Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Afterlife. Infinity. The sculptures of Kenzi Shiokava, artist-in-residence at the Watts Towers Art Center, embody these themes and draw the viewer into unexpected questions of humanity and the cycles of life. The son of Japanese immigrants to Brazil, Shiokava, 79, describes his upbringing as not “poverty, but misery.” With such a childhood, Shiokava felt compelled to help the human condition and almost became a doctor, finding medicine to be the best outlet for aiding others. Though always interested in the arts, he notes that his Brazilian community deemed art to be an expression of the wealthy. Even his education reflected a distance from the fine arts. “Brazilian education allowed us to study sociology, law ... but never art,” he says.
In the 1960s, his perspective on life and his calling were challenged while visiting his sister in Los Angeles. Amidst a growing civil rights movement and the explosive Watts riots, Shiokava came to Los Angeles and discovered a diverse community seeking a bright future. Unlike in Brazil, he found encouragement from rising artists in the Watts area and decided to pursue his passion for the arts and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Chouinard Art Institute and Otis art school. Though Shiokava began his career at Chouinard as a painter and illustrator, he was steeped in the artistic movements of South Los Angeles. In his earliest years in Watts, a number of artists like Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge and Betye Saar began to participate in the “found-assemblage movement.” Inspired by the detritus left throughout Watts following the rebellion of 1965, black artists reconstructed discarded, lifeless scraps and resurrected them into works filled with vitality and voice. Many critics of this movement see influences from “African masks and Cubist constructions” thus granting a rich artistic heritage to a neighborhood often overlooked within the broader scheme of Los Angeles.
These same artists would go on to contribute or be impacted by the efforts of the Watts Towers Art Center alongside Shiokava. Interestingly, Shiokava did not become dedicated to assemblage and sculpture until the end of his schooling. In a KPCC interview, he discussed how he struggled with his first major sculpture assignment saying, “I had no ideas. I was like a vacuum, nothing there." Hours after working with wood from his garden led him to realize how contented he felt within the medium of wood. This was the first time he felt comfortable in his skin as an artist.
A visit to Shiokava’s studio is a step into a wonderland of Japanese-Brazilian totems, collages made of gathered knick-knacks, acres of books on endless rows of shelves, beams from a demolished Spanish cathedral, a cactus garden and the occasional wandering cat. Forever inquisitive, Shiokava finds significance in articles cast off by society. A collage of children’s wooden blocks embody “the possibility of words;” for him they also embody his expectation of Americana. His latest project is an enormous collage of multicultural family portraits. Within one frame, he is gathering a cross-section of family photos from a variety of ethnicities and communities in Los Angeles. Black and white photos of Japanese American families butt up against those of indigenous families along with Latinos, European immigrants and African Americans. These portraits were received from friends, and from Shiokava's perspective, they are to represent his desire to demonstrate the nation as a varied collection of multicultural families. In his words, “the U.S. is global” though current rhetoric may imply otherwise.
This embrace of the multicultural and the global lie at the heart of much of Shiokava’s work. Self-defined as a “man of three nations,” his sculpture reflects influences from Brazil (predominately its African presence), Japan and the U.S. Drawing on the concept of totems — natural objects representative of a clan, family or group — Shiokava’s principal works of wood and macramé demonstrate how flora can transform into human-like form.
The sculptures of Shiokava assume a near human existence upon the death of the wood. Much of the wood used by Shiokava is grown in his garden and then cut. As the wood begins to die, that is when “there is the most artistic possibility,” he says. In Shiokava’s mind, the essence of art is to “look at the process of being human,” and many of his works explore how plants can assume a particular humanity in their death.
Shiokava’s studio tour culminated with a Shinto shrine that he converted into a Catholic dedication to the Sacred Heart. Embodying Christ’s divine love for humanity, the Sacred Heart within the Shinto shrine is a perfect reflection of Shiokava’s perspective of life and art — all humanity deserves to be loved and respected as all living things embody a spiritual life force. It can be said that all of his art pieces are proclamations of love, for the richness of life's cycles including death. In his words, his shrine also reminds him of his age; at this point, “I’m more there than here.”