Thursday, September 23, 2010

Obake talk - the scoop behind my Sugar series

Save the date! If you live on the Big Island of Hawaii, please come out to the 6th Annual Obake Night - local style Halloween ghost stories featuring "Tita" Kathy Collins and Brada Jo Hadeley Pidgin Storytellers Extraordinaire. See the flier above for details.

Through six degrees of separation and total coincidence (if you believe that anything can be a coincidence), my Chicago friend, Czerina Salud who had just come back from Hawaii from her honeymoon, connected my artwork with some community folks who then passed the images along to some aunties (Akiko Masuda and Charlene Asato) on the Big Island, one of which (Charlene Asato) who also happens to be former Hilo High School classmate of my dad! All of this to say, we all started chatting on line about obake stories, Hawaii, and talking story and they asked to use my images for the flier above.

When my images leave the white cube of the gallery wall (where presumably I have more control over context) and land on a community flier in Hawaii (with my permission of course), the context and meaning naturally changes. There are simply more story tellers here and the geographic location and audience is also shifting quite radically.

I want to take this opportunity to put a few of the images in context and to provide some historic information and my own perspective, as an Unchinanchu living in Chicago, about the use of cane fires, cane field workers clothing, obake tales, and hajichi (the Okinawan tattoo), in my Sugar series. The 10 works in the Sugar series highlight ho hana (hoeing cane), cutting cane, burning cane, fluming cane, as well as an image based on a historic labor protest, an Obon celebration, and images of my own hands covered in Okinawan tattoos.

First the easy one....

Cane Fires
Burning cane is a normal part of the cane harvest, it's not really supposed to be "scary" but we can use our imagination. The growing cycle for sugar cane is 18-months. Before they used to cut the cane for fluming and mill processing, they had to get rid of the cane top and excess grass (or "junk"). This was either done by hand cutting or by burning. It's a controlled fire that simply gets rid of the "junk." In Hilo (Pi'ihonua), where my family is originally from, it was usually far too wet and rainy to burn the cane so this image is not historically accurate but it makes for a hopefully dynamic scene that makes you think about the grueling nature of this manual labor. FYI - watch the movie the Picture Bride! The perspective in my Cane Fire painting is also a mash-up. I took the source image of Mauna Kea from Coconut Island in Hilo Bay.

The clothing for the cane field workers in my Sugar series are what Japanese and Okinawan women used to wear prior to the 1940s (1868-1940s). After the 40's you really saw them wearing Western style clothing and often times even men's work cloths (jeans, palaka plaid or whatever they felt like). Many of the women came over initially as picture brides and they would re-purpose their old kasuri kimonos into work jackets. The head scarf (to protect them from sun, dust, and getting poked from the cane) as well as the apron were made from bleached rice sacks (sometimes the aprons were made from ahina/denim). They used to wear a straw hat to protect them from the sun. Their shoes were initially made from hand stitched ahina (denim) and later they would have rubber tabi's (people still use these today). They also had oiled rain coats. They wore protective arm and leg coverings. To learn more about the clothing, visit Textured Lives at the Japanese American Museum and the work of pioneering scholar Barabara Kawakami.

Why are all the women ghosts and why don't they have any faces?
When I showed my work to the aunties in Hawaii, they read the faceless floating women as a feminist take on the Native Hawaiian legend of the Night Marchers, which puts a new and meaningful spin on the work (meaning isn't fixed by the way). Why did I make my ancestors ghosts in the Sugar series? We (my family or the community) don't have a lot of images or material culture (clothing etc.) from this time period because: 1) there was an urgency both for economic survival and in many times personal safety to assimilate following WWII/internment etc. Items which marked you as Japanese or Okinawan might not have been kept as a result. 2) if you were going to get your photograph taken (on the outside chance you had access to a camera) you certainly wouldn't want to be pictured in your grubby work clothes.  You would want to be pictured in your finest clothing. So most of the photos that do exist are of people at weddings, funerals, and graduations and they are wearing Western style dresses, suits, or black kimonos and later more colorful Hawaiian print kimonos. Most of the images of cane field workers were taken by plantation owners or the State. The viewpoint is far from personal.

I always wanted to know what my great grandma, Makato Miyanhira Gibu [later Hiyane], looked like when she went to work in the fields. I just remember meeting her when she was very old (in her 90's) and I was 5 years old. I don't know a lot about her. She had a glass eye ball because (legend has it) my own grandma accidentally poked her eye out with a sugar cane stalk. Naturally this image of an old woman with a glass eye was sort of scary for a young kid. So the combination of not being able to see the past (literally), made me start thinking about my ancestors as ghosts or an absence. So I went hunting for ghost stories in Pi'ihonua. In the summer of 2010, I interviewed seven elders (Nisei and Sansei) in the community to gather stories that I then used as inspiration for this series.

