When Michelle Kumata was originally approached by Lele Barnett and Tamar Benzikry with Meta Open Arts, it was to create a mural for its Bellevue offices. What Kumata saw as an opportunity to help the employees learn more about the history of the area, and provide a different perspective on where they work, has since grown into “Emerging Radiance: Honoring the Nikkei Farmers of Bellevue,” an immersive mural experience at Bellevue Arts Museum that runs through March 13.
“I knew that a lot of that property and land that includes downtown Bellevue used to be Japanese American farmland that was owned or leased before World War II,” said Kumata, a former graphic artist for The Seattle Times. “So I wanted to create a work that was site specific and reference the farmers and their stories because a lot of people don’t know that.”
Benzikry, curator and producer at Meta Open Arts, said the decision to move Kumata’s work from internally facing and bring it to the public was an intentional gesture. Meta Open Arts, previously Facebook Open Arts, aims to cultivate creative projects that empower and engage communities. With February marking the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which saw the removal and incarceration of thousands of Nikkei (Japanese emigrants and their descendants), Benzikry saw this as a way to both raise awareness about the lesser-known history of Japanese Americans in their community and recognize the legacy of their descendants, many of whom still live in Bellevue.
The handbuilt farmhouse is painted with large portraits in brilliant colors on all sides, representing nine untold stories of Japanese American farmers who lived in Bellevue from 1920 to 1942. Kumata used vibrant yellow and gold for the faces, allowing the farmers to almost glow against their dark backdrop while also representing the racism and discrimination faced by Japanese Americans based on their skin color.
“I feel like it’s really important that we embrace being yellow people and be proud of being unique and understand that yellow is beautiful,” said Kumata, recalling a young woman who approached her and told a story of being told that she should use a yellow crayon instead of a “flesh tone” crayon as a child. “I think, through my explaining the symbolism and how we can take that back and empower ourselves, it was really helpful for her to see it that way.”
Alongside the portraits are illustrations of cranes that are accompanied by QR codes that turn the farmhouse into an immersive experience.
As a way to highlight the role that art and technology can play together to reflect on the past and influence the future, Benzikry saw an opportunity to add augmented reality to Kumata’s already powerful work. By scanning the QR codes with their smartphones, visitors can see on their screens the stories of three of the farmers — Tosh Ito, Rae Matsuoka Takekawa and Mitsuko Hashiguchi — brought to life. To create the augmented-reality components, Kumata worked with immersive experience company Invisible Thread and creative director Tani Ikeda.
“I started this project as one artist painting a mural, and now it’s grown to, I think there’s over 30 people involved in this project,” said Kumata. “There’s all these people that are bringing their different skills to this project to help bring it to life.”
Through a partnership with nearly a dozen organizations, including the use of Densho archives of testimonies of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II, “Emerging Radiance” is able to feature animated artwork as well as the actual voices from three of the individuals featured. This effect invites attendees to feel truly connected with the work, reflecting on the 60 families that lived and worked in Bellevue before their forced incarceration during the war.
“It’s almost like this intimate experience where someone is personally telling you their story,” Kumata explained. “The crops are growing around them, there are cranes flying through. It’s this kind of dreamy, beautiful piece, but it’s giving people insight into the history of these people, which is not that beautiful.”
In addition to “Emerging Radiance,” Kumata’s work is also being represented in a more personal exhibit at the Bonfire Gallery through March 26. Her paintings, also commemorating the 80th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, reflect more intimately on her own family’s legacy and her parents who were born in the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho.
“I was just thinking about the legacy of incarceration, because they don’t have memories from camp because they’re too young,” Kumata said. “Then my grandparents didn’t really share any stories about camp. And I know that’s similar for a lot of younger generation Japanese Americans where no one told them what happened or even that they were incarcerated or anything.”
Kumata sent out a survey to Japanese Americans of different ages and generations to see what stories were shared with them and to examine the legacy of the incarceration. That effort to engage in exhibitions that are community driven, creating art for a larger cause and community, is what makes Kumata stand out in Benzikry’s mind.
“It takes a really special artist and a really incredible person to take on the project of telling someone else’s story, let alone a community story, let alone a difficult history that has implications today,” Benzikry said. “For an artist to take that and then be able to do it in such a thoughtful, care-infused, collaborative ‘with and for the community’ sort of way is truly remarkable.”
As Kumata reflected on her exhibit at Bellevue Arts Museum, she said she hopes people are able to view her work and put themselves in the shoes of those featured. This history, she said, mirrors issues the country is facing today, with the incarceration of migrant children and families in detention centers and the continued rise of hatred against Asians around the country.
“These were 60 families that were forcibly removed and incarcerated and only 12 families returned,” Kumata said. “I’m hoping that people will look back on this history so that we can learn and move forward and be in a better place. It’s not just a Japanese American story or an Asian American story, it’s an American story. I hope people will understand that this affects all of us.”