By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
Pale raindrops fall on a cat and a fox, wearing pale pink masks, extending their long arms in friendship in an image created by artist Masako Miki. The whimsical painting is a reminder of social distancing and adorns a doorway in Oakland.
In Asian American neighborhoods such as Little Tokyo, public art adds to the cultural richness of its historic setting. Oakland’s Chinatown is no exception. In shop windows and storefronts, posters of Miki’s pen-and-ink illustrations of animals remind visitors to wear their masks. QR codes invite people to explore the area’s restaurants and shops.
The artwork was commissioned as part of California’s “Your Actions Save Lives” campaign, which provides Californians with information about how to do their part to stop the spread of COVID-19. The initiative is designed to raise awareness of critical actions Californians have taken to help stop the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing a mask, washing hands, physical distancing, and getting vaccinated.
“I designed posters that are uplifting and positive of animals respecting and protecting each other,” Miki said in an interview with The Rafu Shimpo. “Make it fun and make it about exploration because they have to look for these posters. Many businesses had to close, so by looking at these posters they physically have to visit Chinatown again.”
Jessica Chen, executive director of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, said local merchants welcome the artwork and its hopeful message. Locations of Miki’s artwork include Alice Street Bakery, Gateway Bank and Sweetheart Café and Tea.
“Oakland’s Chinatown, a linchpin of the Asian community with many family-owned businesses, welcomes the emerging local arts community,” said Chen. “Our merchants enthusiastically embrace this beautiful display of art that infuses our community with empowering messages of hope and support for one another.”
Miki, a longtime Berkeley resident, is originally from Osaka. Inspired by Shinto’s animism, Miki is interested in crafting new mythologies concerning cultural identity as social collectives. Her immersive felt sculptural installations and detailed works on paper have been exhibited in the U.S., Japan and China, including at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, and at the de Young Museum and the Fused Project in San Francisco, among others. She has been a resident artist at Facebook HQ, and was artist-in-residence in Kamiyama, Tokushima Prefecture.
When she first came to the U.S. more than 25 years ago, Miki had difficulty communicating in English and described deep loneliness. She found herself through art.
“I started to take art classes, I made friends because I made art. That was a big event for me, they don’t care that I speak bad or broken English. I could draw and we just talked about pencils and paper,” Miki said.
“Since then art is my communication tool, the visual language is a universal language.”
This time of pandemic has been a time of reflection on issues of societal racism, inequality and injustice. Miki emphasized that the role of an artist is to communicate and explore issues of identity, both as an individual and as a community. As examples, she pointed to problems of police brutality, the murder of George Floyd and the rise in anti-Asian violence.
“To me it’s a testing time to revisit and rethink about who we are,” Miki said. “This is a dialogue that takes a long time, because it means we have to revisit the histories and have to face something very unpleasant in order to move forward to create an equal and better society.”
Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) will be showcasing Miki’s Chinatown work, “Benevolent Animals, Dangerous Animals,” in conjunction with their reopening, starting on Friday. The art will be on display in a space located within the Lower Level hallway, just outside OMCA’s Lecture Hall. It is a non-ticked space, free and accessible to the public during the museum’s open hours. For more information, call 510-318-8400 or visit https://museumca.org.
Images courtesy of Masako Miki