Anne Marie Nakagawa: Difference

by Wendy Stefansson

When I catch up with Anne Marie Nakagawa, she is at the Banff Centre for the Arts, deeply immersed in a three-week-long workshop called “Women in the Director’s Chair.” This residency is intended to develop Nakagawa’s skills as a filmmaker in the area of fictional storytelling for both film and television; a new direction for her in an already varied and accomplished career.

The path that has brought Nakagawa to this point has traversed three continents and several areas of study; not to mention a number of art media. She grew up in Japan, Mexico, Brazil and here in Fairview, Alberta where her mother still lives. Born to a Japanese father and a mother of Irish-Scottish descent, Nakagawa found she was visibly different from the white Canadian mainstream at a time when difference was quick to meet with resistance in rural Alberta. This experience, while difficult, was formative. In describing it Nakagawa quotes Chinese-Canadian poet Fred Wah: “You get to know yourself by what is resisting you.” At the very least one finds out what one is not, reaching an understanding of oneself in contrast to what (or who) is around one. Defining oneself in terms of difference.

Wah is one of seven “hyphenated Canadians” – people of mixed racial backgrounds – whom Nakagawa interviews in Between: Living in the Hyphen, a feature-length documentary she wrote and directed for the National Film Board in 2005. In allowing each of the speakers to tell his or her story of being half one race and half another, she arrives at a larger and more universal story of race and identity – of difference – which is also her own story.

Although this work is a documentary, it is not a simple linear narrative. There is no chronology; no beginning, middle and end. In Between, Nakagawa has created something more akin to a cinematic poem – or perhaps a collage – than to journalism. The focus shifts from speaker to speaker, from voice to voice, weaving together fragmented and overlapping narratives to create a bigger story. Throughout, Nakagawa inserts what she describes as “rhythmic flashes of images” which function as illustrations for the stories being told. On another level, Nakagawa uses her craft as a filmmaker to add her own visual interpretation. For example, when each speaker is first introduced, he/she is shown in black and white as if to deliberately obscure the colour of his/her skin – to erase considerations of race – by showing all of them in the same neutral grey against a (significantly) white background. Faces appear y halves, the other halves invisible off screen. Alternatively, the face of speaker Shannon Waters is repeated a number of times receding into the blue distance, each image less recognizable than the last. This cinematic multiplication and division echoes the speakers’stories of half-ness and of distortion, of being repeatedly misunderstood. At other times, speakers have photographs of their families or of their childhood selves projected over their present-day faces, inescapably foregrounding their backgrounds. The entire film is framed, opening and closing, with an image of Wah standing in the narrow space between two windowless brick walls. It is the kind of space found in every downtown between commercial buildings; the kind of space in which trash collects and sometimes the homeless take shelter. A place between.

Because of Nakagawa’s background in the visual arts – she studied for a year at the Parsons School of Design, for two years at Grande Prairie Regional College, and received her Masters degree in Fine Arts from the University of Calgary in 1999 – she was sensitive to the aesthetics of Between. She controlled the lighting, composition and colour temperatures, just like a painter would in his or her work. But the theme developed out of her personal background, not her artistic one.

This theme is one that Nakagawa was already beginning to develop in Omukai: Facing the Window Seat, a 5-minute video art piece which she made in 2000. In it, images of a woman walking away from us through a Japanese airport trailing a wheeled suitcase flash (literally) from dark to light, negative to positive; at all times grainy and sometimes difficult to discern. The effect is one of ambivalence. The images are of relocation or of travel; of being between places.

In other work, particularly in her work from the 1990’s, Nakagawa’s concerns with difference, identity and inequality manifest themselves centrally in works about women’s issues. Much of it is unapologetically feminist in both content and form, because just as “identity is very relative to where you come from,” she explains, “Gender is too. Being a woman in Canada is very different
from being a woman in Japan.”

In Strip Mall Tease, an 8 1/2 minute video from 2001, Nakagawa collages together footage of women’s legs as they walk (bodiless, faceless, without identity except for what their shoes communicate) through a shopping mall in Japan. The seductiveness of both footwear and wearer – particularly of one woman in a pair of knee-high black platform boots – contrasts with the bright, shiny (but similarly anonymous) surfaces of floor, wall, escalator. Set to a soundtrack of ambient mall noise including announcements in Japanese, the piece takes on – for an English-speaking audience – a further degree of anonymity, or maybe impenetrability. Except that, being female, the wearers are eminently – perhaps definitively – penetrable. The images speak to an inherent irony in the action of a woman purchasing consumer goods which will in turn make her an object of desire.

In Packaged, a 1999 installation work, Nakagawa makes the connection between our culture’s fetishism surrounding feet and shoes – using Barbie shoes as a stand-in for all high heels – and the long-held custom of binding young girls’ feet in former times in China. She concludes that stilettos and binding cloths serve essentially the same function, that of packaging female beauty for the enjoyment of a male audience. Nakagawa elaborates on this idea by rolling, wrapping, twisting and binding 1200 individual plastic shopping bags with thread. She then displays these miniature sculptures in a grid on a gallery wall, each of them with Barbie shoes perched on top. The bags themselves, manufactured to contain consumer items, are empty, their contents long forgotten. Packaged draws a parallel between those consumer objects and women, each packaged for purposes of consumption.

Barbie-style fashion dolls figure prominently in a series of found object assemblages from this period, signifying unachievable ideals which have subsumed more realistic, complex and inclusive concepts of the female in western society. In Projection (1999), the fashion doll works culminate in a dual channel video installation, one of Nakagawa’s first forays into the filmic. She creates two four-minute videos, both of which depict women, girls and objects which represent them. One of the videos depicts real people while the other depicts images of women interpreted to suit male fantasies, including images of fashion dolls. Because the two videos are screened on opposing walls, viewers are required to make a choice. Whether they choose to view the “idealized” images or the reality-based ones, they cannot view women from both perspectives at once. The contrast
between the two videos illustrates the position in which many women find themselves; confronted with their own difference from the so-called ideal, and stuck between two unsatisfactory options.

Nakagawa explains she has, “always thought of herself as a cultural anthropologist, taking artifacts from our present culture and recombining them to give them different meanings.” This applies equally to her early assemblage work and her later collage-like video and film. She looks at culture – here, in Japan and globally – and sees it through the lens of her own distinctive experience, informed by her background and an abiding sense of her own difference.

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