BY PAUL GESSELL
Shortly after the Japanese air force bombed the American port of Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, Vancouver City Council passed a resolution demanding that all Japanese-Canadians, even the ones born here, should be removed from the Pacific Coast.
The federal government agreed and ordered all 22,000 Japanese-Canadians on the West Coast to be moved inland, some to internment camps in the British Columbia interior and some to labour camps on sugar beet farms on the Prairies. Homes, cars, businesses, farms, and fishing boats belonging to Japanese-Canadians were seized, never to be returned.
Ottawa photo-artist, Leslie Hossack, has created an eerie photographic history of that shameful time in Canada’s past. Her body of work – “interpretive photographs,” Hossack calls them — reveals some of the key buildings involved in the “power and persecution” of Japanese-Canadians.
There’s Vancouver City Hall, an RCMP barracks, a huge rural barn turned into apartments for the internees, a Japanese language school, Japanese-Canadian-owned businesses and, perhaps most shockingly, the back of the Livestock Building in Vancouver’s Hastings Park.
Concerning the latter — about 3,100 Japanese-Canadian women and children were housed in animal stalls, still stinking of manure, in this rambling building in 1942, before being shipped eastward. The back of that building is shown in a seven-foot-long photograph in Hossack’s new exhibition, Registered, in the Trinity Art Gallery at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans.
For Hossack, history is not just found in books. It is also found in buildings. And the buildings depicted in Registered contain the DNA of an entire generation of Japanese-Canadians.
“Buildings are an accessible part of our history – we can touch the handrails, climb the stairwells, wander the hallways,” says Hossack.
Hossack specializes in photographs of architecture. Previous bodies of impressive work include Stalinist architecture in Moscow and Nazi architecture in Berlin. Her photographs of the buildings are manipulated to create idealized images as unsettling as an Alex Colville painting. There’s a sense of the hyper-real, hauntingly bathed in a soft light.
“I am drawn to buildings associated with major events of the 20th century,” Hossack says in an artist’s statement. “In fact, my entire body of work is held together by my fascination with monumental architectural structures built to convey status and wield power. I take great interest in researching the history of the locations and the events that I explore, and the written descriptions that I compose form an integral part of my artistic practice.
“My photographs are interpretive, not documentary. I am captivated by what an architect creates when putting pencil to paper. My intention is to fashion an image that reveals what I imagine the architect originally designed, minus the chaos and clutter of contemporary life. I feel compelled to deconstruct historic buildings – to take them back to the drawing board.”
Along with the photographs, Registered includes framed copies of Japanese-Canadian registration cards, which internees were forced to carry until 1949, four years after the war’s end. As well, Hossack has framed collections of newspaper clippings from those days about the Japanese-Canadian situation.
Next year, the exhibition will resurface, at dates yet to be set, at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Association in Burnaby, B.C.
Registered continues at the Trinity Gallery in the Shenkman Arts Centre until Sept. 23.