“We’re the reflections of our ancestors / we’d like to thank you for the building blocks you left us / ‘cause your spirit possessed us”
– Talib Kweli, “Africa Dream”
Emily Hanako Momohara’s current exhibition at PAC Gallery, “Islands,” consists of fifteen archival pigment prints on rich Somerset Velvet paper. The exhibition is a continuation of —or perhaps, more appropriately, a transition from—her earlier series: “Desert Sand Project” (2006-2007), and “Koden” (2008-2010). In previous works, Momohara photographed her body and objects related to personal loss and familial trauma. In “Islands” her photographs are equally intimate and anonymous; serving as a kind of love letter to her forbearers, and in the face of uncovering the reality of the mythology behind their legacies, the artist creates a visual dichotomy of real and contrived truths.
Momohara consistently wrestles with issues of ancestry in her work, and “Islands” is no different. Uncovering myths about the origins of her family, (where they lived and even her “real” last name,) she imagines a world that is an amalgamation of real and unreal. Realities—imagined, propagated, debunked, or otherwise—are the subjects of this current exhibition, and in her photographs Momohara constructs meaning about issues of personal identity.
All photographs included in the exhibition with the exception of four (Sagebrush Autumn, Summer, Spring, & Winter) are entitled “Island” with a corresponding number. Printed on lush paper stock and mounted on (visually) heavy foam core, in many the artist appears to explore the concept of a contrived reality. For example, the photograph nearest the entrance is subtitled, Ocean Expo Commemorative National Government Park, Traditional Home Replica, Motobu, Okinawa, Japan. As the name implies, the image was taken at a Japanese National Park, in which a replicated late nineteenth century native village serves as a tourist attraction. The manipulated image is that of a room, mostly closed off by a sliding shōji door, revealing a traditional tatami mat floor and a butterfly mid-flight.
The image’s narrative is curious. Momohara not only photographed the interior of a Japanese version of Colonial Willamsburg; intriguingly, her clearly-Photoshopped photograph includes a vague yet obvious irregularity (water stain? light refraction?) on the wooden panel of the shoji, lending the work a kind of charming imperfection—a la the Japanese wabi aesthetic. The brown splotch is approximately the same color and size as the butterfly, highlighting the two as an offset mirror-like image, and Momohara repeats this motif several times throughout the exhibition.
Island 8 similarly involves an indefinite reflection within an ambiguous space. The majority of the image is a black sky with dark grey puffy clouds, save for an unidentifiable green organic substance at the very top of the photo. Initially, it looks like a bumpy green leaf of lettuce and its reflection, as if sitting upon or just next to water—something akin to a formulaic Bob Ross painting of a mountain reflected on the water’s surface. Upon closer inspection however, one can see that it is not a reflection at all (because it is not a mirror image) but rather a slightly faded continuation of the same green plant, digitally manipulated to look translucent. The effect is disorienting but provocative, and her use of negative space to create a visual tension between what is real and what is Photoshopped is perhaps most prevalent in Island 8.
Island 2 is another perceptually beguiling piece in the exhibition. Likewise subtitled with the name of the real place in which it was photographed, (Royal Hotel, Okinawa Japan,) Island 2 features an ambiguous area—the corner of a tiled rooftop with an overgrowth of weeds and decaying walls—within a literally framed image. A small window in the back of the wall is partially obscured by the growth and there is an implication of (or perhaps the possibility of) someone looking back. At first glance, the photo appears to have thick black double matting around its periphery. However, closer examination reveals the image border to be a pane-less window frame connected by one small piece of tile that acts as a visual bridge between the outside and interior spaces.
The background story of the Royal Hotel in Okinawa Japan involves an abandoned hotel/zoo/water park that was begun in the mid-1970’s but construction halted due to tales of it being built on sacred ground and thus haunted. The place is an unofficial tourist attraction—much talked about in local folklore but accessible only via a long trek through the jungle—and is a testimony to the deep Okinawan belief in the spirit world. With her framing, Momohara visually distances the viewer from the window on the back wall. In naming her piece an incongruous title, (nothing about this space reads “Royal” or “Hotel”) she underscores the contrast between real and imagined, drawing the viewer’s attention to the chaotic decay while demonstrating that she is framing the composition. One is left to decide on their own what is real and what is illusory.
Momohara’s Sagebrush series is four vertical images (one for each season) of what looks like a small tumbleweed with corresponding seasonal variations—Winter has snow, Summer a mosquito, and Autumn a full Harvest moon. In each, she allows for large swaths of uncluttered space for a more metaphorical reflection. Again, she delves into issues both intimate and universal. Momohara has used sagebrush in past exhibitions as a “physical remnant of incarceration camps,” and she associated it with the Japanese internment camp where her family was held during WWII in Southern Idaho. In drawing upon her familial legacy in “Islands,” the artist contrasts this with impersonal materials and the traditional Japanese four-season format.
Momohara’s photographs in “Island” are personal enough to reveal intimate issues of heritage, yet at the same time universal in their beauty. Although the artist continues to plumb her particular legacy for the purposes of creating her art, the narrative of each image remains unclosed and open to diverse readings. Her work therein mirrors her own Hapa identity and allows the viewer to fill in the blanks of her visual narrative with their own intimate interpretations.