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Latin American art with Japanese roots

By Roger Hamilton

The Japanese immigrants who swept into Latin America at the turn of the 20th century were no different than those of other origins. Poor, out of opportunities and often out of luck, they saw the Americas as a land of hope and opportunity.

Most of the newcomers were farmers, and they were content to work on plantations, first in Peru, and then in other countries, primarily Brazil. Many hoped that after a few years they could return to their homeland. Most remained.

Today, while many Japanese have stayed close to the land, others have permeated every sphere of society in their adopted countries. They have become bankers, businessmen, politicians, scientists, academics, writers. And many have also left an indelible stamp on Latin America’s cultural landscape.

Nikkei–Latin American Artists of the 20th Century,” a new exhibit at the IDB Cultural Center Art Gallery, showcases the works of 10 Latin American artists of Japanese descent from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Peru. The exhibit is being held in conjunction with this year’s IDB Annual Meeting, which will take place in Okinawa, Japan, in April. The exhibit will run through April 29.

The coming of age of the first generation of Japanese immigrants coincided with the arrival of abstractionism in Latin America, French Tachism and lyric abstraction, U.S. action painting, French and Spanish informalism, and other trends. In Latin America, artists of Japanese descent, drawing on their own traditional aesthetic culture of abstraction and the primacy of surfaces such as screens and scrolls in their artistic expression, absorbed these new trends naturally. In fact, many of the first recognized artists of Japanese descent in Latin America were abstractionists.

Although making a new life in a new land is never easy, the Japanese quickly made a notable mark. “As far as the arts are concerned,” said Félix Ángel, curator of the IDB Cultural Center, “this story is indeed a successful one, with plenty of achievements to celebrate.”

The works in the exhibit were chosen from the collections of the IDB, the Organization of American States’ Art Museum of the Americas and the Mexican Cultural Institute. Several were loaned from the artists themselves.