Nishimura returns for Alumni Masters Week April 4-5

Emma Nishimura
Emma Nishimura

Nishimura returns for Alumni Masters Week April 4-5

calendar icon28 Mar 2024    user iconBy Grace Fitzgibbon, Nebraska Alumni Association

Lincoln, Neb.--Emma Nishimura (M.F.A. 2013) is one of nine alumni named to the 2024 class of Alumni Masters by the Nebraska Alumni Association. She will be on campus April 4-5 and honored at the Nebraska Medallion Dinner. 

Nishimura is an Assistant Professor and the Chair of Photography, Printmaking and Publications at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto. Working with a range of media, including printmaking, photography, sculpture and installation, her research and art practice has focused on the multigenerational legacy of the Japanese Canadian Internment and forced dispersal during the Second World War. 
Nishimura’s work has been widely exhibited internationally at venues including the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, New York’s Print Center, and the Taimiao Art Gallery in Beijing. Her work also is featured in a number of public and private collections, including the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Japanese Canadian National Museum, and the Library of Congress. She earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from UNL in 2013. 

Nebraska Alumni Association writer Grace Fitzgibbon visited with Nishimura about her work. Her story follows.

Family photographs printed onto handmade paper. Paper folded into a little container, a traditional Japanese wrapping called furoshiki. Inside each one, parts of the photos hidden, parts revealed. Some wrappings with no image at all. Toronto-based printmaking, photography, sculpture and installation artist Emma Nishimura’s collection parallels memories passed down through generations. Just as these sculptures can never be undone to see the whole picture, some memories are forever lost to time.

“Navigating the challenges of memory, that's been part of the joy of making art,” Nishimura said. “Through this project, I really want to think about ‘How do we make this a tangible piece? How do we explore that weight and burden of memory, but how do we acknowledge everything that's been lost?’”

For the last 15 years, Nishimura’s work has been about her Japanese Canadian family, from a personal angle as well as including the wider community. Through recording oral histories, she pieces together recollected experiences of internment and forced relocation during the second World War, including the implications and reverberations it has had on subsequent generations. Her art, consisting of text, transcriptions and family photographs, acts as visual prompts for people to tell their own stories, and acknowledges the stories that haven’t and will never be shared.

“Within the Japanese Canadian community, there's a lot of silence associated with the history of internment,” Nishimura said. “My grandparents didn't speak about it very much. My aunt says that when my grandfather would pull out photo albums, he would just say, ‘that's where I worked.’ He would never give any context. There's a lot of shame associated with that time in history. I'm dealing with those memories, but also the huge amount of silence that has gone along with those.”

Her training and how she approaches art is printmaking-based, though she doesn’t feel restrained by that. Nishimura does a lot of etching into copper, printing onto paper, cutting up and reassembling into something else.

“I need to get into the work,” Nishimura said. “I remember printing an image, and it was this flat photograph. It just wasn't enough. I wasn't able to tell all the stories that I wanted to through that piece. It wasn't until I started cutting things up and breaking the image apart, before I could build it back up again, that I felt like I could start to tell the story.”

Because this is a larger narrative explored through multiple pieces, Nishimura revisits as she learns more. A thesis show series she started as a university graduate student was a map of British Columbia that charted areas important to her family history: where her grandmother was interned, where her dad was born right after the war, and where her grandfather was sent to work, plus historical context. Over the years, as she’s shown the piece and talked to people with family who were interned elsewhere, different etchings have been added.

“It's been about starting from what I know, and then trying to build it and grow it larger in a really deeply meaningful way to be more reflective of that larger experience,” Nishimura said.

Her three years at the university’s immersive program allowed her to not only focus solely on her work with financial stability from being an Othmer Fellow, but also cultivated lifelong friendships with peers and faculty.

“I could make artwork that I didn't need to be worried about selling,” Nishimura said. “I didn't need to support myself from it. I was able to create work that I needed to make. That made the work more meaningful. And in the end, much more successful because I was able to just throw everything at the work and I wasn't worried about financial implications. The university gave me those supports through faculty and the structure of the program to support my practice from all kinds of conceptual, technical and moral supports.”

Nishimura has only further nurtured her project since then, winning the 2018 Queen Sonja Print Award — the largest international printmaking award — granting her international exposure and opportunities for exhibitions and speaking about her work. Also, a weeklong residency at a print studio in Sweden, where she made a series of large photo etchings. A couple small sculptures have since evolved into roughly 450 furoshiki. The next steps are community engagement and collecting more photographs to grow the archives — hopefully rising to the heights of furoshiki by the thousands. And now as the chair of photography, printmaking and publications at the Ontario College of Art and Design, she is inspiring the next generation of artists while renewing her interest in her own work.

“I love teaching,” Nishimura said. “I love being around young students and emerging artists and seeing that enthusiasm for learning something new and those moments of excitement when something works. That's a really sustaining and fulfilling part to then bring back to my own practice, that renewed energy and excitement over something that for me maybe doesn't feel exciting anymore.”

For any artist, it’s enlightening hearing others discuss their work. For Nishimura, it’s truly moving. She’s preserving lifetimes in material form.

“Inevitably folks share their stories and their experiences,” Nishimura said. “That's the most meaningful thing for me when that work can resonate so deeply that it's getting people to think about their own family histories or their friends’ families’ histories and what we're all collectively navigating.”