Emma Nishimura embeds history in paper to uncover her family's lives in B.C. internment camps

"Being a fourth generation half-Japanese Canadian, it's essential to look back on the internment."

'Being a fourth generation half-Japanese Canadian, it's essential to look back on the internment'

"Being a fourth generation half-Japanese Canadian, it's essential to look back on the internment." 6:33

Memories carry a certain weight to them. We might describe a joyful memory as light or adversely a traumatic memory as being heavy. And it is this emotional weight that sometimes defines which memories we choose to share and which are too heavy for us to carry.

Toronto-based artist Emma Nishimura has chosen to investigate heavy memories — including her own family's imprisonment in Japanese internment camps — as a source of inspiration: "Being a fourth generation half-Japanese Canadian, it's essential to look back on the internment."

During World War II, over 22,000 Japanese-Canadians were evicted from the homes and sent to live in internment camps in British Columbia until the end of the war. Most of them were Canadian citizens by birth. Emma's grandmother was one of them. Four years after her grandmother passed away, she discovered a box of personal belongings. Inside were around 200 garments each made of brown craft paper. It was a glimpse into her grandmother's life in internment — one in which she was likely making clothes for those who were interned with her.

Emma Nishimura with a paper dress pattern her grandmother made while in an internment camp. (CBC Arts)

In this video, created by filmmaker Alice Shin and producer Eiko Brown, we dive into Emma's deeply intricate and personal process of creating work that effectively acts as "a bridge between my work and my grandmother's work." For Alice, making this piece was quite serendipitous as she and Eiko have been developing an independent documentary about Japanese-Canadian internment camps over the past year and was recently selected to develop their piece in the Hot Docs Accelerator Lab.

For her series An Archive of Rememory, Emma printed photo-etchings of her grandparents onto paper. Using a traditional Japanese wrapping technique called Furoshiki, she then wrapped those images around sand moulds to give a sculptural appearance. Once set, she cut into the piece and drains the sand. They look heavy but are actually hollow.  She's made 450 so far and will continue to create more as she continues to collect more photographs and stories from those affected.

Pieces from Emma Nishimura's series An Archive of Rememory. (CBC Arts)

Emma's detailed work demands a deeper look as she fills in the missing gaps of her own cultural history and struggles with the lasting effects of the internment. Her process is incredibly detailed and delicate and speaks to the way in which these stories of the Japanese internment in Canada have been quietly stored and packed away. Through her investigations and art-making, Emma has found a way to share the weight of these heavy memories, creating pieces that challenge the viewer to look closer, to do their own investigations and unpack the personal stories from this racist period that have long been fragmented and forgotten.

Work by Emma Nishimura depicting the topography of the locations of internment camps in text on paper. (Emma Nishimura)

About the Author

Lucius Dechausay is a video producer at CBC Arts, as well as a freelance illustrator and filmmaker. His short films and animations have been screened at a number of festivals including The Toronto International Film Festival and Hot Docs. Most recently he directed KETTLE, which is currently streaming at CBC Short Docs.

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