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Waves From The Past: Retelling the Legacy of Okinawa

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story | Shivani Dayal, Contributing Reporter

photo | Tom White 

Edit: Photo credit has been corrected to Tom White. 


Last month, Art Studio 3 was transformed into a space that introduced visitors to the rich historical and social landscape of a region not much bigger than Singapore itself: Japan’s Okinawa.

This summer, 12 students visited the Okinawa Islands in Japan on a week-long Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) programme. They were tasked with portraying Okinawa’s history and culture as outsiders through art. Between Sep. 10 to Sep. 12, 2019, the students held an exhibition titled ‘Our See of Islands’, expressing their interactions with Okinawa’s cultural heritage.

Okinawa’s culture lies in a complicated intersection between history, politics, and art. The small Japanese island is geographically situated between Japan and Taiwan, and is directly accessible by sea from the Philippines. It was invaded by the Satsuma Clan in 1609, annexed by the Japanese in the 1870s, and occupied by the US in 1945-1972.

A major theme of this art exhibition was how we see a country’s history as outsiders. “I think that a big question a lot of us tackled was how do I as an outsider, as a non-speaker of Japanese, let’s say, understand this history and these stories? How do I come back to Singapore and show it to other people?” said LAB participant Monica Kim ’21.

The group’s research and exploration during the lab, led by James Jack, Assistant Professor of Humanities (Visual Arts), and Lawrence Ypil, Lecturer of Humanities (Writing), included meeting with Okinawan artists and activists, visiting museums of both art and history, and listening to talks about how Okinawa’s history has shaped its present culture and art.

Kim said that the participating students visited the Ryukyu archipelago, covering the regions of Naha and Nago in Okinawa. “We were on the move quite a bit and went to a lot of museums and talks,” she recounted. “It was quite a busy LAB.”

The exhibition conveyed the social complexities present in the islanders’ lives today. While highlighting their optimism, the artworks also established art as a force that preserves history, starts movements, and instills hope for those who view them.

The exhibition was a fully immersive experience; with an audio and video project looped in the background, expressive poetry readings on the first day, and the provision of traditional Japanese cuisine such as the Okinawan stir-fry dish ‘Goya Champuru’, sake, wine, and sushi at the opening.

A quick skim of the gallery revealed the use of several kinds of media, including photographs, original poetry in text, watercolor paintings, and audio/video compilations. A free verse poem on display expressed fond memories an islander has of their home in Okinawa through touching imagery. Another artwork with a very personal touch was a series of hand-painted postcards with a story written in the form of a message overleaf.

The photographs ranged in age, creating a startling contrast between pictures of the present-day food and music and gruesome pictures of children during wartime, powerfully demonstrating the locals’ resilience in overcoming their challenging history. A picture of modern ships on the choppy ocean waves accompanied by a poem about the sea, invoking thoughts about how the sea binds our present to our past, and us to the people who came before us.

There were also books of poetry in both Japanese and English on display, carrying with them impressions of the Okinawan culture and recollections of the island’s rich history. Okinawa’s history was previously passed down through oral traditions, including ‘Omoro’, referring to compilations of ancient poems, included in the books displayed.

The experience was woven together by the tune of an Okinawan woman playing the Shamisen in a video projected in the gallery. 

A video also depicted this year’s protests in Okinawa. “Okinawa is a place with a lot of history,” Kim emphasized. “To this day it is still a site with American [military] bases, which has caused a lot of conflict up until now. They’re protesting the building of this new base, this marine base at Henoko Bay.” The protests oppose the construction of a American Military base being relocated to Nago in Okinawa, revealing the impact that Okinawa’s history has had on the sentiments of its people.

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