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Discoveries From the +LAB

With a crowd looking on, Kuniharu Yoshida demonstrates traditional calligraphy in front of the Japanese American National Museum. Yoshida and artists Susu Attar, Dan Kwong and Tina Takemoto will showcase their work Saturday. (Rudy Espinoza)

In March 2018, Little Tokyo Service Center announced four artists selected for its inaugural +LAB Artist Residency Program in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. These California-based artists were awarded three-month community-based residencies from over 100 applicants and paired with partner organizations, including the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, the Japanese American National Museum, Sustainable Little Tokyo, and Visual Communications.

+LAB will mark the conclusion of the program with a culminating event, where the artists will showcase their projects for the public, from 6 to 8 p.m. this Saturday, July 28, at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, 100 N. Central Ave. (at First Street) in Little Tokyo.

For the past three months, the artists immersed themselves in the Little Tokyo community while living at the historic Daimaru Hotel on First Street North. Guided by the overarching theme of “Community Control and Self-Determination,” they collaborated with their respective partner organizations to promote community engagement and to explore creative placemaking strategies through their artistic practice.

The +LAB Artist Residency Program is funded by a Community Development Investments grant from ArtPlace America. LTSC was one of six organizations selected for the program, which explores how community-based organizations — not previously focused on arts and culture — can make the arts a sustainable part of their work.

As the residency program approached its conclusion, each artist reflected on their experience living and working in Little Tokyo.

Susu Attar, visual artist, Los Angeles Susu Attar’s collaboration with the JACCC has allowed her to explore the shifting boundaries of Little Tokyo over its 130-plus-year history. Attar, a Los Angeles-based multimedia artist who is participating in the inaugural Little Tokyo Service Center +LAB Artist Residency Program, has sought to explore what it means to have conceptual divisions in a crowded city.

Entitled “Conceptualizing Borders,” Attar’s project draws inspiration from the Japanese concept of omotenashi, a sense of pride in anticipating and fulfilling the needs of a guest, and noren, Japanese fabric hung in doorways that serves as both conceptual border and protection.

Attar became interested in noren while walking through Little Tokyo from the Daimaru Hotel to her studio at JACCC. When asked about her interest in noren, Attar explained, “I found it very interesting how they mark the concept of the border, the delineation of the space, but at the same time they’re keeping something protected and cleansing something as you come in.”

Her decision to use noren to map the conceptual boundaries of Little Tokyo was informed by the hospitality she received at the start of the residency program despite considering herself an outsider.

She has felt especially privileged to photograph several residents and paint their portraits. The latter will appear on her noren alongside renderings of archival images. In putting people and places on the noren, Attar hopes to map the relationship between time, space and the Little Tokyo community.

Born in Baghdad and raised in Los Angeles, Susu Attar has felt at home in Little Tokyo since the local show of support for the Southern California Muslim community following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (Rudy Espinoza)

Attar’s relationship with Little Tokyo predates her participation in the residency program. Born in Baghdad and raised in Los Angeles, Attar has long admired the strong sense of community in Little Tokyo. In the wake of 9/11, that admiration grew. She remembers the thoughtfulness of the Japanese American community in making the Southern California Muslim community feel welcome at a time when support and sympathy were scarce. Recalling a vigil held at JANM in support of the Muslim community, Attar expressed gratitude for the solidarity offered by the Japanese American community.

When residents view her noren, she hopes that they will take pride in their community and feel a sense of honor in having been memorialized on these pieces. She hopes visitors will be moved to investigate the significance of the noren and familiarize themselves with the ongoing struggles faced by Little Tokyo as urban renewal and gentrification continue.

Of her time in Little Tokyo, Attar reflected, “I have been automatically welcomed into very intimate space. I think that it’s very generous to be welcomed in that way, and that has made all the difference being here.”

Dan Kwong, performance artist, Los Angeles Dan Kwong has been coming to Little Tokyo since he was a child. His mother, Momo Nagano, worked at the JACCC when it first opened in 1971; and his older sister, Maria Kwong, has been working at JANM for 20 years. Despite these connections, it was not until he participated in the immersive three-month +LAB Artist Residency Program, that Kwong began to see the Little Tokyo community as family.

Kwong, a solo multimedia performance artist for nearly three decades, has been working with JANM for the past three months to develop a performance piece tentatively titled “Tales of Little Tokyo.” To this end, Kwong has conducted informal story-circle gatherings at various sites throughout Little Tokyo to collect personal memories of the neighborhood from seniors and younger generations.

This work has allowed him to get to know close to 55 community members, some of whom he has interviewed multiple times in lengthy sessions consisting of one to eight participants. Kwong conducts these gatherings like interviews with each participant sharing their memories and stories about Little Tokyo and records these interviews for later transcription and transformation.

“Little Tokyo is a precious and vibrant community with over 130 years of history,” said Kwong. “Our stories are at the heart of that history, and collectively they become the voice of our community. This project aspires to give that voice a hearing.”

