“Paper Borders: Emma Nishimura and Tahir Carl Karmali,” a two-person exhibition at International Print Center New York (IPCNY), provided a lucid, penetrating look at experiences of displacement and migration by two artists whose work is steeped in the performance and rituals of hand papermaking.
Emma Nishimura’s work explores the history and consequences of the internment of Japanese Canadians (including her paternal grandparents) during World War II. Situated close to the gallery entrance, Nishimura’s Shifting Views (2013) evoked a foreboding silhouette of the mountains that bore witness to the imprisonment of Japanese Canadians in the British Columbia interior. Standing sentry in a soil-filled wooden trough, hundreds of dark reeds were covered to varying degrees with trimmed, folded, archival pigment prints on gampi paper in deepening shades of gray, white, and black. The simple act of walking around animated this exceptional piece, luring viewers with an inconstant, flickering light.
For Constructed Narratives (2013–ongoing), Nishimura transfigures text—excerpted from transcripts of interviews she conducted with different generations of Japanese Canadians, along with academic texts and novels—into etchings that, from afar, “read” as literal maps of the British Columbia interior.1 Geographical features arduously rendered by hand are deliberately presented in typeface too small to fully comprehend, even with a magnifying glass. A similar process guides her Collected Stories (2017–ongoing) into images of objects hidden in furoshiki, a
traditional Japanese wrapping cloth. Confronted by the overlapping, interlineated text, and frustrated by the fragmented accounts, viewers were left bewildered in recognition of the countless stories that remain unspoken, even within families. Likewise, An Archive of Rememory (2016–ongoing) provides only brief glimpses at family photographs that include those taken during the internment. For this exhibition, Nishimura included 275 furoshiki chosen from a collection that now numbers over 450. She began the series following a sculptural-paper workshop held at Paperhouse, located in Toronto.2 The works are photoetching and photogravure on wet sheets of flax and abaca that Nishimura tied around bundles of sand. Once dried, shrunk, and hardened, she cut the bottoms to allow the sand to drain. These hollow bundles can no longer be untied, lest they be destroyed.
Karmali’s papermaking is permeated by the relics that survived his family’s migration from India to Kenya before World War I, and informed by his own recent relocation to New York from Nairobi. He portrays the “filtration” that occurs at borders, where the screening process itself is governed by papers.3 Invoking applicants’ dependence on copy machines, he works with cotton pulped from photocopied government-issued identification documents and other commercial paper. Karmali thus elevates the official paperwork, acknowledging their “power to ‘save or claim lives, liberate or incarcerate, speed or derail passage through ports of entry.’”4
His sheets (23 x 13 inches) are marked by rust transfer, aluminum, mesh, string, and other media, and scarred by indentations and torn edges. Several unbound folios composed an archetypal mountain for PAPER:landscape (2017) while dense layers, forming a large collection, forged an imposing wall in PAPER:work (2016–ongoing).
Karmali staged his latest PAPER:screening (2017/2019) as an on-site performance and installation, shredding immigration forms and passing the pulp along the length of approximately twenty-five feet of aluminum mesh before suspending the entire screen to dry in the gallery. The results were buoyant—floating topographical maps or, even, passing clouds—with the screen acting as scaffolding. The imprint of several fingers in one pulpy mass marks the presence of its maker. Directly opposite, a dark mood reigned in Blood at the Border I (2018), where crimson flames patrolled a stark border, melting into the inky black treads that cut a dramatic angle.
Visitors benefitted from the thoughtful and dynamic presentation of the artworks as well as two well-attended public programs. “History as Matrix” featured Nishimura and Karmali in insightful conversation led by Regine Basha, Senior Program Associate, Civitella Ranieri Foundation. “Blending Stories”—a papermaking workshop led by Karmali, a self-taught hand papermaker—guided participants through the experience of creating artworks with personally sourced materials. For additional context, the exhibition catalogue features further reading selections from both artists.
Kelly Baum, the Cynthia Hazen Polsky and Leon Polsky Curator of Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, authored the catalogue’s compelling essay. Baum eloquently expounded upon the artists’ keen awareness of “the correlation between power and precarity”—the latter a term derived from “precarious” that “now designates a specific class of global citizenry: people subject to extreme forms of political, physical, and socio-economic uncertainty.”5 Staged at a time of intensifying nationalism and xenophobia around the world, this consequential exhibition brings into sharp focus the need to bear witness to deeply felt experiences of displacement and migration, with handmade paper an apt medium.
1. Nishimura provided her list of sources to IPCNY visitors, including, among others, Ken Adachi, The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1976) and Joy Kogawa, Obasan (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1981).
2. Emma Nishimura, from “History as Matrix,” a public program with Nishimura and Tahir Carl Karmali, in conversation with Regine Basha, hosted by IPCNY, October 26, 2019.
3. Tahir Carl Karmali, from “History as Matrix,” a public program with Karmali and Emma Nishimura, in conversation with Regine Basha, hosted by IPCNY, October 26, 2019. Karmali’s comparison is similar to Valeria Luiselli’s reference to “the legal system [as] a [movie] screen, itself too worn out, too filthy and tattered to allow any clarity, any attention to detail. Stories often become generalized, distorted, appear out of focus.” Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017), 11.
4. Karl E. Meyer, “The Curious Life of the Lowly Passport” (2009), as quoted in Nicholas A. Basbanes, On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 157.
5. Hal Foster, “Towards a Grammar of Emergency” (2011) and Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), as quoted in Kelly Baum, “Paper/Papers,” in Paper Borders: Emma Nishimura and Tahir Carl Karmali (New York: IPCNY, 2019), 15.