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The women in Tim Okamura's figurative paintings are ready for battle and whatever else the world might bring their way.
In his oil-based canvases which also contain spray paint, wood panels and a host of other mixed material, Okamura shines the light on women of color, individuals often neglected in the mainstream art world. His subjects are women warriors, young black and brown females engaging, living, and surviving in the urban landscape.
Pulling from hip-hop culture, graffiti elements, and his own unique multi-racial identity, Okamura masterfully crafts highly visceral and emotionally intense portraits.
A native of Alberta, Canada, Okamura moved to New York in the early '90s obtaining an MFA at the School of Visual Arts, and has since built an illustrious career addressing gender and racial inequity prevalent in American society.
Recent accolades include being a 2015 honoree at the White House for his work at the intersection of art and social justice, which included a personal commendation from US Vice President Joe Biden, and having his piece "I Love Your Hair" included in the prestigious Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today competition.
Okamura shows no signs of slowing down and has a slew of ambitious projects on the horizon. The artist took a moment from his busy schedule to chat with Konbini on the powerful messages in his work and what's next in store for him.
Konbini: Tell me more about your recent artist residency at the Redbird Gallery in New York – the roots of the gallery seem to coincide with your sensibility. How has this opportunity further enhanced your career?
Tim Okamura: I’ve been very fortunate to be given a beautiful studio space adjacent to this large gallery in the Meatpacking District. I have to thank its owner Phoenix Eisenberg who’s been following my work after seeing it at the National Arts Club in Gramercy several years ago.
I’ve been here for 7 months, and it’s definitely been transformative, as I’ve been able to meet literally hundreds of people, not only from the art world but all walks of life – people that work in the neighborhood, tourists from around the world, as well as collectors and celebrities. Together, we have been able to host large public events, a studio visit from the Smithsonian Institute, an afterparty for the Whitney Gala, studio visits with folks from Google, and also importantly for me, several high school age groups of young aspiring artists who I really enjoyed speaking with about what it takes to be a working artist.
This experience I think has exposed a lot of people to the work that they may not have ordinarily come across, a lot of doors have been opened, new relationships formed, and the positive affirmations that the work is resonating in a meaningful way have been invaluable.
You continuously honor and celebrate women of color in your portraiture and it seems to come from a very organic and natural place. What are you communicating/exploring through these female subjects?
I think the journey that has brought me to this point has indeed been a very organic one. Often people see the work and make an assumption about who is creating it that doesn’t always line up with the reality of it being me: this guy from Canada whose parents are Japanese and Newfoundlander…
When I get asked why I’m painting the subjects I do, the answer is multi-faceted – it really has to do with my personal history growing up, my family, the people I surrounded myself with, my interests in life, the desire to tell stories through portraiture of those who have been underrepresented in museums and galleries, and also a desire to explore and ask questions as an artist.
I think that is a function of a good artist – to make people think and ask questions, to challenge perception, and spark conversations that lead to, hopefully, positive outcomes, or new ways of thinking about the world.
"My subjects are women who have conquered fear, who have in some cases overcome personal challenges or challenged societal judgments and constraints."
I’ve been painting women and men of color, and of every type of heritage for over 25 years, but not everyone realizes that. I think it’s been a slow progression for me in terms of the work getting exposure. Thankfully there seems to be a real surge in the art world in terms of work that deals with issues of identity, race, and social justice over the last few years, and I’m happy to be a part of the dialogue.
My subjects are women that I want to depict as iconic representations of true beauty, strength, and courage. Women who have conquered fear, who have in some cases overcome personal challenges or challenged societal judgments and constraints. It’s really about celebrating the individual, but also being aware that through an individual we can discover metaphors for the greater human experience.
Can you expand on the symbolism of the color white in the Women in White series?
There are many connotations associated with the color white that we have come to accept, especially in North American and European culture – a quick Google search tells us: White is associated with light, goodness, innocence, purity, and virginity. It is considered to be the color of perfection. As opposed to black, white usually has a positive connotation."
In my series, there is an exploration of this symbolism and it’s juxtaposition with many of the subjects. But I’m not trying to point to specific answers here – I really think it’s about sometimes taking things at face value, sometimes searching for double meanings, sometimes really just an artistic exploration.
