The Ethnic Heritage Gallery in the Seattle Municipal Tower Building is located on the third floor lobby, which is a thoroughfare connecting the Fifth Street entrance to the main fourth floor lobby upstairs. A web of stairs and escalators create paths under and around them. The gallery is an angled wall at the north end of the lobby. It serves as a kind of people’s gallery, the purpose of which is to showcase the work of artists who are underrepresented in the mainstream art scene and whose work explores issues of race, identity, and social justice.
In the current show, Formation, Japanese artist Yukiyo Kawano explores her historical and cultural inheritance as a third generation hibakusha—atomic bomb survivor—from Hiroshima in a series of six 22 x 55 inch paintings that are the result of delving into that legacy.
“I try to experience the past, embodying the tragedy, and to hear stories of victims who live in Hiroshima—and now Fukushima,” Kawano says.
She uses the creative art process to divine memories from the stories of her grandmother and mother, and with those she attempts to break apart the historical narratives that focus on destruction and contamination. Kawano also attempts to bring forward and weep with those lives that were annihilated and those that were drastically altered.
Swaths of dark brush strokes hang like a veil over women who seem to be engaged in daily routines, almost obliterating our sight of them. An occasional accent of red suggests blood and pain. Covering each canvas are trails of thinned black paint dripping down, absorbing colors along the way, alluding to the tears of loss and the black rain that picks up dust and grime on its way down. Insect forms crawl over the scenes—some stitched with fabric—perhaps symbolizing the approaching menace.
Modern day objects that appear in the paintings transport the concerns to the present. In Formation 4, a woman assists another in preparation for a special occasion. Two nuclear cooling towers stand in the background. Years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, hibakusha were stigmatized as undesirables, so women had difficulty finding husbands.
Two paintings exhibit women’s experiences during the U.S. occupation after the war. In one, a woman seems to be showing Japanese kimono fabric to U.S. officers. In the other, a Japanese woman dressed as Wonder Woman stands among primping women as officers look on suggesting the adoption of the Western/European culture as the newly emulated ideal.
Kawano’s paintings are juxtaposed, multi-layered representations of her foray into imagining the individual voices silenced and rendered voiceless by the language of historical narratives. Her work seeks to transcend language and circumstance to manifest the individual tragedies—from the victims’ point of view.
To coincide with the anniversary of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombing (August 6) Kawano’s perspective continues with One Thousand Questions—From Hiroshima to Hanford, August 7 through September 21, at the Columbia City Gallery in collaboration with artist Etsuko Ichikawa. Kawano’s life-sized soft sculpture of Little Boy, the name given to the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, is displayed hovering above floating lanterns reused from the Floating Lanterns Ceremony that commemorates Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is held annually at Green Lake. Ichikawa and Kawano solicited questions arising from the nuclear legacy of Hiroshima and Hanford, many of which are inscribed on the lanterns and on the gallery wall. Visitors are invited to add their own questions about our engagement with nuclear power.
Little Boy bears viewing up close in person. Its life-sized ghostly form is constructed from the kimono of Kawano’s grandmother and stitched like a quilt with Kawano’s hair. From a distance, it seems small and inconsequential. Standing next to it leads one to contemplate its goal. It is not clean and pristine, but old and stained with strands of Kawano’s hair woven through the stitches and fabric. The piece delivers a powerful culminating statement to the Formation series.
Formation by Yukiyo Kawano runs through October 14 at The Ethnic Heritage Gallery. For more information, visit www.seattle.gov/ethnicartgallery.