Going into the series I knew everything was going to be indigo blue (coming out of my Indigo show in India and the Devon Avenue Sampler series) and I was influenced by a combination of Utagawa Hiroshige's New Year's Eve, Fox Fires by the Nettle Tree at Ōji , 1857 and Bruegel's 1568 The Beekeepers and the Birdnester. I also hatched this idea while in midnight fender bender on a tour bus on a highway in Agra, India coming back from a tour of the Taj Mahal in January of 2010 but that's another story....

Obake tales and Hinotama (literally fireballs that shoot from graves that are thought to be souls of the dead)
I was curious about ghost stories so I asked my dad and Pi'ihonua community member Yushie "Carole" Oshiro and others if they remembered any ghost stories and this didn’t seem to be something that was very important to them personally. I guess I had expected the Japanese tradition of the Obake stories to be part of the Okinawan Hawaiian culture as well. Some interviewees speculated that one of the reasons why ghost stories were not part of the culture is that they had to travel from camp to camp late at night in the dark and you really wouldn’t want everyone scared. That said, everyone acknowledged the Native Hawaiian mythology (e.g., Pele stories etc.) but they did not see these as “myths” but rather something that even if you don’t believe, to show respect. There is definitely a sense that our ancestors are physically with us still...if you want to call that a ghost or not, that's up to you.

My dad did remember, however, walking home one night and seeing a “hinotama” (fire ball) shoot out from the old graveyard located near Pi'ihonua Camp 5. In between Camp 4 and 5 on the other side of the cane field, there was an old graveyard. The road to this no longer exists. Mrs. Oshiro recalls that sometime in the 1940’s or 1950’s, the State asked the families in Pi’ihonua to relocate the remains of any family members buried in this cemetery. She remembers that one of her family members was exhumed, cremated, and then the ashes were placed in a family mausoleum in another location. At any rate, dad recalled seeing an orange fireball shoot from the graveyard and up into the air across the fields. This was a natural phenomenon that occurs due to gases building up inside the grave. Of course as a child, he thought this was a spirit or a ghost!

Now the hard one....

Hajichi (Okinawan Tattoos)
Perhaps nothing is more absent (ghost like) than the tradition of Hajichi. I've never seen anyone with the traditional tattoos myself but the topic kept coming up when I would ask what the Issei cane field workers in Hawaii used to wear. Of the seven community members I interviewed, all of them recalled that either their own grandmothers had these tattoos or that they remembered a friend's mother or grandmother having the tattoos.  There are very few images of the tattoos. One woman, Millie Uchima (see interview below), gave me a reproduction of a photograph of her grandmother in a nursing home back in the 1980s and I could make out the designs on her hand. Most of the time, folks just ended up drawing a picture of what they remember the designs looking like. There are images in Okinawa (which I learned about later and which are not in English) but I didn't have access to those when I was making these paintings so I resorted to using my own hands to model the Okinawan tattoo designs.  A reporter from the Okinawa Times, Akiko Kakazu who wrote about my work, told me that there was an exhibit on Hajichi and a related publication in 2008 in the Naha City History Museum.  

Here is the story of Hajichi as told to me by Mrs. Midred T. Uchima of Hui Okinawa. Mrs. Uchima grew up in the Peepekeo community:
July 6, 2010 interview with Mildred “Millie” T Uchima (President of Hui Okinawa Hilo Hawaii) and Margaret Torigoe

Okinawan Tattoos
Mrs. Uchima gave me some photographs of the tattoos and a hand written history and personal story of the tattoos, which Margaret Torigoe later typed up for me and sent via e-mail:

Tattoo in Okinawa
A Personal Story by Millie T. Nakasone Uchima

            For many centuries Okinawa women had the back of their hands tattooed.  Like many ancient traditions, tattooing is no longer practiced in Okinawa.
            My mother, Toku Miyahira Naksone, had tattoos on her hands – I never thought they were ugly – in fact, the hands always looked beautiful to me.  She had circles and squares and lines on both her hands.  She told me that as a young girl, it was considered fashionable and beautiful to have tattooed hands.  Since she was poor, she could not use the best ink from China.  She and her friends used the cheap, inexpensive ink and tattooed each other.  It was extremely painful, but she was proud of her beautiful hands.


