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JANM’s Media Arts Center Spotlight

“There are so many wonderful stories waiting to be told. Just like the ‘junk’ in your parent’s garage that might really be an artifact that could be at home in JANM’s collection, families don’t always realize how valuable and interesting their own stories are. For MAC, we try to capture and preserve these stories to share with new audiences.”

— Evan Kodani, MAC team member

The Frank H. Watase Media Arts Center at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) has been nominated for an LA-area Emmy Award for its recent feature documentary, Masters of Modern Design, which was a co-production with KCET for the series ARTBOUND. Tune in to the award show here on July 18 from 7 p.m.–8:30 p.m. PT.

Masters of Modern Design is just one of many projects, however, by the Watase Media Arts Center (MAC) at JANM, which has been producing community-based media about the Japanese American community since the 1990s. “The Center was founded in the 1990s by renowned Asian American filmmaker Bob Nakamura and Karen Ishizuka in their garage in Culver City during the 1990s,” says MAC director Akira Boch. Nakamura had a long career in community media; gaining recognition for documentary films that he made in the 1970s about the Asian American experience, co-founding Visual Communications—the first community-based Asian American media arts organization—and also founding the UCLA Center for EthnoCommunications in 1996. Nakamura and his production partner Karen Ishizuka then went on to jointly build a media arts center into the architectural plans for a new JANM building in 1999. The mission of the center, now MAC, is to “promote thoughtful exploration, understanding and appreciation of America’s pluralistic society through an innovative program of media documentation and preservation, production, and presentation.”

Over the years, that mission has taken the form many projects that include support for numerous JANM exhibitions as well as stand-alone documentary pieces. Evan Kodani, who has been on the MAC filmmaking team since 2010, notes just how expansive that range of work has been in his own experience—interviewing Stan Sakai for the exhibition Year of the Rabbit: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, heading out to document annual pilgrimages to WWII incarceration camps, and editing fun shorts like Drawing the Line (2011).

Masters of Modern Design was a unique project for all members of the MAC team. It gave them the rare chance to delve into a longform documentary film. And this is the piece that is now up for an LA-area Emmy Award. It explores how being incarcerated in America’s concentration camps during WWII impacted the lives and work of five highly influential Japanese American artists and designers—Ruth Asawa, George Nakashima, Isamu Noguchi, S. Neil Fujita and Gyo Obata. “I loved working on Masters of Modern Design,” says Yuka Murakami, a member of the MAC filmmaking team. “The subjects are all artists and I love their works, and it felt important to share that they all faced racial and gender discrimination throughout their lives yet were not limited by them.” Instead, it shaped both their lives and art in ways that defined their entire careers and the history of post-war American art and design as a whole.

The impression it leaves is lasting and it is gaining recognition now for that—though it is not the first MAC piece to be recognized in this way. Toyo Miyatake: Infinite Shades of Gray (2001), a film on the Issei photographer Toyo Miyatake who took photos inside the Manzanar incarceration camp was screened at Sundance and nationally on PBS, and 9066 to 9/11 (2004), which drew parallels between the treatment of Japanese Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the treatment of Arab Americans and Muslims after 9/11, is still used in universities and other forms to discuss discrimination against minority communities in the US. The latter of these is an example of how MAC has sought to not only preserve and inspire the Japanese American community but to promote solidarity and highlight the struggles of other American communities as well. And it continues on.

MAC’s work is affected by the health crisis like many other organizations, but due to the largely digital nature of its work, its three team members remain optimistic that they will be continue on even if it means getting creative with conducting interviews and sharing their work virtually. In the past few months alone, MAC has begun to stream live discussions about their works via Zoom and support more virtual JANM programming. Take a moment to check out Masters of Modern Design on YouTube as well as other staff picks below from MAC’s treasure trove of past work, and tune in to the LA-area Emmy awards on July 18 from 7 p.m.–8:30 p.m. PT!

MAC Staff Picks:

Our Man in Tokyo (The Ballad of Shin Miyata) is a short documentary that was shot in both Tokyo and Los Angeles, and allowed me to go deeply into a subject that I’ve loved for a long time -- the East Los Angeles music scene. — recommended by Akira Boch

Drawing the Line. A series of short artist profiles of Japanese American artists whose paths were strongly shaped by the zeitgeist following World War II. — recommended by Evan Kodani

Madame Fujima Kansuma. The third film included in the 2020 JANM Digital Film Festival details the life of Japanese American kabuki dancer and teacher Fujima Kansuma. —recommended by Yuka Murakami


* Update 7/20/20 - Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese American Experience, was awarded the Los Angeles Area Emmy for the Arts in an online presentation on Saturday, July 18. Read the full announcement here.


© 2020 Kimiko Medlock

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