Originally from Washington State, Emily Hanako Momohara explores themes of family, immigration and personal identity in her latest show, Islands: Photographs by Emily Hanako Momohara at the PAC Gallery in East Walnut Hills. The show opens August 12, so check it out.
Momohara is Associate Professor of Art at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. Hers is a striking series of photographs, inspired by a recent trip to the places, namely her great-grandparents’ birthplace of Okinawa, Japan, that her predecessors called home.
Momohara returned from the trip just this past June and began working on the series right away. “There are a lot of ideas to explore and I’ve only just started,” she says. The photos–all archival pigment prints on Somerset Velvet–feature exotic landscapes, somber backgrounds and minimalist arrangements.
The subjects are places, mementos and even bits of turf that possess a common aura of stillness, distinctly of-their-time, and some with a sliver of humor. Central to the series is the overarching theme of islands, both as a physical and metaphorical, and how those formations relate to herself and her family. The images portray a sense of lushness and isolation, fantasy and beauty.
The photographer’s great-grandparents, Ojihan and Obaban, came to the U.S. with no knowledge of English, working manual labor to make their way. “That’s where the work starts to germinate,” she explains. Her grandparents met in New York City, near the end of the Second World War. “My great-grandpa was a chief, who got a sponsor in New York and was able to take one person with him out of Minidoka,” she says.
Located in Idaho, Minidoka was an internment camp from 1942-1945 where Japanese Americans and resident aliens were relocated during the war. The camp was one of 10 such locations throughout American at the time, and some 10,000 people were forced to work on irrigation and farming projects. “Since great-grandma had to take care of the kids, she stayed at Minidoka,” she says.
Momohara’s great-grandfather took his daughter (her grandmother) with him instead. “My grandpa was in the Army’s100th battalion. He was docked in New York before going to the Pacific Theater.” Her grandparents met at a Japanese American Citizens League dance.
Momohara’s photos also address the personal struggle of establishing a sense of identity. She’s of white and Asian parentage, a fact that influences her art and her personal experiences.
“Being half-Asian, the “exotic” has been a bittersweet association with my upbringing and self. I want to embrace the beauty of culture, without thinking of how others may orientalize or objectify our practices,” she says. Making art from an early age, Momohara mentions a drawing done at age six, a portrait of herself and her mother. “I drew her as white and myself as yellow,” she says. As a child, people often assumed that she’d been adopted from Vietnam.
It is perhaps that self-awareness Momohara says, that led her to become engrossed in her heritage. There’s also that phenomenon of family truths becoming somewhat fictionalized. “Many of the stories I’d previously heard were untrue,” Momohara discovered. “We also found out so much information that really added to my respect and understanding of my great-grandparents.
Taking a line from her artist’s statement, Momohara sums it up: “Legacy is not factual, but fluidly ebbs with its human character. In the end, the message may or may not resemble the original. However, whichever familial myth or fact one lives with, it influences, inspires and forms our memories and character.”
Momohara’s trip abroad and the resulting series seem more than just a way to touch some familial roots. They are a way of clarifying those stories that get passed down, of linking those islands of memories, which one feels obliged to connect as an adult. It’s also that journey one takes to construct the image of oneself, in order to feel whole.
The show runs August 12-September 17, 2011, at PAC Gallery, 2540 Woodburn Avenue in East Walnut Hills. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12 to 5 pm, or by appointment.
Emily Hanako Momohara is a 2011 Ohio Art Council Artist Excellence Award and Grant recipient. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Washington, a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from the University of Washington, and a Master of Fine Arts in Expanded Media from the University of Kansas. She currently resides in Cincinnati. See more of her work at www.ehmomohara.com.