Kenzi Shiokava presented his works in the JANM exhibition “Transpacific Borderlands” in 2017. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo

The Japanese American National Museum posted the following notice on June 23:

“We are saddened by the recent passing of artist Kenzi Shiokava (Aug. 29, 1938-June 18, 2021). Kenzi Shiokava was born 1938 in São Paulo, Brazil and arrived in Los Angeles in 1964.

“He was heavily influenced by the work of his art school peers, who included such noted assemblage artists as John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar. His work, which revolves around wood carving and assemblage, embodies a cultural hybridity that can be seen in his wood and macramé totems, which represent, respectively, his Japanese and Brazilian sides.

“Shiokava received the Mohn Award for public recognition for his participation in the Hammer Museum’s ‘Made in LA 2016: a, the, though, only.’

“Kenzi Shiokava was featured in JANM’s exhibition ‘Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.’ You can watch a short film about him on our YouTube, produced in conjunction with the exhibition in 2017 by JANM’s Watase Media Arts Center.”

The link to the film:

Film producer Claudia Sobral posted, “So sad to learn about the passing of my friend and amazing artist Kenzi Shiokava. Our paths first crossed at the Japanese American National Museum’s exhibition in 2017, ‘Transpacific Borderlands: The Art of Japanese Diaspora in Lima, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and São Paulo.’ Japanese-American-Brazilian all in one and more. A philosopher, a lover of life, a sculpture master. And a dancer like no one I knew! Descansa em Paz amigo.”

Shiokava’s work revolved around two very different sculptural forms, wood carving and assemblage. His elegantly carved totems and his staged groupings of plastic figurines offer a stark contrast in materials and methods. While wood carving is as old as the human species itself, assemblage is a form squarely rooted in the history of the 20th century. Together each tradition bookends an art historical narrative, whose opposing poles are the sacred and the profane.

Above and below: Kenzi Shiokava’s works in “Made in L.A. 2016: a, the, though, only,” 2016, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. (Photos by Brian Forrest)

Born in Brazil, Shiokava was ethnically Japanese. His parents were among thousands of immigrant families fleeing severe economic hardship in the early 20th century. Over the course of three generations, beginning with the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in 1908, there was little if any assimilation. Yet Shiokava’s work embodied a cultural hybridity that is readily played out in the distinction between his wood and macramé totems, which he said represent, respectively, the Japanese and Brazilian sides of himself.

Prompted by his older sister’s move to the area, Shiokava arrived in Los Angeles in 1964. He attended art school in the city, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Chouinard Art Institute (a predecessor of California Institute of the Arts) in 1972 and a master’s degree from Otis Art Institute in 1974.

Among Shiokava’s peers were a notable number of African American artists — including John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, and Betye Saar — all of whom were engaged with assemblage, a practice that by the early 1970s qualified as a Los Angeles tradition.

Found objects were featured in Shiokava’s various types of work, such as the sculptures, reliefs, and totems. His assemblages were often marked by their juxtaposition of natural and industrially produced forms. Featuring plastic cartoon figures — the Hulk, Power Rangers, and Smurfs, to name but a few — the dioramas are a discrete turn away from the natural world, focusing instead on the lowest form of entertainment industry merchandising. But no matter how industrial, these figurines were for Shiokava a form of culture ripe for resuscitation from the places where they were once discarded when tastes changed.

Paying keen attention to their poses, he arranged the figures within various found box forms, crafting ensembles whose costumes, gestures, and expressions, set within an arena and juxtaposed, produce a form of theater. They were restored and reanimated as products of the imagination.

Shiokava was an artist-in-residence at the Watts Towers Art Center for several years, and his work was exhibited at the space in a group exhibition in 2012.

A memorial was held on July 23 at Holy Family Church in South Pasadena. To see the service online, go to:

In lieu of flowers, the family requests “in memoriam” donations to Watts Towers Art Center, 1727 E. 107th St., Los Angeles, CA 90002-3621. Email or donate online at:

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