The Moon and the Lustre

The day before the full moon lunar eclipse in September 2015, Melissa Murakami and I visited the Maritime Museum in Fremantle to see the Lustre exhibition. Melissa’s great great grandfather Yasukichi Murakami lived in Broome during the hey-day of the Australian pearl shell industry, and had made a quiet, yet significant contributions to the industry. Quiet, because until this exhibition, the stories of Australian pearling had not been told through the vision of curator Sarah Yu and her team Bart Pigram and Maya Shioji at Nyamba Buru Yawuru with the WA Museum team who had included individual narratives of lessor known black and yellow fellas who were part of the Australian pearling community.

Melissa Murakami and projected self portrait of Yasukichi Murakami at the Lustre: Pearling & Australia exhibition. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Melissa Murakami and projected self-portrait of Yasukichi Murakami at the Lustre: Pearling & Australia exhibition. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Murakami and his business partner Captain A.C. Gregory started Australia’s first cultured pearl farm, although the authorities had closed it down because of the local fear of ruining the natural pearl market, which in effect had set Australia’s cultured pearl industry back by 30 years. Murakami had invented a safer diving suit, which was the forerunner for the modern-day scuba gear, and although he had patented his design, its renewal fell due whilst he was interned as an enemy alien during WWII, allowing a French inventor to patent one of a very similar design. Significant contributions dwarfed by the course of history, and the way what stories are told by whom.

I had created short audio stories for this exhibition by using oral history interviews of people who were part of the cultured pearling industry for this exhibition. They included not only pearling masters and Japanese pearl divers, but lesser known stories of Indigenous pearl shell carvers, deck hands, boat builders, and shell graders, among many others.

Although my involvement had been small compared to all the work that had gone into preparing the exhibition, being in constant communication with Sarah Yu, who had put me up in her home whilst I was researching Yasukichi Murakami’s story for Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens, gave me the opportunity to contribute some of Murakami’s story and photographs found in Tanami and Darwin for the exhibition

From the exhibition Lustre: Pearling & Australia. The photograph displayed of the boy on the left centre was taken by Yasukichi Murakami of his son Francis Yasunosuke Murakami at the Japanese Cemetery in Cossak. The x marking on the photo indicated the grave of Chiyo Araki, mother of Theresa Shigeno Murakami. The video display on the right was part of project In Repose by Wakako Asano, Satsuki Odamura, Vic McEwan and Mayu Kanamori. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

From the exhibition Lustre: Pearling & Australia. The photograph displayed of the boy on the left centre was taken by Yasukichi Murakami of his son Francis Yasunosuke Murakami at the Japanese Cemetery in Cossack. The x marking on the photo indicated the grave of Chiyo Araki, mother of Theresa Shigeno Murakami. The video display on the right was part of project In Repose by Wakako Asano, Satsuki Odamura, Vic McEwan and Mayu Kanamori.
Photo by Mayu Kanamori

I darted around the exhibition looking for images and stories pertaining to Murakami, making sure we did not miss any of them, pointing them out to Melissa with excitement, as if they were my own photographs on display. Melissa’s partner found the copy of a certificate exempting Murakami from a dictation test, issued by the Commonwealth of Australia as part of the Immigration Act 1901-1920. Displayed in one of the glass cabinets, the second page of the certificate was of his left palm, stamped by the customs and excise office in 1925.

There is something powerful about a hand print of someone who had once lived. Its proof of having-once-lived-ness enters our awareness vividly in rawness; much more so than a photograph of the deceased, perhaps because of our digital age and the proliferation of photographs.

Melissa studied the lines on her ancestor’s palm, then her own in comparison. It is often said in palmistry that the left hand shows traits a person was born with, and the right hand, the kind of a person they had become; and perhaps because of this, she found the shape of his palm and the lines similar to her own. She later told me of feeling a strong connection with this particular exhibit, as if “the only separation between was an ink pad, and not time.”

Melissa Murakami comparing her left palm to that of her ancestor Yasukichi Murakami. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Melissa Murakami comparing her left palm to that of her ancestor Yasukichi Murakami. Photo by Mayu Kanamori

Before we left the museum, we took photos of each other, separately and together in groups at the entrance of the exhibition. Seen from the entrance was a screen hoisted from the ceiling, its shape round, probably because it emulated the shape of a pearl. Black and white images of people who worked in the Australian pearling industry were projected on to the screen, one by one. When it was Melissa’s turn to be photographed on her own, one of Murakami’s self portraits taken at Captain Gregory’s home appeared on the screen.

That afternoon on my way back to Perth, I saw a daytime super moon, full, just above the horizon in the clear blue sky, perfectly round like a cultured pearl. Was it my own little ego that made me see Yasukichi Murakami sitting in Gregory’s cane chair, on the moon, acknowledging my small contribution for his descendants and wider world to recognise his? Perhaps it was time to return to humility, and remember that as people, we all have a part to play, a small but significant purpose to fulfil as part of the whole.

Lustre: Australian Pearling will be on at the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle from 20 June to 25 Oct 2015 travelling to other locations.

