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May 29th, 2002 Grant Menzies | Visual Arts
 

Pacific Pursuits

Japanese culture extends beyond Japan, as the latest PAM exhibit reminds us.

     
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Art heals.

That may sound like some starry-eyed maxim from the herbs-and-crystals '80s, but in a very real sense, art does just that. Unlike religion, it unconditionally binds up the wounds of old sins; it bypasses cold reason to pierce straight through to the warm heart of human emotion. Hence the superb timing, intended or accidental, of Portland Art Museum's upcoming exhibition, Splendors of Imperial Japan: Arts of the Meiji Period.

Sixty years ago this past March, Portland became a constitutional testing ground when Japanese-American lawyer and Hood River native Minoru Yasui took a stand against the forced internment of Japanese-Americans (nikkei), solely on the basis of their Asian heritage. Yasui deliberately flouted the curfew established under Military Proclamation No. 3 to keep people of Japanese descent off Portland's streets after 8 pm. Before Yasui, no other Japanese-American had made so bold a protest against the U.S. government. As Yasui later said, "If I, as an American citizen, stood still for this, I would be derogating the rights of all citizens." But an avalanche of wartime hysteria overpowered him. With his fellow nikkei, some of whom had lived in Oregon as long as the oldest Caucasian families, Yasui was packed into the Expo Center (then known as the North Portland Livestock Pavilion) before being sent to a camp in Idaho. Small wonder he spent the rest of his life working to ensure that such racist repression would never again be repeated.

The sufferings of Portland's nikkei during World War II are remembered in the Japanese-American Historical Plaza near Naito Parkway, even as their cultural heritage survives in that glorious horticultural poem, the Japanese Garden at Washington Park. The damage, however, was done: Portland's once vital Japanese community was decimated, which is why, for Portland, Splendors of Imperial Japan is not just a pleasant show of pretty japonerie. It is a timely piece of atonement for the blind persecution of Americans who just happened to be of Japanese origin.

From June 1 to Sept. 22, Splendors will offer over 350 masterworks from the collection of Dr. Nasser D. Khalili, all created during the reign of Emperor Meiji (1868-1912), the great modernizer of post-samurai Japan. Most of these pieces were created with an eye toward Western trade. Treasures in enamels and porcelains, lacquer and textiles, bronzes and woodwork, provide a map of the important turn Japanese society made at the time, from inwardly gazing at secret gardens to facing the outside world as an equal partner in trade and an important competitor in the creation of objects of supreme beauty. Concurrent with Splendors, numerous local arts and cultural organizations, from galleries to music ensembles to art schools, will join in a Japanese Summerfest of events celebrating the considerable contributions Japan and the nikkei have made to the Pacific Northwest.

Expect everything from performances of music and dance, flower and bonsai shows, kite-making and ceramic workshops, tea ceremonies, and lectures on the influence of Meiji Japan. The opening weekend alone (June 1-2) includes festival dances by the famous Yanagiya family, concerts of traditional Japanese music and performance of traditional Japanese dance. Look, too, for discussions around the personal experiences of the shattered Northwest nikkei community--how their culture has been shaped by the Meijian reforms of the 19th century and challenged by the sympathies and prejudices of their adopted American homeland ever since.


Splendors of Imperial Japan: Arts of the Meiji Period
Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. June 1-Sept. 22, 2002
 
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