Karin Higa, former senior art curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, died on Tuesday at her home after a battle with cancer. She was 47.
Her husband, Russell Ferguson, an art professor at UCLA, told The Los Angeles Times that she had been diagnosed with cancer in February. Many of her friends and associates were unaware of her illness and expressed shock upon hearing the news of her passing.
Higa was on the JANM staff from 1992 to 2006 and oversaw numerous art exhibitions. She was known for elevating the level of professionalism, helping the museum achieve world-class status. In addition, she was well respected by the wider community for her expansive knowledge and numerous contributions, increasing understanding of Asian American and contemporary art.
“Karin’s passion for preserving and interpreting the art history of Japanese Americans was unparalleled,” said Clement Hanami, JANM art director. “She brought a strong vision and commitment to telling the Japanese American experience in an accurate way. Her drive and diligence made every project we worked on so much richer and made us all better staff.”
Higa’s first major project was “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945,” which opened at the UCLA Wight Art Gallery in 1992. This exhibition brought a greater understanding of the camp experience on two fronts. First, she revealed the skill and quality of Japanese American artists in a way that had never been done before. Secondly, she communicated the feelings and emotions that the World War II experience had on the artists and the creation of their work.
“Karin Higa’s contribution to the life of the Japanese American National Museum and other institutions where she worked is profound,” said Greg Kimura, president and CEO. “Her presence and influence here will never be forgotten. She left a legacy that is now built into our institutional DNA. She has many friends here and will be sorely missed.”
On Facebook, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center posted images from exhibitions that Higa curated and said in a statement, “Today we celebrate the life of Karin Higa, a powerful curator who left her mark at Japanese American National Museum, Hammer Museum and Asia Society, among other institutions. She dedicated her life to making visible Asian American art, and here are some pieces she brought to life through her vibrant career.”
Don Nakanishi, director emeritus of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, remembered Higa as “a pioneering advocate and curator of Asian American art.”
Allison Kochiyama, executive director of the Gardena Valley Japanese Cultural Institute, said, “We will always remember Karin’s strong spirit.”
The Topaz Japanese American Internment Camp Museum called Higa’s death “a terrible loss” and the Manzanar National Historic Site offered its “deepest condolences” to her family and friends.
A native of L.A., Higa earned a B.A. from Columbia University and an M.A. from UCLA, both in art history. Exhibitions that she curated at JANM include a retrospective on artists Bruce and Norman Yonemoto (1999), “Living in Color: The Art of Hideo Date” (2001-2002), a Masumi Hayashi retrospective (2003), “George Nakashima: Nature, Form & Spirit” (2004), and “Living Flowers: Ikebana and Contemporary Art” (2008).
She also co-curated with Melissa Chiu and Susette Min the national traveling exhibition “One Way or Another: Asian American Art Now” (2006-2008) for the Asia Society of New York.
Higa taught at Mills College, UC Irvine, and Otis College of Art and Design, and lectured extensively on Asian American and contemporary art. Her publications include contributions to the International Center for Photography’s “Only Skin Deep” (Abrams, 2003), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s “Reading California: Art, Image, and Identity, 1900-2000” (University of California Press, 2000), “Parallels and Intersections: A Remarkable History of Women Artists in California, 1950-2000” (University of California Press, 2002), and the Hammer Museum’s “Now Dig This! Art & Black Los Angeles” (Delmonico Prestel, 2011).
In the introduction for photographer Andrew Freeman’s book “[Manzanar] Architecture Double” (RAM Publications/Center for Land Use Interpretation, 2006), Higa recalled her own visits to Manzanar as a child: “We knew that something had happened at Manzanar, and despite the absence of barracks, the traces on the ground gave credence to a history that was not part of official narratives of American history. We didn’t learn about Japanese internment at school; we learned about it at home, and it seemed to me, as a child, a secret that Japanese American families kept among themselves. The trips we all took to Manzanar, a vast expanse of nothing, was proof of its elusiveness, as if the government had tried to sweep it all away.”
In September 2012, the Hammer Museum announced that Higa and curator Michael Ned Holte had been selected to curate its biennial, “Made in L.A. 2014.” “Following the terrific success of Made in L.A. 2012, we are very excited to announce our curatorial team for 2014,” Hammer Director Annie Philbin said at the time. “Karin and Michael will bring unique perspectives and rich knowledge of L.A.’s creative landscape to the next biennial. We are thrilled to be working with them and looking very much forward to the summer of 2014.”
Due to her illness, Higa had to withdraw from the project. She was replaced by Connie Butler, chief curator of drawings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and former curator at MOCA in Los Angeles.
At the time of her death, Higa was also a doctoral student at USC’s Department of Art History, working on a dissertation entitled “Little Tokyo, Los Angeles: Japanese American Art and Visual Culture, 1919-1941.”
Her goal was to consider Japanese American artists in Little Tokyo between World War I and II and the art they created, and to surveyed representations of the Japanese body by the dominant culture. By placing representations by and of Japanese Americans into dialogue, she hoped to illuminate the complexity of the interwar period, when Japanese American artists were subject to heightened racism while at the same time creating powerful, influential works of art that have been under-recognized due to the World War II incarceration.
Through close object analysis and attention to historical context, she aimed to reanimate the connections between Japanese American artists and their European and American counterparts to present a nuanced picture of pre-World War II American culture.
In addition to her husband, Higa is survived by her mother, Eileen K. Higa, and brother, Kevin Higa. Services are pending.