Making sense of how past events shape a person's story can take a lifetime or more. Japanese Canadian artist Norman Takeuchi's retrospective exhibition Shapes in Between takes on this endeavour. His abstract acrylic paintings at the Ottawa Art Gallery show the aftereffects of World War II on his Japanese Canadian community, family, and own identity.

Takeuchi's retrospective is significant to the historical reconciliation and ongoing cultural exchange between Japan and Canada, upholding the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. The Embassy of Japan joined the Ottawa Art Gallery for the exhibition's opening ceremony earlier this year.

No one would have imagined this happening in 1941, when Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor caused Japanese Canadians to be abruptly viewed as "enemy aliens" under the War Measures Act. Takeuchi's family was among the 22,000 Japanese Canadians who were forced to give up their property and relocate to the British Columbia Interior. Although they were not in an internment camp, they still suffered through years of poverty and humiliation for being Japanese Canadian, according to author and adjunct professor Jim Burant.

It can be tough to take pride in one's heritage when it is also the root of feeling like an outsider, especially in a country that has always been known as home. The war greatly intensified the discrimination and isolation endured by the Japanese Canadian community during this period. It took decades until Takeuchi began to accept and incorporate such a complicated part of his identity into his works.

Annieville Dyke Revisited, 2012-2018, acrylic on canvas. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

Annieville Dyke Revisited is one painting that features fishing boats at Annieville Dyke on the Fraser River. Around 1,200 of these Japanese Canadian-owned boats were seized and eventually sold by the Royal Canadian Navy in 1941. The landscape is also layered with odd shapes of navy blue. In an interview with Discover Nikkei, Takeuchi explains that his abstraction is "meant to amplify the historical events with the more intangible feelings of displacement, confusion, loss of identity, anger."

Untitled (House and Clouds), 2022, acrylic on paper, diptych. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

In addition to abstracts, many of Takeuchi's paintings are diptychs. This choice to break an image into two parts is symbolic of his split nature as a Japanese Canadian and the racial divide between these groups. Untitled (House and Clouds) is one striking example, with dark silhouettes and blood red contours that together signal a sense of alarm.

Kitsilano (Long Division Series), 2021, acrylic on canvas, diptych. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

Sadness is impossible to separate from certain memories, yet Takeuchi manages to look back on his past from different angles and reflect on brighter days, as seen in Kitsilano. The diptych evokes idyllic ideas of the artist's home and neighbourhood in Vancouver. After his family's return in the 1950s, his parents re-established their businesses in gardening and dressmaking, while Takeuchi embarked on his career in the visual arts. According to Long Division curator Emily Putnam, Kitsilano and other works in this series prompt people to "move forward with hope despite the ongoing and systemic problems impacting the world."

Meeting Place, 2005, acrylic on canvas. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

Art has not only allowed Takeuchi to make sense of his own past but learn more about Japanese culture, spanning thousands of years. Meeting Place is special because it marks Takeuchi's first use of Japanese art historical motifs like the kimono, the national dress of Japan. Moreover, he integrates his characteristic abstract forms with traditional woodblock images. In an artist statement for Studio22 Fine Art, Takeuchi describes this integration as "an indication perhaps of a coming-to-terms with my ethnicity and even a celebration of my Japanese heritage."

Art is essential to a more human understanding of history, which cannot be fully captured in black-and-white photographs and faded memories. Takeuchi's Shapes in Between brings colour and much-needed nuance to the Japanese Canadian experience. Many of those who learn about it or even live through it may not view this past with forgiving eyes, but Takeuchi's abstracts invite people to try, under a different light.

His works are the kinds of works that leave audiences standing a little longer than intended. At first glance, the bold colours, abstract shapes, and characteristic motifs may be disorienting — but on second thought, the combination makes sense. Altogether, Takeuchi's retrospective reminds viewers that whether it is one person between two cultures or two countries once at war, moving forward requires making peace with the past.

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