Silverton artist Tsuneko Kokubo (center) stands in front of one of her paintings featured at the Kootenay Gallery of Art. Gallery executive director Val Field (left) and gallery curator Maggie Shirley (right) were also on hand at the opening of two new exhibits Friday night.

New Kootenay Gallery of Art exhibitions explore migration

Plant Memory and High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese opened this week at the Kootenay Gallery of Art in Castlegar.

“I hope the paintings will speak to you — so I don’t have to speak,” was how Silverton artist Tsuneko Kokubo introduced her exhibit Plant Memory at the Kootenay Gallery of Art Friday night. The exhibit is one of two new exhibits at the gallery reflecting on Asian migration and settlement in Canada.

Eighty-year-old Kokubo was luminous in a kimono that was as old as herself, and humorous in the way she shared some of the stories behind her paintings. Interwoven within the vibrant greens of her plant-focused paintings are faces of people from Kokubo’s life or people who have impacted the vegetation of the area including her mother — who Kokubo affectionately referred to as her empress, and descendants of the man responsible for introducing dandelions to the area.

Kokubo has an understanding of the ups and downs of the immigrant experience, her family spent time in the internment camps of the Slocan Valley.

“They have similarities and differences — they are both about migration stories,” said gallery curator Maggie Shirley when introducing the two exhibits. “Even though China and Japan are very different countries with different different cultures, there is overlap in the experiences of the people who came to Canada. Experiences of racism and resettlement and their fight for acceptance and justice in Canadian society.”

Plant Memory represents the Japanese side of that equation, and High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese, represents the Chinese side. The second exhibit was created by a collective of artists led by Nicola Harwood. It is harder to describe, as the project is not really something that can be contained within a gallery.

The group of artists — Fred Wah, Jin Zhang, Thomas Loh, Bessie Wapp, Nicola Harwood, Tomoyo Ihaya Phillip Djwa, Hiromoto Ida and Patrice Leung — originally came together to explore the idea of putting together a project inspired by Nelson’s China town.

What resulted was an interactive media installation which is just a shadowing of the many-faceted website that became the culmination of the project. Highmuckamuck.ca in an interactive journey featuring visual art, poetry, oral histories, original music compositions and short videos exploring the theme of Chinese immigration to British Columbia in both historical and contemporary terms.

“While these are stories of the past, they are also stories of the present,” concluded Shirley. “Kokubo’s analogy of plants is so appropriate. When you think of the language — native species and invasive species — that is a good analogy about how at times we have talked about certain immigrants to our country. Some plants … are invasive species, but there are a lot of plants that immigrants have brought that are symbiotic to the ecosystem. If we applied that to people as well — that is a really important lesson.”

Both exhibits will remain open until April 15.