Art, Advocacy, & Accountability

Recently I was given the opportunity to speak at the 5th Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN) conference “mobilities” (26-27 Nov 2015) at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne as part of a panel entitled “Creative politics, political creations”. Chaired by fellow artist Asian Australian artist  Owen Leong.

The talk was about ethics and social responsibilities of an artist, using examples from my theatre work Yasukichi Murakami – Through A Distant Lens. I would like to share it with you:

“When you have art, you have a voice. When you have a voice, you have freedom. When you have freedom, you have responsibility.” 

This quote by Indigenous artist, activist and leader Richard Frankland is what inspires my talk today. Using examples from my recent work, Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens, I will discuss some of the issues that an artist may face in regards to our social responsibilities.

Here are some areas of my ethical concerns of late.

Identity, diaspora, imagined borders

  1. Story-telling and its limitations
  2. Historical or factual accuracies and theatrical licences
  3. Archiving and documentation
  4. Audience, stakeholders and authenticity
  5. Publicity, media and advocacy

I will go through each one of them.

  1. Identity, diaspora and imagined borders

I am a migrant artist. I was born in Japan and I’ve been telling stories about Japanese diaspora in Australia for some time. I can’t help but to wonder about the ethics of this.

Are we now not transnational / transcultural / trans everything, transcending those imaginary borders nations, heritage or ethnicity? I know it is my condition that I am of Japanese heritage, but do I need to keep making art about this? My ethics tells me to be inclusive of all people and not to draw borders between you and I, us and the other. To rise above those boundaries that keeps us separate.

Yes, my art is political…. But I actually believe that political leaders shouldn’t be divisive.

How I address this particular question is to believe  – this is a belief – that I am being of service to communities; to perhaps vainly believe that I am making some sort of a contribution. Firstly to the Japanese diasporic community by giving a voice, then to the wider Asian Australian community to speak as loudly as I can. And then contributing to a even the wider community; to tell a part of little known Australian story for all. And then finally, telling the kind of story that would unite humanity in resonance instead of that which would divide us.

For those who don’t know my recent work Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens, it’s a story about a contemporary Japanese Australian photographer, Mayu, a character based on me, searching for the lost photographs of a historical Japanese Australian photographer, Yasukichi Murakami. It combines narration, documentary photographs and interviews, live music, dramatic action with actors and scripted dialogue between Mayu, Murakami’s ghost and ghost of Murakami’s first wife Eki Nishioka, who taught Murakami how to take photographs.

Murakami is not a fictional character. We know that he came to Australia in 1897, lived in Broome, then in Darwin as a photographer, inventor and entrepreneur. When WWII started, he was interned as an enemy alien, and died in the camp. And because of that, his life time worth of photographs have gone missing.

Before I made Murakami, I worried about telling stories about the war. Actually, I worried even more about not telling stories about the war. Since the year 2000, I had created several performance works to do with the Japanese diaspora in Australia… and so, then, I ask myself…. how could I keep avoiding telling stories about WWII?

When it comes to things Japanese… WWII is a major subject. A subject that cannot be ignored.

It isn’t easy for someone of Japanese diaspora, especially today with the current Japanese government and their ideas on the past  – conservative, divisive and alarming.

Making Murakami was a social responsibility I had to taken on. To be of service to the world I live in, I had to engage with the war without making heroes out of soldiers. Murakami was a civilian, like you and I – his life in the hands of people who wish divide us.

  1. Story-telling and its limitations

I call myself a story-teller…. yet I’m increasingly suspicious of story-telling.

Story-telling has become a major force in our times. You go see a counsellor or read a self-help book or a blog on how to become happy or to be rich or whatever. They all tell you to write your story or rewrite your story. That story-telling is one the main ingredients for positive transformations to occur in our lives. Even the corporate sector now talks of story-telling through its content on social media as the key to successful brand loyalties.

But there is also problem with story-telling. Because although often stories carry moral and ethical codes that appear universal, often they also carry messages that can and should be questioned. Sometimes it carries out-dated and out-moded narratives.

