Written by Betty Brown
Taiji Terasaki is a Japanese-American artist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. He holds a BFA from UC Irvine; he did graduate work at both Hunter College and Cal State Long Beach. Terasaki’s 2018-2019 work focused on immigration issues. In 2020, he shifted his attention to “Heroes at Borders” and, most recently, the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This March, as Terasaki began sheltering in place, he realized he needed a new art strategy. He downloaded photographs of the heroes of the pandemic, using two different images for each and weaving them together to give them aesthetic impact. Along with the images, he included key words and phrases from his selected heroes.
One woven photograph depicts Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese author and activist Viet Thanh Nguyen. His compelling face is framed by two statements–“Return to the normal is not the answer” and “We only have hope, if we recognize just how difficult the world is”–as well as the words–“Class Inequities” and “Racial Justice” and “Decolonize.” The image is based on an acidic contrast of teal blue and red-orange. The weaving process gives it a scintillating pixilation, thus referring to its source in our digital landscape.
Another powerful weaving depicts transgender speaker/facilitator/strategist Dana Vivien White. He gazes into the future, with one of his statements draped over the left side of his head: “Black folks are working today through a pandemic impacting us disproportionately and persistent police violence. We’re enduring all this and have to show up to work…” The weaving of black, white and gray seems to shimmer with an almost silver tone.
Terasaki posted a woven photograph on Instagram every day for 100 days. The resultant images comprise his “Transcendients: 100 Days of COVID-19” exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in downtown Los Angeles. Because the museum is currently closed (due to the pandemic), Terasaki decided to take his work “to the street” by expanding the photographs to 8′ x 8′ posters and gluing them onto the plywood cover of a large shipping container currently parked in front of the museum. The artist thus developed two alternatives to traditional exhibitions: the Instagram postings for 100 days, and the large posters glued to the wooden sheath covering the container.
On the front of the shipping container (located near the museum entrance) are images of doctors and nurses, including Dr. Nanaefua Afoh-Manin, who “educates on COVID-19” and “Started doctor network for under-insured and un-documented patients.” To the left are two members of Community Feeding Community in Little Tokyo: Kristin Fukushima and James Choi. The way the photographic weaving merges their two faces is quite potent. (I am reminded of Dinh Q Le’s amazing photographic weavings that juxtapose “real” photographs of the Vietnam War with cinematic portrayals.)
Another of Terasaki’s woven photograph honors Jo Ann Hirose, who has worked on community building throughout Little Tokyo. Her text reads: “Embodies ‘giri’ (sense of duty) by feeding the elderly…teaching her daughter through example.” In this case, Hirose’s face is not woven. It remains a single, integrated photograph. In contrast, the background is a brilliant array of woven, textile-like colors cascading rhythmically behind her.
Around the corner of the shipping container is the portrait of Kaytlin Butler, hospital chaplain. She looks off into the distance (towards heaven?) and is clearly inspired. Indeed, inspiration is the ultimate affect of Taiji Terasaki’s “Transcendients: 100 Days of COVID-19.” Looking at and reading about all these heroes moved me deeply. All too often, we allow our personal problems (many of which–let’s be honest–are relatively petty) to obscure our view of humanity. Spending time with Teraksaki’s work forces us to see those parts of our human family who are giving their full measure to heal all of us, and the world we inhabit together.