My ongoing series Seeing 琉球↔Ryukyu: Collective Unconscious has been about mining the known and unknown narratives of 琉球↔Ryukyu history and the endangered oral language I grew up hearing. Through a documentary process, I first captured images of island plant life, memorials, and landscapes on black-and-white film. Then in the darkroom, I created schematic drawings on the photographs by marking on glass overlaid on paper during exposure. As I created these drawings, I felt I was indexicalizing the underlying images by mapping signifier and the signified, signs and connecting names, dates, notes, and events. This process revealed the relationship of images and language that can create contradiction and ambiguities of the symbolism that are considered. Visual signals such as drawn dots, arrows, and transliterations become encoded into each image. Through this practice, I am able to explore where and how the animist traditions of my ancestors had been severed, polluted, and paved over. The process is advantageous in creating an archive for silenced history.
The decimated 琉球↔Ryukyu landscapes have eroded important island knowledge that has at its core an understanding of human activity in relation to nature. The island culture relies on nature as the giver of meaning. The oral language of my ancestors is parallel to the sound of nature. Sounds of the ocean, rain, wells, rivers, typhoons, trees, corals, rocks, sand, and earth – none were written in letters, only heard, felt, or spoken. The environment is the language.
The 琉球↔Ryukyu architecture and urban planning were physical indexes to the oral language of everyday life. But there are very few traditional structured homes left in Okinawa, as most were destroyed by the U.S. military during and after WWII, when they bulldozed remaining villages to build their bases for official occupation. Without support for restoration of traditional structures, the locals were forced into building new homes with the materials and in the styles of U.S. architecture and urban planning: concrete and cinder block; grids of rectangular buildings; paved streets; and electrical lines. All these changes were couched in the vocabulary of “modernism,” a term that stood in contrast to the labels that the U.S. military used to describe the people of 琉球↔Ryukyu.
In order to understand these layers of history, I attempt to digest my detective work, observe sites of physical evidence, and draw out definitions, stories, and representations in the framed image to visually connect its parts. Through creating images of the Okinawan environment, I seek to discover concepts embedded in landscapes and in its definitions that my indigenous 琉球↔Ryukyu ancestors drew on to maintain a healthy family, community, and relationship with nature. These parts exist somewhere amidst the fusion of layered meanings that were once the history of those who were eventually colonized. I draw metaphors from words and narratives that are the result of conflicting identities and contradictions (the colonized and colonizer within me). As such, I make images for a future that speaks to the past.