As a woman of Japanese heritage… the story of Madama Butterfly for an example.

And in reality, not everything fits into the format of hero rescues damsel in distress or rags to riches. There is something wrong about trying to fit truth with a capital T into a story format, acceptable and accessible to all.

Having said that, Murakami’s story is a typical quest. Like Homer’s Odyssey, Mayu goes on a search for Murakami’s photographs, meets up with a mentor – the ghost of Murakami and Eki, encounters mysteries and struggles, then returns from her journey having found some of Murakami’s lost photographs, and in the process, learns some valuable life lessons.

All neatly fits into a quest format. But I worry about the ethics of this.

On her quest to find Murakami’s photographs, she found some in Japan.  They were Murakami’s family photographs he had sent to his mother in Japan during his lifetime in Australia.

Thus one of the lessons that Mayu learns from her quest is the importance of family and that family photographs are a key to immortality of his photographs. Family photographs – its heart warming lesson….

But, well, nothing in reality is so clean cut.

What I left out in the play is that Murakami’s most important photographs –  important to him – were not his family photographs, but a set of photographs he took whilst conducting experiments for his ground breaking diving suit design.

He actually had the foresight to take a photo album of his diving suit experiments with him to the internment camp. After the war, one of the family members kept the album, but was lost in Darwin in the 1970’s. Some say it was the cyclone, others tell me that it was lent to a researcher – a some what well known person in Darwin – who I won’t mention the name –never returned it to the family.

But this didn’t fit into our one hour story.

This brings me to my next point of discussion:

  1. Historical or factual accuracies and theatrical licences

I worried a lot about not including what happened to Murakami’s diving suit album in the play . To me it felt unethical.

But then again, its been like this all along – from the beginning – I wrote in the script that Murakami and his family moved to Darwin circa 1935. But of course by the time we had creative development workshops everyone told me that I can’t use the word circa in a script … So in the play, Murakami’s ghost tells the audience, “… in 1935, we all moved to Darwin!”

Who cares about facts… really, I’ve got a ghost in the play!! But I worry about my social responsibility.

So… I actually saw a channeller…. To me…. It somehow felt more ethical to hear Murakami speak through a channeller than to put words in a dead man’s mouth.

So I guess it makes my feel better that I’m telling you all this today. And I’m hoping to put today’s talk up on my About Murakami process blog so its all on record.

Which brings me to my next point of discussion:

  1. Archiving and documentation

My process blog is where I write things that get sieved out of the actual artwork outcome. It includes process videos, photos and written thoughts during the entire process of the project. It also includes a full bibliography for future researchers.

I am also now preparing captions for the 200 or so photographs I found for archiving by the State Library of WA. If I don’t do this, Murakami’s photographs will be lost again.

My sense of social responsibility says I’ve got to do these things in service and contribution for the good of wider communities.

  1. Audience, stakeholders and authenticity

Social responsibility includes the audience. This means certain decisions need to be made which takes the audience into consideration… whether it be entertaining or inspiring or educational, I feel that audience needs to get something out of my show.

I also think that my creative collaborators need to get something out of it. As well as the Murakami Family – the descendants need to get something out of my arts practice.

So I think about what this something may be – but of course, it means for different things for different people.

The result is that best I keep good for all in mind, and that means that as long as universal values – what I believe are universal – of that which is to be human being are strong and constant enough – then the specifics should takes care of itself. And that means universals values throughout – not just in the art work itself, but in the process of creation and all other work I do, creative or other wise, that pertains to this project – and not just this project – but to live authentically in all that I do.

I know this sounds all airy fairy and unrealistic – nor am I perfect. And when conflicts arise, which inevitably it always does at some point, the only way to be is to refocus on higher ground, then let go.

  1. Publicity, media and advocacy

As artists we have a chance to talk to the wider world with help of media, traditional or through social media. Although often the immediate reason behind this is to publicise a show, I see it as a chance express higher thoughts and ways of being for the betterment of the whole.

