From left: Artist Laura Kina, curator Krystal Hauseur, and artist Emily Hanako Momohara.
From left: Artist Laura Kina, curator Krystal Hauseur, and artist Emily Hanako Momohara.

The opening of “Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai‘i: The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara” coincided with Free Family Day on July 11 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.

Incorporating paintings by Kina and photographs by Momohara, “Sugar/Islands” is a unique examination of worker migration and settlement from the islands of Okinawa to the islands of Hawaii, prompted by opportunities afforded by the latter’s sugar plantations and pineapple farms during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kina’s “Sugar” and Momohara’s “Islands” series are individual bodies of work grounded in each artist’s own journey to uncover her family history; both examine the complex ways that the past is present in our collective and individual identities.

Kina and Momohara are both fourth-generation, mixed-heritage women with familial roots in Okinawa and Hawaii; as artists, they employ strategies that blend fiction and reality, drawing heavily from obake (ghost) stories, material culture, and oral history to question the stability of memory and identity.

The exhibition, curated by Krystal Hauseur, Ph.D., strives to find alternatives to standard narratives of Asian American history, paying particular attention to the contributions of women laborers.

Kina has exhibited internationally and nationally, including shows at the India Habitat Centre and India International Centre, New Delhi, and Nehuru Art Centre, Mumbai, India; Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum, Naha, Okinawa; Chicago Cultural Center and the Spertus Museum, Chicago; the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.; and the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, Seattle.

Kina’s solo shows include “Blue Hawai‘i” at New Jersey City University’s Harold B. Lemmerman Gallery (2015) and The University of Memphis Martha and Robert Fogelman Galleries of Contemporary Art (2014); “Sugar” at Woman Made Gallery, Chicago (2010); and “Aloha Dreams” (2007) and “Hapa Soap Opera” (2003) at the Diana Lowenstein Gallery, Miami.

Kina was born in California in 1973 and grew up in Poulsbo, Wash. She earned her BFA in painting and drawing in 1994 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and her MFA in studio art in 2001 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is Vincent de Paul Professor of Art, Media and Design at DePaul University, and co-editor, along with Wei Ming Dariotis, of “War Baby/Love Child: Mixed-Race Asian American Art” (University of Washington Press, 2013).

Momohara has exhibited nationally in the U.S., including group shows at the Light Factory in Charlotte, N.C.; Griffin Museum of Photography in Boston; and Houston Center for Photography in Texas. Her solo exhibitions have occurred at the Aaronoff Center for the Arts, Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati (2014); Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. (2012); Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center in Portland (2009); and commercial galleries.

Momohara was awarded artist residencies at several programs, including the Center for Photography at Woodstock, N.Y.; Headlands Center for the Arts in Sausalito; and Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery. Her work “Islands” was reviewed in Photographer’s Forum, Aeqai, PhotoPages, and Art Papers. She has received grants from the Paul Allen Foundation (formerly Vulcan) and the Ohio Art Council.

Momohara grew up outside of Seattle. She earned a BFA in photography and BA in art history from the University of Washington and an MFA in studio art from the University of Kansas. From 2006 to 2013, she served as associate professor of art at the Academy of Cincinnati. She now lives in Shanghai, where she works in her studio full-time.

West Covina Mayor Pro Tem James Toma and his son Cruz Kenzo show off a shiisaa that they made.
West Covina Mayor Pro Tem James Toma and his son Cruz Kenzo show off a shiisaa that they made.

In addition to a talk by Kina, Momohara and Hauseur at the Tateuchi Democracy Forum, the day’s activities included craft stations where families made Okinawan shiisaa, a mythical beast resembling a cross between a dog and a lion, believed to have the power to ward off evil; Okinawan nuchibana leis, originally created for use in a traditional dance and a symbol of love, purity, hope, and remembrance; and, at Ruthie’s Origami Corner, paper kariyushi shirts, the Okinawan version of a Hawaiian aloha shirt.

Ryukyukoku Matsuri Taiko showed kids how to make paranku (hand-held drums).
Ryukyukoku Matsuri Taiko showed kids how to make paranku (hand-held drums).

Visitors sampled saataa andaagii, Okinawan deep-fried pastries, and learned to draw a pair of shiisaa in a drawing workshop. Okinawa Association of America sponsored a raffle to win special gifts from Okinawa. There was also a Souvenir photo booth provided by Nerdbot.

Crafts included nuchibana leis.
Crafts included nuchibana leis.

Entertainment consisted of live sanshin-minyo (traditional folk songs accompanied by Okinawan banjo) performed by Yuna and Tida; traditional Okinawan dances performed by Tamagusukuryu Kansen-Kai, Yonamine Keiko Ryubu Dojo; Aloha Time Machine, featuring reggae- and blues-influenced ukulele player Jason Arimoto and Afro-Cuban percussionist Brad Ranola; an authentic Okinawan taiko performance by the Los Angeles branch of Ryukukoku Matsuri Daiko; and bluegrass-inspired pop by Okinawan musician Banjo Ai.

“Sugar/Islands” runs through Sept. 6. Gallery hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 12 to 8 p.m. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit

Photos by J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

Banjo Ai performed
Banjo Ai performed bluegrass-inspired pop.

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