The Art of Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani tells a store of displacement, hardship, and endurance

Robin Laurence
02/15/2011

A story of displacement, hardship, and endurance is told through a small exhibition of outsider art by Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani. Born in Sacramento, California, in 1920 and raised from the age of four in Hiroshima, Japan, Mirikitani had only briefly returned to the United States when war broke out between the two countries. In 1942, he was incarcerated, along with thousands of other Americans of Japanese descent, in a harsh and desolate internment camp in northern California. During the decades following the war, Mirikitani worked in a factory and then as a cook, before landing, jobless and homeless, on the streets of New York City. There, he hung on by dwelling in parks, sheltering under awnings, and selling his vivid drawings to passers-by.

Mostly executed in coloured pencil and ballpoint pen on cheap paper, these works reflect Mirikitani’s early training in traditional Japanese brush painting. To this paradoxical practice (could any drawing tool be further removed from the soft Asian ink brush than a ballpoint pen?), he has brought a distinctive, almost childlike vision. Unlike the legions of fake folk artists whose “outsider” status is more style than substance, Mirikitani has lived in a truly marginalized condition. Among the subjects his art compulsively revisits are the Tule Lake camp where he was interned and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which he symbolizes by depicting the Genbaku Dome in roiling red flames, tiny bodies scattered around it.

Left in its skeletal condition, that iconic building—the only structure that remained standing near the blast’s epicentre—has long served as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. In Mirikitani’s work, it persists as a symbol of unforgivable atrocity. Most of his mother’s family perished in the bombing. Curiously, after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, not far from the park where he was living at the time, Mirikitani began to analogize the two events in his art, depicting the Twin Towers engulfed in a Hiroshima-style conflagration. It’s in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, perhaps, that he sees society’s tendency, at times of war, to direct fear and hatred towards visible minorities.

Such aspects of the artist’s life and work are explored in Linda Hattendorf’s documentary film, The Cats of Mirikitani, which is showing periodically in the gallery (go to www.jcnm.ca/ for information). The title of the film takes its name from another favourite subject of the artist: domestic cats, posed contentedly with shy kittens or big, flamboyant fish. Here is the flip side of Mirikitani’s angry and grieving vision: cheerful drawings focused on the beauty of the natural world and including crouching tigers, exotic fruit, and flowers. Much ore than the Tule Lake and Hiroshima drawings, these images seem to emerge from Mirikitani’s grounding in brush painting.

It’s the raw work, without the template of tradition, that conveys Mirikitani’s prolonged feelings of horror, anger, and injustice, feelings only recently redressed, owing largely to Hattendorf’s intervention. After the World Trade Center collapse, the New York filmmaker took Mirikitani into her own home, sought welfare and restitution for him, tracked down the sister he had not seen since his internment, and arranged for permanent social housing for him. Her film serves as a wonderful companion piece to this highly engaging show.