Q+Art: Artist Alissa Ohashi Assembles a Psychologically Barbed Family Photo Album
Alissa Ohashi uses the word gaman—meaning “to bear the unbearable with dignity and grace” in Japanese—to describe the ancestral trauma in her mixed-media collages. Ohashi’s signature installation, Who We Are, investigates the artist’s Japanese-American heritage through a chaotic commingling of found objects, historical documents, and personal photographs. “To the best of my recollection, I have had this deep, unknown connection to imprisonment and freedom simultaneously,” says Ohashi, whose grandparents were forced into Japanese internment camps during WWII.
Based in Columbus, Ohio, Ohashi uses her collection of personal photographs to create a psychological family photo album full of lived and unlived memories. “My father was not present in my life between the ages of four and 19, and our relationship suffered,” she notes in her artist statement. They’ve since reunited, but her father’s one-time absence sparked in Ohashi the desire for an identity beyond what she could see. To find it, she’d have to go back in time.
Ohashi absorbed herself in “deeper ethnographic and historical research” related to her family’s imprisonment during WWII. As she learned more about her identity, Ohashi coped by bringing past and present together with manipulated photographs. Her work, barbed with painful past narratives and stitched-up portraiture, belies a tender curiosity about personal wounds, collective trauma, and the eternal quest for liberation.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Alissa Ohashi discusses finding yourself within family, the beauty of Carl Jung, and getting through 2020 with the help of Rick Ross.
What one book belongs on every artist’s shelf?
Alissa Ohashi: I haven't read a ton of "art" books; I tend to gravitate toward psychological, spiritually philosophical, and leadership books. Currently, I'm reading The Red Book by Carl Jung, which is a very dense and beautiful read! To circle back around to the original question, I would choose Mastery by Robert Greene for a book that every artist should have on their shelf. He studies the lives of historical and contemporary figures from Charles Darwin to Marie Curie to Mozart to Albert Einstein and examines what led to their success.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
AO: Hilma af Klint or Carrie Mae Weems.
What are you trying to express with your art?
AO: This particular body of work is attempting to show the process of learning about one's familial identity. It's attempting to show the breaking and mending of relationships, the deconstruction and reconstruction of individual perception, and the reintegration of memory.
Do you prefer New York- or Chicago-style pizza?
AO: New York.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
AO: I have worked for free in exchange for experience when I was first learning how to make photos. I wouldn't do that at this point in my career, but I would consider working for free in exchange for exposure if the person I was working with aligned with my values and there was a mutually beneficial exchange of energy and effort.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
AO: Not sure if this counts as a guilty pleasure, but I'm obsessed with Fraiser.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
AO: At this point in my career, my greatest artist achievements are graduating with my MFA and the work that I made for my thesis show, winning a contest to have my documentary work featured on a billboard, and getting accepted to an artist residency in Japan for September 2021.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
AO: It's necessary to live in the grey and straddle the paradox in order to understand the complexities of life.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
AO: This is a tough one. Looking back, I wish I would have had someone to talk to about government loans and the ins and outs of student loan debt. More information from a trusted resource would have been helpful, and I probably would have made different decisions as far as financial aid goes. I don't think a formal education is necessary for everyone. I didn't have any formal or technical training before I began my master's program—I was self taught. With that being said, grad school had a tremendous impact on my work and was transformational for me as a person.
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
AO: I'm looking at my family history on my mother's side, more specifically thinking about my great-great grandmother, and was thinking about her at my age, so I found a playlist called 1930's Music on Spotify. I had no idea until I started listening, but I'm really enjoying the music from that era.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
AO: Last year exposed many and various issues that were veiled beneath the surface, and whenever I think of 2020, I think of that Rick Ross lyric, "[W]e gotta destroy before we elevate." I don't believe that we've seen the worst of the aftermath of the pandemic, but I do feel optimistic about our eventual recovery. I hope the art world will change with these systemic exposures, including diversifying all the stakeholders in cultural production, from artists to audiences to the people who collect and curate the work.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
AO: Over the past two years, I've started four different projects, including my experience of learning to let go at a silent retreat, visiting the Japanese internment camp that my family was forced to evacuate to during WWII, a two-month road trip that my partner, pup, and I went on last year, and the beginning of a familial investigation of my maternal family. I wasn't sure in which direction to take these projects, and it was challenging to think about posting and submitting work while the world was turning upside down. For me, 2020 was a time to create without sharing, and a time to reflect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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