As we feel shocked by the escalating exposure of hate and racism in our country, we can take heart that creative voices offer an important alternative to mean spirited, one-dimensional ignorance. Visual artists, musicians, actors and poets offer perspectives on history, and on the present, that disempower evil with images that speak truth.
The production of “Madame Butterfly” by the Seattle Opera countered the historical racism of the story. The Japanese singer Yasko Sato, playing Cio Cio San, reminded us that her character was a descendant of a Samurai Warrior. For three years, as Cio Cio San awaited the return of her American husband, she sustained herself with an unshakable belief that he would return. She seemed to draw him back by the force of her will.
Likewise music and poetry as resistance dominated the two evenings of performances that accompanied the exhibition I curated on “Immigration: Hopes Realized, Dreams Denied” in Tacoma, one mile from the notorious Northwest Detention Center. The performers helped us to understand and therefore resist racism. Particularly moving were the songs and poetry of Eduardo Trujillo, a former detainee, who calls himself a “passionate refugee who seeks for a way to bring peace of mind to those incarcerated and or in fear of deportation.” In his singing, we could hear the heart of a person who has survived the depths to come back with a deep understanding of life. You can hear him online here https://vimeo.com/226673443.
Tello Hernandez also sang from the heart what he called “La Nueva Cancan” (New Song) which, as he explained, “has its roots in folk music and expresses the concerns, hopes and struggles of the people. It is music with a social message. Not necessarily protest music, but music that speaks of love, hope, justice and equality. “La Nueva Cancan” is the voice of human rights. It is music by the people and for the people.”
A small exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum commemorates the infamous Japanese incarceration during World War II. “Year of Remembrance: Glimpses of a Forever Foreigner” (February 17, 2017–February 11, 2018) draws from the collaborative book by Roger Shimomura and Lawrence Matsuda of the same title. Both lived their earliest childhood years in the Minidoka Concentration Camp during World War II (Matsuda was born in the camp, Shimomura was three years old in 1942). Their experience of being incarcerated informed their work throughout their successful careers as poet (Matsuda) and visual artist (Shimomura). Shimomura laces his work with humor and irony, as well as popular culture, to expose racism as it has continued throughout the decades since World War II. The past is the present. The exhibition brings the story up to the present with the threats to Muslims, Jews and Latinos today. It seeks “to prevent this injustice from happening again, especially to other Americans who are ethnically, racially, or religiously different.”
At the entrance to the exhibition, we are asked to stand in front of a mirror: “Stand on the footprints, and look at your image: What do people think when they see you? How does that effect how you are treated or perceived? What does an American look like?”
Pairing this exhibition with “Teardrops that Wound” (until May 2018) that I wrote about in the summer, enlarges the theme of creative thinking as a way forward. The exhibition’s title, “Teardrops that Wound,” is drawn from Phong Nguyen’s novel “Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History: “...with one fatal drop of this teardrop-shaped steel structure, I remember thinking, man will finally have wounded God.”
Sarah and Phong Nguyen, “Break into Blossom,” 2017, mixed media
Phong and Sarah Nguyen imagine that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima has not exploded, but instead lies on the ground like an old tree, with moss and flowers growing out of it. “Teardrops that Wound,” makes the connection to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima as well. Yukiyo Kawano sewed a replica of “Little Boy” from kimonos from Fukuyama with her own hair.
Like the Japanese incarceration in detention camps that continues today with privately run for-profit detention centers for 34,000 people across the country, nuclear disaster is also more than ever an escalating anxiety.
Not far from the Wing Luke, the Bonfire Gallery featured Deborah Lawrence’s exhibition “Strumpet of Justice.” In the window, Dee Dee Lorenzo (the artist’s alter ego) cries as she surveys the shambles of disheveled flags around her.
Deborah Faye Lawrence, 80 Words, Eighty Words, 2014, 41.25 x 34.5”, paper and fabric collage, acrylic, varnish on canvas
On the gallery walls, the artist combines flags, collage and text to express strong opposition to what is happening in the world, particularly emphasizing feminist defiance of the destructive powers of capitalism.
And as a final example, at one of our free Shakespeare in the Park performances, The Comedy of Errors, the Duke of Ephesus, Solinus, became a red haired Donald Trump, with “Make Ephesus Great Again” on his hat. A wall-building scene was added, and The Duke declared he would appoint Iago as his chief of staff. Near the end of the performance, he was driven out (with the help of the audience) and transformed into Bernie Sanders for the last scene. Great fun.
These are only a few examples of creative people countering the discourse of our mainstream media, of historical racism, and of contemporary abuses. Writers, poets, singers, filmmakers and visual artists have the ability to celebrate diversity and our shared positive values with loud clear voices that offer a non-violent response to racism and its partner, ignorance. We must speak loudly and often.
~Susan Noyes Platt