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Tanuki

‘Tanuki’ is an anti-racist, interactive, multi-disciplinary, art installation by mixed-race musicians Annie Sumi and Brian Kobayakawa.

‘Tanuki’ reflects on racial identity, healing ancestral trauma, and the fragmented history of the Japanese Canadian internment. At first glance, the installation appears to be a suspended stretch of fabric draped into the sharp tooth of an antique sewing machine. However, engaging the foot treadle reveals the hidden depth of the installation: a cycle of songs and projections weaving the past with the present.

Created with the help of shadow-puppeteer duo Mind of a Snail, the projections are an overlapping collage of landscape video footage, cut-up old letters written by the artists’ ancestors, and playful animations. All of the pieces of this installation are site-specific. Two of the featured videos are present-day footage of the places where internment camps were built during WWII - one where Kobayakawa’s father was born, and the other where Sumi’s grandfather spent his youth. Another featured video shares underwater footage of scuba divers capturing percussion samples by banging on the hull of a long-sunken ship that was built by Brian’s ancestors at their pre-internment boat-building company. The final video clip is of the artists themselves, filling their mouths one by one with stones collected from each of those sites.

Quiet now, there is not a thing besides the low, humming sound of the body In my mouth, chewing on the words I cannot speak to them out loud until I’m ready

The creation of each song was an active exercise in developing a spaciousness around the imposed silence of internment trauma. Directly confronting the experience of reorienting in a post-internment Canada, the artists dig into the roots of shikata ga nai - a Japanese phrase meaning “it cannot be helped”. While it’s hard to pinpoint the impact of the internment, Annie and Brian knew that was only one part of the story they wanted to tell. The artists spent a day in the studio inviting their parents, siblings, and cousins to participate. They took turns reading the index numbers assigned to their Japanese ancestors and the lists of belongings that were confiscated and sold during the war. Somehow, hidden in the weight of these words, there was lightness, laughter and movement, and the compositions became the fabric for which their ancestors and living relations could be woven together.

With the help of CBC Radio, the University of Victoria, and Landscapes of Injustice, the artists were able to uncover archived recordings, photographs, poetry and documentation about their ancestors.

“I was able to hear my great-grandfather’s voice for the first time,” Sumi says. “Listening to him read haiku felt like he was right there in the room with us.” Exploring the Japanese practice of kintsugi - honouring and embellishing brokenness - ‘Tanuki’ takes the fragmented pieces of self, story and culture to bring attention to the greater wholeness. This installation intends to create space for others to reflect upon their own relationship to ancestry, and share about how those stories take shape in their present lives.

Tanuki will be installed in the Moriyama Nikkei Heritage Centre.