"I learned that white is the color of mourning in China and India because it is the absence of color, it symbolizes a disconnection from the pleasure and luxury of life."
It functions on many levels for me, but I also thought it would be a great common denominator to have all the women in the series wearing white, and examine the implications of a more formal unity across the entire series.
Aside from that, I learned that white is the color of mourning in China and India – why? Because it is the absence of color, it symbolizes a disconnection from the pleasure and luxury of life, it is a void in this context, which I think is an extremely interesting take.
Facets of your Japanese heritage appear in certain paintings – kimonos, samurai motifs, Japanese characters, etc. What do these traces of your personal history mean?
I’ve been working on a new series that I’m really excited about. I’m essentially creating a secret underground gang of female Samurai that rise up to fight for social justice; racial equality, women’s rights, sexual equality, to defend the helpless and the wronged. The series will be called Girl-illa WarFair and I’ve begun about six paintings for it so far.
It really has been a way to tie together so many of my interests, which include exploring aspects of my own personal history as you alluded: growing up with a Japanese father, being mixed race in northern Canada, trying to survive and flourish as an artist in New York – it’s also a reflection of the idea that on so many levels the fight, the creative struggle, the struggle for discipline has been very real.
The concept of the Samurai, in particular, points towards not just a fierce warrior, but also a diplomat, a scholar, and someone well-versed in arts and culture. I’ve thought about all these metaphors in relationship to my own endeavors.
I’m still discovering more about myself and my relationship with my heritage, on both sides – it is really an awakening of sorts, and cathartic to find myself embracing things that perhaps I wanted to distance myself from when I was younger because of the pressure to fit in.
There is an overall thread in your work that tackles themes of solidarity, female empowerment, racial and social justice. As an artist, do you feel an obligation to shed light on these issues and spark a dialogue?
I think it’s been a natural component of the work. It’s just inherent in the subject matter that I’m dealing with, especially when seen in the light of conditions of the world we live in today. I don’t really feel an obligation to do it per se – these themes arise out of the arena that my artistic practice has occupied.
Sometimes I’ve felt maybe I should push a message a little stronger, but at the same time, I never want it to be forced. I like the fact that just the very act of making the work can be a statement.
"I realized my time and energy are best spent in the studio making paintings that will hopefully make a lasting statement and are built upon positive messages, uplifting imagery."
There have been moments where I felt like I should go out and march in the streets to protest several recent tragedies that have resulted from hate, ignorance, and prejudice – I’m a very emotional person, maybe that would have been cathartic on some level, and maybe I will still do it – but I also thought, how are my time and energy best spent under these circumstances?
I realized for me it’s best spent in the studio making paintings that will hopefully make a lasting statement, paintings that are built upon positive messages, uplifting imagery, that capture, to the best of my abilities, true dignity, stoicism, and beauty. As my friend – and brilliant photographer – Barron Claiborne said in a recent interview, "I figured I would focus on beauty and trying to make beautiful work since there’s already so much ugliness in the world!"
What upcoming projects can we expect from you further on in 2016 and early 2017?
For the rest of this year, I’m happy to be taking part in a few group shows in some places I’ve never shown before: Beirut, Lebanon; Fort Worth, Texas; and Baltimore, Maryland, as well as heading to Art Basel in Miami. I’m also working with a gallery in Tel Aviv, which I’m very excited about.
In October, I’ll be doing an artist talk at The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC in front of my painting titled "I Love Your Hair" – it’s part of an exhibition I’m truly honored to be participating in called American Portraiture Today.
"I’ve been asked to do an album cover for a legendary hip-hop artist I can’t name at this time…"
Besides the Samurai series, I’ve got several other ideas on the go including a collaborative series where I will partner with a different artist for each piece – I think the resulting exhibition will end up being called Collab-O (which is also a play on the fact that most of my friends call me Tim-O). A portion of proceeds from the sale of the work will go to a charity chosen by the artist I partner with, which I think adds another exciting level of community interaction too.
I’m also working on a super cool little project with famed photographer and good friend, Jonathan Mannion, and have plans for two solo shows in Canada. Finally, I’ve been asked to do an album cover for a legendary hip-hop artist I can’t name at this time… but as a life-long fan of hip-hop, and this artist in particular, I’m feeling very stoked, and counting my blessings!