhibit explores the trauma and beauty of the Japanese diaspora in the U.S. and Brazil. Kumata’s vibrant pieces, picturing vibrant yellow skin colors and bold strokes, confidently portray the many complicated aspects of the Nikkei experience.

In a couple of the Brazilian pieces in this exhibition, Kumata paints thorned branches of the crown of thorns plant, which “grows in Brazil and has small blossoms that bloom from heavy, sharp, thorned branches, representing the beauty and pain of Nikkei life in Brazil,” Kumata said. 

Kumata’s representation of the Japanese Brazilian stories sheds light on the international parallel to our families on the West Coast experienced. When Brazil declared war on Japan in 1942, there was “justification” for arrests, torture, and deportation solely for being Japanese. “Fique Quieto (Be Quiet)” embodies the theme of generational silence, with parents covering the mouths of their children.

While silence was a coping mechanism and form of protection, or at least what seemed to be the best form of such at the time, there is strength in the perseverance of our past generations which is portrayed in “Protection.”

In Seattle, Japanese Americans were forced into horse stalls before being moved into the more permanent concentration camps. In the image, a mother protects her baby from the effects of war and discrimination by cradling them in an army blanket covered in koi fish, “a symbol of strength courage, patience, and perseverance.” 

The detail of Kumata’s pieces, as a Japanese American myself, is not only breathtaking, but relatable. “For the Rest of My Life and American Tragedy” have a face drawn over what looks like calligraphy. At a closer look, you notice that the words are English. While many people may have their own interpretations, I resonated with the painting; being perceived as Japanese (or Asian in general) but not knowing the language or having much of the cultural knowledge felt like I was speaking in these Japanese calligraphy-looking English words. 

Seeing Kumata’s artwork, you cannot help but feel her passion for storytelling in a way that does not hide the trauma we have had to go through, but rather shows how we persist while carrying it with us — much like the crown of thorn plant which “runs through people, behind people, similar to the barbed wire of the JA portraits, and represent intergenerational trauma, what we carry.”

What We Carry / O que nos carregamos is on display at ArtX Contemporary (formerly ArtXchange Gallery) from June 1 – July 8, 2023 (hours: T-S 11am-5:30pm). Kumata will host an artist talk on Saturday, June 24, 11am. The closing reception will be held on Thursday, July 6, 5-8pm. 

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