Dan Kwong has lifelong ties to Little Tokyo and has assembled a collection of personal memories from dozens of people in the neighborhood. (Quincy Surasmith)

According to Kwong, the residency program’s overarching theme of community control and self-determination can be understood as the way in which Little Tokyo stays alive.

“The idea of the future of a community is partly built on the foundation of what it has been and why it is important to protect,” he explained. For Kwong, stories are fundamental to that practice.

His project thus aligns with his previous work in which he has employed performance as a means of negotiating autobiographical materials, family histories and personal histories to talk about social issues related to identity. It will conclude with a staged reading of his theatrical piece at the culminating event. But, he recognizes that his creation will, in his own words, “be a surprise to all of us” given the amount of material he has been sorting and transcribing.

Kwong prefers to think of the finished product as incomplete, a rough sketch of the stories circulating around Little Tokyo. “In contrast to film, live performance means that you are sitting in an intimate space with an actor on stage,” he said. Having grown up hearing his mother’s stories, Kwong appreciates the sense of community made possible by an audience coming together in a single room.

Tina Takemoto, visual artist, Daly City Tina Takemoto is a San Francisco-based artist and scholar whose work focuses on Japanese American identity, sexuality and historical memory through experimental film and video. Her recent work explores the hidden dimensions of same-sex intimacy and queer sexuality in Japanese American wartime history.

For Takemoto, filmmaking and archival research provide powerful forms of creative inquiry and community engagement, and this belief informed her decision to pursue an archival-based project in partnership with Visual Communications.

For the past three months, Takemoto has been working on a multisensory mapping project capturing the transformations of Little Tokyo from 1900 to the present.

“Walking along the sidewalk of East First Street, I was struck by the inscriptions commemorating the early decades of Little Tokyo. My project expands this timeline to connect Little Tokyo’s postwar era with its rich histories of Bronzeville, anti-Vietnam War protests, redress, and current struggles for self-determination and community control,” explained Takemoto.

She has been particularly interested in how businesses floundered and flourished during the Bronzeville era, the name given to Little Tokyo while Japanese Americans across the American West were incarcerated in World War II concentration camps. In this period, the neighborhood was primarily inhabited by African Americans and Latinos due to discriminatory housing regulations that restricted the movement and settlement of communities of color to certain neighborhoods.

Tina Takemoto (Rudy Espinoza)

Takemoto’s project will culminate in a short experimental film portrait of First Street North that combines the historical material, photographs, audio clips and moving imagery from the timeline project in addition to the sights, sounds and textures of Little Tokyo captured and created in the community-based hands-on filmmaking workshops. These workshops invited participants to immerse themselves in the histories, images, and textures of Little Tokyo by drawing, scratching, rubbing, and transferring imagery onto 16mm.

The footage produced in these workshops forms an integral part of Takemoto’s cinematic portrait, a mix of images and sounds defined more by randomness than order.

“Experimental filmmaking is exciting because it’s actually a non-narrative approach to telling a story,” explained Takemoto.

She hopes that her project will lend itself to future research projects and serve as a resource to community activists, organizations, and researchers committed to Little Tokyo’s legacy and ongoing fight for sustainability, justice, and self-determination.

Kuniharu Yoshida, traditional artist, Torrance When asked to describe what surprised him about his experience living and working in Little Tokyo, Kuniharu Yoshida picks up a piece of paper and draws a circle. He reminds us that the conventional way of drawing a circling is to drag the brush in a circular fashion until a single curved line appears on the page. But, he then demonstrates an alternative way of approaching the task, pressing his brush firmly against the page and slightly turning it. Even though the mode of production differed, the result is the same – two circles.

That demonstration is, in many ways, indicative of the work that Yoshida has pursued while participating in the +LAB Artist Residency Program. Trained in traditional Japanese calligraphy and hip-hop dance, Yoshida uses his body and discarded objects to create giant calligraphy artwork in public spaces.

In collaborating with Sustainable Little Tokyo, Yoshida is realizing his dream of building a bridge between Japan and the U.S. through reinterpretations of traditional forms of calligraphy. He views his work as part of the residency as a means of bringing together people from diverse backgrounds as well as strengthening community through art.

Yoshida has conducted a series of calligraphy workshops for senior residents in Little Tokyo, encouraging them to convey their individualized emotions through writing. After covering the basics, he encouraged his students to approach the task in a more open-ended way, interpreting traditional characters in ways that reflect their own perspectives and creativity.

Yoshida shows examples of the resulting works: a left-handed student’s ingenious use of his less dominant hand to creatively depict strokes found in the kanji for “rain.”

He views art as a way of moving emotions, which in turn can change the world.

Yoshida himself has found his own community while participating in the residency program. “The residency has allowed people, including the artists, to connect,” he reflected.

For more information on the +LAB Artist Residency Program, visit

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