            The Okinawan practice of tattooing may have been introduced through contacts with other countries, i.e. India, China and Japan.
            For many centuries, Okinawan women had the backs of their hands tattooed.  Like many ancient traditions, tattooing is no longer practiced in Okinawa.
            At one time it was considered fashionable to have tattooing done on the hands.  It was a fad.  All the girls had it done.  Many young girls tattooed their hands so that they would not be kidnapped by Japanese pirates and sold as prostitutes.  They also knew the Japanese hated tattooed women.
            A legend tells of a beautiful Okinawan princess held captive by a powerful Japanese lord.  He refused to let her return to Okinawa.  Therefore, her servants devised a plan to have her hands tattooed.  When the lord saw the princess’ tattooed hands, he was horrified and immediately sent her back to Shuri Castle.
            The ladies of the court imitated the princess and had their hands tattooed.  They believed that tattoos protected them from evil while others tattooed designs to reflect their social status. 
            Ladies from very rich families used the best sumi (ink) from China.  It was customary for young girls between ages of 17 & 23 to have their hands tattooed before marriage.  Tattooing in Okinawa signified a girl’s transition from adolescence to adulthood.  A big celebration was held at this time.  When the girl turned 37, the design was enlarged and darkened.  When the first grandchild was born, the procedure was repeated, with more designs being added.  When the woman died, her tattoo was considered her “passport” to the “other side” where she would display her tattoos as identification to her ancestral family.
            Today tattooing is forbidden by law and rarely will you see a woman with tattoos on her hand.  If she is alive, she will have to be someone’s great, great grandmother since many ladies who had tattoos on their hands have already joined their ancestors.
Millie Uchima

Mrs. Uchima said that if you were rich, you would have dark black tattoos made with ink from China (sumi ink). Most people, however, had to use homemade ink and it was purplish blue (indigo). The women would get tattoos between the ages 17-23 [before marriage]. According to “Tattoos: A Woman’s Story” by Doreen Yamashiro, “If a woman refused or protested the painful procedure, she was threatened with exile to Taiwan or another country.” Mrs. Uchima recalls that in Okinawa, they would create pigment from the “tinsagunu” flower (balsam flower). They would mash it up. They would use the red, purple, or pink flowers to create nail polish and the purple flowers for tattoos.

She remembers that they would get the tattoos a little at a time – when you were engaged, then when you were married, then when you had children, and then grandchildren. Yamashiro’s essay confirms that the tattooing would traditionally happen two additional times, “When she turned 37, the design was enlarged and darkened, and when her first grandchild was born, the procedure was repeated – with more designs added.” The first tattoos would be on the base of the fingers and then on the back of the hand and eventually the wrist. The geometric shape on the back of the hand was usually a large circle. You would also see diamond shapes or other shapes inspired from kasuri designs. The fingers might be completely tattooed. 

I asked why the rich families were sending their daughters to Hawaii to work manual labor. She said there was a famine in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and that there were no jobs and that this impacted even the rich families so that this why they would take the risk to send their daughters off to Hawaii.
One of the 6th Annual Obake Night event organizers noted that the events on October 29 and 30, 2010, “will be dedicated to the souls and spirits of women who have been and continue to be violated in wars, whether wars between countries or wars between one human and another as in violence in our families.”  They all felt strongly that the tattoo image featured in my painting reminded them of their history both in terms of things that were nostalgic but also frightening and in terms of things you just never ever talked about.

- Laura Kina

1 comment:

  1. There have been a number of articles posted on the internet regarding the ancient practice of the tattooing of Okinawan women's hands. In 1968, I was able to view a different type of tattooing that there does not seem to be any record of. I happened to be walking and arrived at a village just north of Henoko, Okinawa. The village was holding a celebration to honor a lady who had just reached the age of 85. I was invited in to the party and placed next to the lady whose birthday it was. Luckily, I was quite fluent in Japanese and was able to talk with her. She told me that there had been a practice to tattoo portraits of Geisha girls on the backs of women and when a woman died, they removed the skin from her back and sold it so the family could have the income. The lady did me the honor of dropping the back of her Kimono so that I could see her back. On her back was a perfectly tattooed picture of a Geisha girl. What I noticed was that even though the lady was 85 years of age, the skin on her back was very smooth and there was no sign of wrinkling on the tattoo and there was a perfectly beautiful picture of a Geisha on her back. I have always thought this was one of the greatest experiences of my life.