To advocate being in service for humanity.

I’m just an independent artist. I’m not even a scholar…. But with my tiny tiny tiny being as an artist, I’m going to be the political leader – starting with my constituency, then extending wider – I am going to be the political leader I want all our politicians to be.

Thank you!

Mayu Kanamori Nov, 2015

More info: mobilities conference: https://aai5conference.wordpress.com/

More info: AASRN https://aasrn.wordpress.com/

 

OzAsia Festival – Adelaide

9 & 10 September 2014 7:30pm Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre

My date on Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens was beautiful Jacinta Thompson, former Artistic Director of OzAsia Festival. We met in the Space Theatre foyer with a heartfelt embrace. Many Asian Australian artists have developed their careers because of Jacinta’s vision and long-term curatorial commitment in nurturing the growth of an artist like myself. OzAsia Festival not only brings to Australian audiences art from Asia, but has actively invested in the Asian stories within Australia. The importance of their longer term curatorial vision must be congratulated and held in reverence.

Working with the professional people and facility at the Adelaide Festival Centre along with the excellent OzAsia team with current Artistic Director Joe Mitchell, our show excelled, bringing in many favourable reviews. We were blessed with great publicists throughout our Darwin, Broome and Adelaide tours, and have received much publicity, which is of course excellent for the show itself, but in the wider sense, we have been able to add to the legacy of Yasukichi Murakami and to rekindle the memory of the pre war Japanese contribution to Australia.

Reviews

Realtime: 8th OzAsia Festival 2014 Culture’s haunted houses by Ben Brooker

Realtime: 2014 Darwin Festival, Cultural syntheses: north-south, east-west by Nicola Fearn

BWW Review: OzAsia Festival 2014; Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens Captivates and Informs by Barry Lenny 

The Clothesline: Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens: An Enchanting Photographic Journey Betwden Past and Present by Michael Coghlan

The Advertiser: OzAsia migration lay Through a Distant Lens puts Japan in focus by Louise Nunn

In Daily: Murakami: a life lost and rediscovered by Gregg Elliott

Glamadelaide: OzAsia Theatre Review: Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens

Selected Media Links

ABC Radio National Arts & Books Daily: Yasukichi Murakami: the photographer who captured Darwin by Georgia Moodie. Presented by Michael Cathcart

ABC Radio National Music Show: Yasukichi Murakami. Presented by Andrew Ford. Produced by Maureen Cooney / Jennifer Mills

ABC Radio National Drive: A Japanese-Australian photographer in pre-WW2 Darwin. Presented by Waleed Aly. Produced by Hélène Hofman

ABC News: Japanese photographer, pearling pioneer Yasukichi Murakami honoured in Broome

-Posted by Mayu Kanamori

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Darwin Festival

19  August 2014 8:15pm & 20 August 2014 6pm & 8:15pm Brown’s Mart Theatre

Sitting at the very back of the packed-out Brown’s Mart Theatre on the world premier of Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens, I thought I could hear every murmur, each gasp, laughter and finally, sniffle by the group of dozen Murakami family members who sat in the front row.

In making this work, listening became the most important thing to do. To listen carefully to the voice of Yasukichi Murakami’s spirit, the voices of the creative collaborators, and to my own inner voice of truth. This active listening required more effort than to speak out loud. For many years I had thought it a vital process of becoming an artist to express, and out loudly, but through this project,  I have learned expressive less, more receptive, let go, and allow the creative to emerge as it naturally flowed outwards.

Although those Murakami family members who had received a copy of the script gave their blessing, I was still very worried whether the family members would like how their ancestor was portrayed on stage. To my relief, when we met at the theatre forecourt after the show, it was obvious that they were pleased with the results.

Phew.

