The Sunday Magazine

How Japanese-Canadian Emma Nishimura shaped her family's WW II internment into art

Emma Nishimura's grandmother left behind a box full of the patterns she used to make clothes while she was held in a British Columbia internment camp for Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. Emma Nishimura joins Kevin to talk about the art that those garments and patterns have inspired her to make.
Emma Nishimura's work focuses on her grandparent's internment camp experiences. (Anna Gaby-Trotz)

In 2008, artist Emma Nishimura found a box in her mother's basement. It contained 200 small garments made with brown craft paper, and a series of patterns.

Tucked in between the pages were notes — dated 1943 — and names and measurements written in Japanese.

She realized her grandmother had used these patterns to make clothes during her years in an internment camp during the Second World War in Slocan City, B.C.

Nishimura's grandparents and her father as a young child. All three had died by the time she started her research. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura)

Opening that box sent Nishimura on a decade-long odyssey. She has turned her exploration of memory and loss into beautiful works of art — in some cases, literally re-tracing her grandmother's movements to try to understand a history her family didn't talk much about.

Her work is garnering international acclaim. She won the 2018 Queen Sonja Print Award, awarded annually by the Queen of Norway, and her work has been exhibited across Canada and around the world, including at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Nishimura is currently the chair of photography, printmaking and publications at OCAD University in Toronto.

An accidental discovery

Nishimura's work seems purposeful and distinct. Yet, the impetus of her art, which traces familial memory and her attachment to history, happened by accident. 

"I had gotten a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to create a body of work about what it was to be a mixed race, to look at my heritage," she says. 

In the top photo, Nishimura's grandmother stands with other women interned at the Slocan camp. Below, her grandfather stands with part of his road crew, who also formed a baseball team. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura)

"I was rooting around in my mom's basement trying to find old photo albums ... then I remembered my grandparents and I came across this box, opened it up and just was kind of shocked."

Nishimura realised the drafting mock-ups were made in a class her grandmother took in 1941. "In 1941 there weren't a lot of options for a Japanese-Canadian women in terms of modes and routes for employment," she says. "Being a seamstress was one kind of reliable route ... a number of Japanese-Canadian women went through these different courses to learn how to be seamstresses."

The box of mock-ups clearly mattered to Nishimura's grandmother, as it was one of the few items she took with her to the internment camp. "When she left Vancouver her family's house was sold, the proceeds of which were used to pay for their internment," she says. 

"They were told to bring only what you can carry. So somehow this box, that's a substantial sized box ... they brought that with them as well as cooking equipment and clothing and everything that they would need to live their lives."


In assembling her pieces, at first Nishimura struggled with how to reconcile the specificity of her grandmother's craftsmanship with the weight of the historical context. 

"I wanted to explore my grandparents' story but also kind of look at how those memories have translated over the years," she says. "What got passed down, what's been remembered, what's been held onto, what's been passed on."

In creating her own garments, Nishimura was able to stake her place in her family history, while also remaining attentive towards her grandmother's experience. 

A few after finding a box full of her grandmother's sewing patterns Nishimura was left wondering what to do with them. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura)

Working with paper, she was able to create an "idea of presence." She claims that the paper allows the garments to float towards you and float away, creating a ghostly aura for the viewer. 

"While I was making these I was interested in the space between my artwork and my grandmother's. Gestures of memorialization. Retracing all of these movements that she would have done to create different garments for other people, yet garments that don't exist anymore."  

"In addition to all of the garments that were suspended there were also four tracks of audio playing in the installation," she says. These additions allowed Nishimura to explore the fallibility of memory — how history can be beholden to multiple perspectives. 

Archival mediums 

In her project "An Archive of Rememory," Nishimura printed family photographs on handmade papers and used a Japanese wrapping method called furoshiki to create small bundles. 

"[I was] thinking about the internment, how they were wrapping up their belongings and having to take everything with them," Nishimura says. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura )

She wanted to use furoshiki to explore what people take with them — and also what they pass on to future generations. 

"You take a square of cloth and you can wrap up anything. It can be very utilitarian — you can wrap up your lunch, you can wrap up belongings. [I was] thinking about the internment, how they were wrapping up their belongings and having to take everything with them," she says. "But you can also use furoshiki as kind of a gift-wrapping method — so this idea of wrapping up something very special, and that you're passing that on."

While the objects she created look heavy, they're actually hollow. Nishimura says in all of her work, she's interested in exploring what's accessible and inaccessible about the past.

Nishimura printed family photographs on handmade papers and used a Japanese wrapping method called furoshiki to create small bundles, which were hollow. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura )

Her work also includes maps of B.C. composed of tiny texts, which emphasize how the landscape is inscribed with stories of suffering under internment. In order to do this, Nishimura visited interior B.C. for the first time, to see where her grandparents were interned. She was taken aback by how beautiful the landscape was.

Nishimura's work also covers cartography, where she explores the British Columbia landscape and highlights the suffering built into its geography. (Submitted by Emma Nishimura)

"It was that complication of, how do you reconcile kind of the beauty of the land with the reality of what happened there?" she says. 

"How do I continue to tell that story through my work and through different ways?"

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. Emma Nishimura's comments have been edited for length and clarity. Her work can be seen right now in exhibitions at:

Open Studio, Toronto:

International Print Center New York, New York:

Carleton University Art Gallery, Ottawa:


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