Art, Activism, and Assemblage

By Lucien Kubo. Posted August 22, 2018.

I am a Sansei, a third generation Japanese American. An important part of my life’s experience is that of my parents, their families and the over 110,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated in concentration camps during WWII. Executive Order 9066, based on racist “irrational fear” of foreigners in the time of war and the “need for national security” coupled with economic scapegoating changed lives forever.

I think of my art as philosophical, historical and personal narratives. I am sorting out how I feel about humanity and the world around me. I want to engage the viewer, create dialogue, create a pause for thought, and encourage action.

My art draws from a wide range of inspiration: life experiences of involvement with community and concern around global issues.

I love using cast-off and recycled materials. There is a joy in creating something new from “nothings.”  I use assemblage art to put together a new contemporary narrative. For example, I found a rusted, cast off metal circle at a dump at the Heart Mountain internment center. It may not have been from the camp, but it inspired me to create a story of the Japanese Internment. In putting together this piece, I made sense of this part of my parents’ life, which helped to bring clarity and closure in my life.

Assemblage is an fun art form that uses recycled, old cast off items that may create/spark off a memory from the viewer, a sense of familiarity from their past, e.g. games, monopoly, plastic and glass figurines, old boxes and puts them into a contemporary art form. And then new items, resistance postcards. reveal that the creativity of the movement is art.

Japanese American History Series

1) Japanese American Internment, 2005.

Japanese American

My parents and their families were both interned in Topaz, Utah. Collaged are images of the aerial view of the camp and original photo of a barrack and various photos including a Dorothea Lange photograph of children waiting to be interned. I found the metal piece in a garbage dump by the Heart Mountain concentration camp; it was off to the side and may not have been part of the camp, but something about it spoke to me.

2) Topaz family tree: 2009, Fabric assemblage

Topaz Family Tree

My mother gave me some glaze she had in her cloth drawer. The buttons are from my grandmother’s button box. After mom talked about how she met my dad in Topaz, Utah, we found a camp list with the names, occupation, and other information that identified members of the family who lived in Topaz. To see mom’s family’s names on the list made the incarceration real for me.

Far From Home

3) Far from Home: 2009, Assemblage.

My grandmother was an Issei, a first generation Japanese.  When Executive Order 9066 was passed, the following Saturday, FBI agents came in the morning and took away her husband, my grandfather. She was left with three children. They were told he was to leave on Monday and they could visit him then. When they arrived on Monday, they were told he was shipped out Sunday to Bismarck, North Dakota, a high security prison.  She and her family were sent to Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno and then to the Topaz, Utah concentration camp.  Niigata, Japan, San Francisco, Tanforan, California and then Topaz, Utah…so many “homes.”

Identity & Oppression

1) Are You an American? 2005.

Assemblage: mixed media, found objects, desk drawer

Are You an American?

There have been many debates about immigration. When the tone becomes “mean spirited” let us remember that many of our ancestors were immigrants who came to this country looking for freedom and a better life.  The Statue of Liberty welcomes all.

However Indigenous people and Mexican people lived here before Europeans ‘founded” America. African slaves were forcibly brought here. I created this piece over ten years ago in response to the “mean spirited” discussion going on back then, and now the current discussion put forward by “45” has created an inconceivable racial divide.

2) Help! I’m Stuck in an Asian Stereotype! 2009

Assemblage, various plastic and glass “Asian/Oriental” figurines in an old “Magic Box.”

Help! I’m Stuck in an Asian Stereotype!

I found many of these items at the local flea market. They reminded me of how Asians have been viewed as a  2-D cartoon character, a comic stereotype. I created this in 2009. Fast forward to the current day. Attacks on Asians come back again as  “45”‘s Chinese tariffs and attacks on China, and Muslim ban, building of the Wall, etc… bring back again racism against People of Color, whether Asians , Muslims, Blacks, Latino/x, etc, etc….

3) The Unusual Suspects, 2009

Assemblage,  ‘Police identification Guide”, tin car, various plastic figurines, collaged box.

