LAURA KINA Blue Hawai’i

HAROLD B. LEMMERMAN GALLERY, NEW JERSEY CITY UNIVERSITY
JANUARY 27 – MARCH 3, 2015

As an Asian-American painter of mixed background, Laura Kina creates work that is as culturally relevant as it is emotionally resonant. Her father, who is of Japanese descent, grew up in Hawai’i, where he worked on sugarcane plantations before moving to the American mainland to become a doctor. In the compelling paintings shown in Blue Hawai’i, Kina addresses the persistence of Japanese culture among the sugarcane workers, many of whom, like the artist’s father, had family ties to the Japanese island Okinawa. In 2009, Kina and her father traveled to his plantation community in Hawai’i to gain a sense of his past; then, in 2012, Kina and her father traveled to Okinawa itself, again to research the immigration of poor Japanese who came to Hawai’i to harvest cane. The paintings on view in Blue Hawai’i allude to her discoveries, which entail both the remnants of Japanese habits among the Hawaiian workers—the word “blue” in the title of the show refers to the blue kimonos refashioned for plantation work—and the gradual, often troubled and troubling acculturation process. The exhibition consequently bridges inevitable feelings of displacement and loss with the desire to document Kina’s father’s past.

Laura Kina, “Cane Fire” (2010). Oil on canvas, 30 × 45". Courtesy of the artist.

“Issei” (2011), a medium-size oil painting, calls attention to the first-generation Japanese immigrants who came to America. It is a striking image of an older woman in a black kimono with a blue-patterned waistband; her hair is streaked with gray. Behind her is a row of faceless women workers who also wear blue patterned clothing—one top is covered with written characters—and straw hats. The contrast of the woman in the center, with pursed lips and a complicated gaze that mixes sadness and pride, and the anonymous group behind her represents the awareness of a Japanese legacy that was nearly erased by the reality of life in the sugarcane fields. It is a fate experienced consistently by the workers who left Japan; indeed, it is usually the result of anyone emigrating from one country to another. Yet one imagines that this is especially true in America, where immigration is the norm, and where there has been consistent hostility toward foreigners and their heritage. Thus, Kina’s work is not only a personal discovery; it is also an essay commemorating a generation that was without a voice.

Most of the time, Kina sticks to cultural iconography: images of people culled from family photos and newspaper pictures. Many of the paintings are of groups of people, ranging from baseball teams to students of Japanese language. “Cane Fire” (2010), however, deviates from this template. It is an impressive study of a woman worker, her back to us, standing watch over a fire burning the cane on a hill that leads down to a body of water and, in the distance, a mountain. The scene takes place at twilight; everything is rendered in a shade of blue except the fire itself. In this case, a specific memory provides Kina with the opportunity to emphasize the Hawaiian landscape, which is of interest in its own right. Yet the woman laborer and the sugarcane fire also remind us that the Okinawans in Hawai’i were working exploitative jobs. One of the saddest images, at least by implication, is “Power Lines”(2013), which presents a foreground of lyrically painted palm trees; just behind them are the power lines that signal the encroachment of modern life. Blue sky takes up most of the background, but the technological needs of our times seem to have won out. Technology here, as elsewhere in poorer areas, becomes its own culture, crowding out the past of the people working in Hawai’i.

The processes of modernity and Americanization have not only diminished nature but also have taken over Okinawa itself, which is now home to United States military bases and serves mostly as a tourist destination. In “Black Market” (2013), Kina presents the viewer with a table of various American foodstuffs, ranging from Coffeemate to Hershey’s candy. The items are painted a riot of colors, with the background a familiar blue, accented by a pole on the left with Japanese writing. This vignette, painted by an Asian-American intent on discovering her family’s background, must have been a disappointment for Kina to have come across. Now, like the rest of the world, Okinawa has in many ways become a placeholder for American popular culture; the American military presence there is a reminder of its imperial reach.

Kina’s ambitious exhibition is an attempt to re-see a past that is more or less lost, beyond her view. Her tenaciousness is all the more moving for its subjectivity, which she acknowledges in her catalogue statement, where she comments on the fragility of her task: “Risking distortion, misreading, nostalgia and erasure, I fully engage in the messy business of memory.” As the artist recognizes, memory can be emotionally right but historically wrong. The revisiting of her father’s culture may not be entirely precise in content, but the way we remember is often just as important as what is recalled.

Contributor

Jonathan Goodman

JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.

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