Enemy Aliens and Yo-In: Reverberation reflect on wartime fears
At the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre through June 2013
At the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre until August 25
In quite different ways, Enemy Aliens and Yo-In: Reverberation reflect on the racist and religious fears that grip people and nations during times of war. Using text panels, archival materials, artifacts, and videotaped interviews, the first exhibition, at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, examines the internment of Jewish refugees in Canada between 1940 and 1943. The second, at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, employs works of art to mark the 70th anniversary of the mass internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War.
Enemy Aliens reveals a little-known aspect of Canadian history. Scholar Paula Draper, writing in the show’s catalogue, states that in June and July 1940, three ships brought 2,354 German, Austrian, and Italian men and teenage boys, most of them Jewish, from England, where they had sought refuge from fascism, to prison camps in Canada. Initially treated by Canadian officials and military as dangerous prisoners-of-war, they were incarcerated behind barbed wire and armed sentinel towers in the same camps with the Nazis they feared and abhorred. Even when their true status was recognized, the Jewish refugees continued to be interned, victims of Canada’s bureaucratic inertia and anti-Semitic immigration policies. “What this story shows,” former internee Eric Koch observes in a video clip, “is the stupidity and the limitations of officialdom in times of stress.”
Beautifully designed as a teaching exhibition, Enemy Aliens offers a number of text panels on which original photographs and documents, such as identity cards, passports, and immigration records, have been mounted. Additional historical and archival materials also stand in museum cases throughout the show, illustrating the history of Jewish internees in camps in Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick. Within this telling of confinement, frustration, depression, resilience, and eventual release, the most visually engaging materials include internees’ notebooks, journals, drawings, paintings, and other small objects of beauty, learning, and utility. These reveal the semblance of normalcy that internees strove to establish as they set up their own educational, religious, and cultural programs within the camps.
The title banner at the shows’ entrance is a blowup of a black-and-white photograph taken with a homemade pinhole camera by internee Marcell Seidler. It depicts another internee in denim uniform, a large red circle—a target—stitched to the back of his shirt, pushing a wheelbarrow in a barren compound. It’s a remarkable image, and made me anxious to see more of Seidler’s photos. Also on view is a handmade poster by a 16-year-old Gerry Waldston, advertising an “Arts & Crafts Exhibition” and featuring the deftly and satirically rendered image of a wooden puppet, dressed as an internee.
Some of the work on display in Enemy Aliens was made by young men who later became professional artists in Canada. A delicate little watercolour by Oscar Cahén, for instance, depicts an internment camp landscape and, at the same time, foretells his career as an acclaimed abstractionist and a member of Toronto’s Painters Eleven. Cahén’s presence in Enemy Aliens also creates an unexpected personal point of intersection with Yo-In at the Nikkei Centre. Two of the paintings on view in that show, an abstraction and a landscape, are by the Vancouver-born Kazuo Nakamura, who was interned with his family in central British Columbia in 1942. After his release, Nakamura moved to Ontario, established himself as a commercial artist—and also became a member of Painters Eleven. It’s a powerful coincidence of fate, fortitude, and the enduring spirit of creativity.
Yo-In surveys work by four Japanese Canadian artists who directly experienced internment during wartime and by four younger artists of Japanese descent who are described in the show’s catalogue as “heirs to a collective memory”. Included here are a luscious abstract-expressionist painting by Aiko Suzuki and a haunting painting by Shizuye Takashima, depicting two sinister figures bound in bandages. Also on view is a performance video by Jon Sasaki, in which the artist ascends and descends a series of precariously balanced ladders, creating metaphors of both hope and futility. Louise Noguchi’s three “Compilation Portraits” interweave black-and-white photos of herself with victims and perpetrators of violent crime, to disturbing effect.
Some of the younger artists, such as Cindy Mochizuki, use historic photographs to address the subject of internment directly. Others, such as Noguchi, allude more generally to issues of identity and empathy. Of the older generation of artists, Takashima suggests, in a way that is both poetic and nightmarish, experiences of oppression and trauma. By contrast, senior artist Nobuo Kubota finds immense and exuberant creativity through shifting cultural alignments, Canadian and Japanese. His extraordinary videotaped performance, Loop Holes, combines elements of Zen Buddhist chanting, jazz scat singing, and Dadaist sound poetry. The artist’s vocalizing is captured through nine video streams, and his large and small, advancing and receding, twisting and turning and bouncing face is also caught in a three-by-three visual grid. It’s a work that beautifully expresses a long and complex journey, through internment and beyond.