Cast and crew wht Murakami family members after the premier of Yasukichi Murakami Through a Distant Lens photo by Greg Aitkin

Cast and crew with Murakami family members after the premier of Yasukichi Murakami Through a Distant Lens photo by Greg Aitkin. Front row L to R – Veronica McLennan, Arisa Yura, Mayu Kanamori, Julie Murakami, Jacqueline Murakami, Annette Shun Wah, David Murakami, Terumi Narushima. Back row L to R -Malcolm Blaylock, Calvin Murakami, Maius Lai, Kevin Murakami, Peter Murakami, Yvonne Wood, Benjamin Brockman.

It was important to premier this work as part of Darwin Festival, Darwin’s most prestigious and recognised art festival, because this is where Yasukichi Murakami and his family were arrested as an enemy alien and it is where most of his descendants live today. Because of  this, Darwin is where the honour of his name and work need to be remembered, acknowledged and celebrated the most.

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

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DNA and RNA: what and how of a role of artist and of being human

When I saw Kevin Murakami in Broome, my heart felt like it had stopped for a moment. The shock of seeing him took me to a place I had not prepared for. There was Yasukichi Murakami walking out of his car, I thought, approaching me to say hello.

Kevin Murakami, Broome, 2013  Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Kevin Murakami, Broome, 2013 Photo by Mayu Kanamori

This man of course wasn’t Yasukichi Murakami nor his ghost, but his great grandson, who travelled from Fitzroy Crossing to see me during my stay in Broome. He heard me give an interview with ABC Kimberley about my search for Yasukichi Murakami’s life and work, and contacted me.

I was working with my friend Sarah Yu in Broome on another project: Jetty-to-Jetty, a heritage walking trail of Broome’s foreshore commissioned by Nymaba Buru Yawuru. My specific task was to interview members of old families of Broome in connection to places and their relationships with one another; then create audio files of stories with multiple voices, which tourists could listen to via a phone app whilst walking from the Streeter’s Jetty where hte pearl luggers used to operate from and the site of  Broome’s old Jetty, where the Town Beach is today. They are families and places Yasukichi Murakami would have had intimate knowledge of. After all, he lived in Broome for 35 years of his life. Once again, my work connects past with present and present with future through people, stories, relationships, place and space.

Kevin had driven 400 kms to just to see me. More precisely, he had come to connect with his great grandfather Yasukichi Murakami so that he can then pass on this connection to his two daughters in Perth. He came so I can give him his ancestral family photographs that I have been collecting and digitizing whilst traveling between Sydney, Perth, Darwin, Broome, Tokyo, Yokohama and Tanami in Japan for my Murakami project.

To make my art, I travel many kilometers to ask others to assist me, to receive from them information I need to carry out my work. This time, however, it was Kevin who travelled to receive information that he needed, and he in turn will pass this information on to his children.

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Yasukichi Murakami, self portrait, by Yasukichi Murakami, 1905, Broome. Courtesy, Murakami Family Archives.

I felt as if this exchange touched upon something very mysterious and significant. It was as if I was given  some sort of a hint about how our creative practice, no matter how small it may be in the great scheme of things, is an important part of the whole. That this project is not only about Yasukichi Murakami nor just about my research nor about my art. That in so far as we are alive, there are things we are meant to do for something much bigger than us.

Kevin’s facial and physical features, so similar to what I have seen of Yasukichi Murakami through his self portraits reinforces these insights of being part of a continuum, in this particular case, the Murakami DNA. So then I begin not only to wonder about the role of DNA, but also the role of RNA in the scheme of things.

I remember studying biology in school. The DNA is said to be a molecule that encodes the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and  the RNA performs multiple roles in the coding, decoding, regulation, and expression of genes. I am not a scientist, but I think simply put DNA tells a cell what to do and  RNA carries this information for it to happen… or something similar.

Hm….

So then what and how is my role as an artist? As a human being?

