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Immediately after the devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, artist Ken Okiishi’s grandfather unloaded all traces of the family’s Japanese possessions by dumping them into Māmala Bay. His rash decision came after receiving a frantic phone call from his brother, whose house had just been searched by the Honolulu police looking for connections to Japan.

This leitmotif of American identity formation is interwoven in an art exhibit, Ken Okiishi: A Model Childhood, on display at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Art Gallery. Okiishi meditates on the fraught legacy of Japanese-American history and the model minority myth in the larger contexts of American, global and continuously rewritten fragments of Asian-American history.

Japanese doll display
A photograph from 1940 of Okiishi’s father as an infant, posed amid 50 Japanese dolls depicting the life of a warrior. (Courtesy of Ken Okiishi)

The exhibition features videos and photographs which include a display of Okiishi’s childhood belongings (1978–2001), meticulously archived by his parents, who had settled in the university town of Ames, Iowa in the late 1950s; a video of the ruins of a concentration camp in Delta, Utah; and a large banner made from a Boys’ Day photograph from 1940—Okiishi’s father as an infant, posed amid 50 Japanese dolls which were thrown into the ocean a year later upon the threat of internment.

“Everyone suffers from this history that has never been properly worked through and it continues to be played out on the faces and bodies of all Asian Americans up to and including in the present,” Okiishi said about the works. “Visiting the site that was held over my father’s generation as the threat of non-compliance to strict and narrow parameters of being a good American, in the most violent form of that idea, punctured the fiction of power in the political moment when its real possibility of reinvigorated methods was becoming all too real in that inescapable sense of knowing but unable to do anything other than witness and survive.”

The exhibit curated by Maika Pollack, director and chief curator at the UH art museum, is on display through May 5, 2022.

Admission and event information

Ken Okiishi: A Model Childhood is free and open to the public, Sunday–Thursday, noon–4 p.m. Parking is free for the exhibit on Sundays.

Due to efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, masks and social distancing are required for entry. Check this link for the latest on visitor requirements during the pandemic.

Additional information can be found at the UH Mānoa Department of Art and Art History website.

This event is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

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