Unusual suspect

This is a piece on “racial profiling.” When I found the book ” Police Identification Guide” and the tin police car, the information and photos within were full of racial profiling! Created in 2009,  this piece is even more relevant today. Unfortunately the experience for many People of Color when stopped by the police can end in a beating or death. Now some people are even calling for the police when they see a Black person barbequing in the park, sitting in a Starbucks or resting in a public dormitory!

Building the Resistance

1) Trump, the Elephant in the Room , 2016

Assemblage, collage

Trump, the Elephant in the Room.

In the beginning of 2016, after I had watched several of the Republican debates, I noticed that Trump, who was not even a serious contender,  was treating the debates like a “game” show. He used insults in order to get attention and the media was using this as a way to get better ratings. Thinking he was an embarrassment to the Presidential race, I used a Monopoly board, cards, game pieces and, of course,  an elephant to create this piece.  The rest, sadly is history and like the Tarot “Fool,” we look forward to his fall.

2) Chickens Come Home to Roost, 2018

Ceramic, collage of movement postcards

Chickens Come Home to Roost.

There is an old English saying that basically goes…”what comes around, goes around,” or with the “shooting of an arrow in the air, it will be sure to come down and hit the shooter.” It is a phrase that was made famous by Malcolm X , when he reflected on the turmoil in 1960’s America

I pressed into the clay over 30 resistance movements that have risen up due to the “arrows ” shot into the air by Trump.  Never again, Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter, Water is Life, Impeachment, Indivisible, Support Dreamers, No Wall, No Muslim Ban, and Nikkei Resisters, are just a few of the many that make up this united front that will eventually bring down this Administration.

The chicken sits on a collaged base, which is a collection of the above resistance movements, again showing that activism is  crucial part of art.

3) Joining the Resistance, 2018

Ceramic, collaged/ movement postcards

Joining the Resistance.

At the front of Shinto shrines in Japan, foxes and other animals stand guard. They wear red bibs which ward off “toxic energy.”  I am using my Japanese cultural background to inform the current situation. This cat family wear red bibs and pink “pussy hats” which sprung up after Trump’s inauguration as millions took to the streets. Many of us joined in these marches and joined groups organized to resist Trump’s destructive agenda. People who had never been active before felt compelled to raise their voices, organize and get involved. In all electoral counties, people are inspired and are getting ready for the “Blue Wave.” The collaged base of postcards reflects that activism is an integral part of art.

AAWAA members at the Nexus Generation exhibit in front of the I Am an American sign. Photo by Bob Hsiang.

Artist’s bio:

I was born in 1952 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my parents lived briefly. They were relocated from the Bay Area because of the WW II internment camps, until making California their permanent home after the war. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I became involved in the social and political issues of the day. I was informed and given direction from the Civil Rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. Woman and Gay Rights, Environment, Worker’s right, Immigrant rights, and Redress and Reparations were just some of the important issues that influenced me.

I attended San Francisco State University and became involved with the Committee Against Nihonmachi Evictions (CANE) in the San Francisco and the Little Tokyo People’s Rights Organization (LTPRO) in Los Angeles. Many Sansei worked with residents and the community, concerned about the future of Nihonmachi due to “urban renewal.”

I became aware of common concerns all people have for human rights, at home as well as globally. Years later, many of these ideas and experiences became an integral part of my creative inspiration.

NOW all these “social and political issues” back in the day are under tremendous attack and are even more important NOW.

I have co-curated political exhibits such as “The Human Condition: the Artist’s Response,” and  “Artists Look at Human Rights,” which was sponsored by the Santa Cruz chapter of the United Nations Association and was part of Distillations, Meditations on the Japanese American Experience.

I am currently a member of Asian American Women’s Art Association and Santa Cruz Indivisible as well as a supporter of Artists Respond and Resist Together and Nikkei Resisters.

ed note: The cover image for this article is from the Unite for Compassion rally in San Francisco Japantown in November 2017. Photo by Eddie Wong.


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