Renowned Seattle artist Michelle Kumata has brought to life the history of Nikkei farmers, in no other than downtown Bellevue.
Both timely and appropriately located, her farmhouse exhibit is on display at the Bellevue Arts Museum from February 3 to March 13. The Bellevue Arts Museum, in Downtown Bellevue, sits upon what was once Japanese American strawberry fields. The Day of Remembrance of Executive Order 9066 on February 19th marked the 80th anniversary of FDR’s decision to incarcerate over 120,000 people of Japanese descent.
Her farmhouse exhibit is attractive as you walk into the museum lobby. Upon closer inspection, you see the contrasting colors of the dark night and bright faces of the people on the different sides of the building. Japanese American history is often taught as one of silent obedience but the story, like the sky Kumata painted on the walls of the farmhouse, is much darker with a much deeper story.
I spoke with Michelle at the exhibit, and she explained the different parts of her artwork to me. The contrast of colors is what stood out first to me: the bright yellow skin of the farmers with the backdrop of the blue and black sky. This bright color was—and unfortunately, still is—a target. This yellow color is what the American government feared: the faces of the elderly who were too old to drive, the faces of toddlers who couldn’t even speak full sentences yet, the faces of supposed aliens who were a “threat” to white American citizens.
The radiance of these faces, however, represents more than pain and suffering, but the honor of being Japanese American and the pride we should take in our culture. The resistance that the community went through during the war, the culture that we preserve, and the fight that we put up today against systemic racism and xenophobia is all a part of the beautiful color Kumata paints with.
The night sky behind the farmers conveys the evident loss and sorrow that surrounds this history. There are also stars made of sugar beets, strawberries and sugar peas that were planted by these farmers and whose legacy lives on like the stars that light up the sky.
Painted on each person are stamps that represent “badges of honor,” or legacies, that each individual farmer wears. These real people are brought back to life through the Densho archives’ recordings of interviews with these Bellevue JA farmers. Tani Ikeda created an immersive experience through QR codes on each side of the farmhouse that animates the paintings on your phone, allowing you to meet the farmers and hear their story. Kumata said it was an emotional experience, being able to bring these true stories to life. This augmented reality sheds light on the historical reality that Kumata has reified with her artwork.
This exhibit is a full experience. The combination of real testimonials from the Nikkei farmers of Bellevue and the intergenerational trauma that this history has inflicted comes together to form a beautiful expression of injustice and beauty. This darkness that Kumata paints is nevertheless only the backdrop upon which the vibrant colors are painted, and the stories are told.