More info:

Lustre by Sarah Yu, Bart Pigram and Maya Shioji on the Griffith Review

Lustre on-line text panels by WA Museum

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Kennedy Hill

“Mr Murakami was the second best photographer Broome has ever had,” John E deB Norman, the co-author with Verity Norman of A Pearling Master’s Journey: in the wake of the Schooner Mistsaid on the phone. In his opinion Eki, the wife of Takazo (Tomasi) Nishioka was Broome’s best photographer ever. ” But Mr Murakami was the better with indoor photography and in particular group and solo studio portraits at which he excelled.”

So provocative was this thought – a woman photographer in the early 1900’s being the best photographer the town ever had, I immediately requested audience with him at his home with his wife Verity.

When asked further, he told me that Mrs Eki Nishioka understood light and most of the outdoor photographs of the time were taken by her. He mentioned a particular photograph of the luggers taken from Kennedy Hill on the preface of his book (Broome Creek image (page xiii courtesy of the Western Australian Museum) would have been taken by her. He thought this particular photograph demonstrated a collaboration between Murakami and Eki: Murakami carried the tripod up Kennedy Hill for Eki, but it was Eki who had photographed the luggers among the mangroves, not Murakami.

Equipped with these thoughts, I later climbed up Kennedy Hill much like Eki and Murakami must have done, but I was on my own, and so to reduce the weight over my shoulders, I had left my tripod behind in my car. Even then it was difficult to climb the sand dune with my equipment to get to where I could photograph the sea scape below, carefully avoiding sea shells and broken glass, presumably left by the illegal campers evicted from Kennedy Hill about a year ago.

The blades of broken glass were glistening in the afternoon light and were no longer threateningly sharp . They had slightly weathered over the previous year, making me wonder how long it would take for the multi colored glass of green, brown, orange and crystal to lose its edges enough to look like a precious jewel.

The sun casted strange shadows along my path and I felt like my mind was in another world and that I could feel someone in the distance watching me. I reached the top of the hill, but there were no luggers below. Just overgrown mangroves, but as I began photographing, I could almost hear the shouting and jostling of sea men at shore and the laughter of women who waited for them.

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– Posted by Mayu Kanamori

A Gift

My collaborator Lorna Kaino had once lived and worked in Broome and now is a senior lecturer at Curtin University. In between an excursion to the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and over lunch and dinner at Taka’s Japanese Restaurant in Shafto Lane, Lorna and I exchanged ideas, explored possibilities, made plans for our project, and wrote down our immediate tasks.

She had already spent time researching Murakami, and presented me with a photocopy of images from the Mise Photographic Collection, donated to Norren Jones by Tamae Mise in 1999. Back in my hotel room, I began to sift through pages of our precious gift: old photographs handed down from Tamae Mise to Noreen Jones, and now for Lorna and I to pass on to people after us.

From a single moment in early days of the last century, posed in front of the camera with their eyes — eyes staring straight into the camera lens, passed through the printing process, hands of many people, finding itself out of Broome, out of Australia to Ehime Prefecture in Japan, then back to Western Australia, scanned, photocopied and now staring at me in my hotel room in Perth.

Young Tamae Mise was photographed, presumably by Murakami in his studio with Kamesaburo Mise, who may have been her young father or an uncle — perhaps a much older brother. Tamae looks aboout three years old — and Kamesaburo looks about twenty-one. The photograph is not dated.

I think Murakami had photographed this portrait because there is a printed signature on the bottom left hand corner of the mount, which reads “Y. Nishioka.” Nishioka is the family name of Takazo (Tomasi) Nishioka, who I understand was the shop owner who took young Murakami under his care whilst they were both in Cossack, ‘adopted’ Murakami and together moved to Broome, and set up a shop, which they used as part photographic studio for the Japanese community in Broome. It is part of Japanese practice to take on the surname of the ‘adopted’ family. Lorna who is more experienced and me in historical research has pointed out that a Y. Nishioka signature may not necessarily mean it was Murakami’s photography…. it may have been Nishioka’s his wife! And indeed, it may have been his wife – or is assistant – or his teacher who took the photograph.

There is another photograph of Kamesaburo Mise in the collection, this one as a baby, presumably with his mother Kikuye, taken, according to what was given to me in the bounded photocopies, circa 1905 with the same Nishioka signature on its mount. I am assuming that this date is based what was passed onto Noreen Jones by Tamae Mise, but I may be wrong. Yet in another photograph, young Kamesaburo is photographed in a Japanese junior school uniform, this time with a printed signature by H. Wada. Who is Wada? Another Japanese photographer who I did not know about about? H. Wada left many photographs behind as part of the Mise Photographic Collection. His studio backdrops and mounts differ to those of Murakami, and at least in the Mise Photographic Collection, there are many photographs taken on location, such as in front of the Japanese hospital in Broome (circa 1921-25) and Ehime Club Association’s 10th Memorial Sumo Tournament on New Year’s Day 1 January 1922.

In the photograph in front of the Japanese hospital which Wada took, Murakami is identified. He is sitting next to the central figure Doctor Masuyama.

– Mayu Kanamori