-Posted by Mayu Kanamori

Listen to the ABC Kimberley interview here: http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2013/05/20/3762857.htm?site=kimberley

Yu’s Chinese door

For the last four weeks I have lived in Sarah and Peter Yu’s home. Whilst being away from home, battling out my days chasing Murakami, fighting self-doubt, wondering if this project is getting anywhere, Peter and Sarah have been my family. They have not only given me a bed and a desk to write my blogs from, but fed me polyethnic Broome food (Asia meets saltwater county – such as fresh white fleshed salmon fishcakes with bok choy, mushroom soy and chili mud crabs) and kept me feeling loved throughout. In a very Yu family style, their dinner table has been full of people – family, friends and visitors from all over the world. People of all colors, shades, hues, saturations, foregrounds and backgrounds occupy their outdoor dining area with a large dining table.

Wondering how best to photograph my hosts, I was browsing through the Yamamoto Collection of photographs, donated in 1999 to Noreen Jones by Noriko Yamamoto. I decided it would make sense that I asked Sarah and Peter to pose for me much like some of the portraits from this collection in front of their Chinese doors which separate their private quarters from their outdoor dining and entertainment area. These doors Sarah found in Perth speak the of the Chinese side of Peter’s heritage – the other side being of Yawuru people of Broome. Sarah was born in New Castle, NSW and of English decent, met Peter in whilst working in Kunanurra thirty years ago, and never left the Kimberley since.

Yasukichi Murakami’s portrait work from the Nishioka Emporium /Photographic studio showed how many Japanese married couples were photographed in Broome in the early 1900’s – Japanese people mostly married each other. In early 2000’s, however married couples are no longer of the same ethic origin, especially in Broome.

Sarah and Peter Yu in traditional studio portrait style pose in front of their Chinese door. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

Don’t make eye contact (with the heathen Asiatics)

Aunty Pearl Hamaguchi showed me three beautiful studio portraits of her mother Mary Barbara Lynott, photographed by Murakami. Mary Barbara Lynott was a Stolen Generation, taken to Beagle Bay Catholic Mission from Ruby Plains Station in East Kimberley , then sent to Broome to work as a servant girl for pearling masters.

“…. I used to love to hear her stories of her walks every Sunday after Mass to China Town. That was the only time they were allowed. So mother had all these photographs. Oh, about six of them I think there was all together. Mama, you got these lovely portraits. How did you possibly, you know, you were just a poor servant girl. Oh, no, no, no, she said. When us girls would walk down to China Town, with strict instructions from nuns, not to make eye contact with the heathen Asiatics, We’d pass Murakami’s photography shop. And he’d be waiting for mum. Barbara, Barbara, Eva. Mother’s very good friend Aunty Eva was beautiful woman as well. And can you imagine them in the finery in the 1930s. Lovely hat, lovely white dress with white stockings and whatever. Little handkerchief and five shillings or whatever they had to spend. He would look out for her. He would look out for these convent girls, you know. Barbara, please sit for me. I want to take your portrait. I want to take your portrait. Oh, I said. What did he look like? Oh, she said, he was very good-looking. And I’m thinking, but mother, why didn’t you… (laugh). She said I think he had a crush on me. That was my mother’s story….” – Pearl Hamaguchi

Mary Barbara Lynott photographed by Yasukichi Murakami

– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

Entrance Point

Sitting on a rock at Entrance Point with my (honorary) sister seem like we always had and always would be sitting together at this place.

Lucy tells me about her three jobs in Indigenous education. I tell Lucy about my projects, which brought me back to Broome again. About my search for Murakami and about passing on my skills and stories of Broome’s Elders to the younger people in Broome You Are Here. They are separate projects, but are related in my mind.

Entrance Point is where Murakami is said to have tried unsuccessfully to start a cultured pearl business as early as 1922 with his business partner Ansell Gregory. It is said that their scheme was stopped by the authorities in response to fears that it would drive the prices of natural pearls down.

There is a road nearby named after him. Murakami Road is a dead-end road where Broome’s current cultured pearl shell hatchery is serviced.

Lucy knows that I am back in Broome because of what happened between us over a decade ago with The Heart of the Journey.

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– Posted by Mayu Kanamori