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Naoto Nakagawa: Art as Hope After a Disaster


When New York-based painter Naoto Nakagawa heard about the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that hit his native Japan on March 11, 2011, his initial reaction in the face of one of the largest and most devastating disasters on record was helplessness, followed by the writing of a check to help. 

Naoto Nakagawa, 1,000 Portraits of Hope, No. 172. Felt-tip pen on paper.

(Photo by Courtesy of Sidney Mishkin Gallery)


But when family circumstances called for him to travel to Japan a few months later, he decided to visit the afflicted area. While he was there, he recalled in an artist statement, he remembered that after the September 11 attacks, a Japanese school sent 1,000 origami cranes to his son’s school in New York City. Nakagawa decided to reciprocate that gesture of peace. While touring shelters, he started making what he would call 1,000 Portraits of Hope—sketches of the survivors and members of the military, fire brigades, health workers, volunteers, and other individuals who heroically helped to put out the fires and alleviate the suffering.

Now, a year later, New Yorkers can see some of the uplifting and humanizing results of his project as part of two independent exhibitions. The first is “After the Water Receded: Images From Japan,” which is at Baruch College’s Sidney Mishkin Gallery through May 18 and which also includes photographs of the devastation by New York City-based photographer Magdalena Solé. And this summer, from June 15 through August 8, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine will showcase even more of Nakagawa’s portraits together with poems and photos by survivors and other artists in an exhibition called “Voices From Japan: Despair and Hope From Disaster.” 

On Nakagawa’s first trip to the afflicted area, in May 2011, he saw only devastation and troops digging out bodies. There were no hotels nearby; the nearest place to stay was a three-hour drive away from the desolated region. While he started his project on that trip, he was only able to make 44 portraits—he hadn’t fully realized how much time it would take to make 1,000 of them. Nakagawa ended up making five more trips to the area, all at his own expense though with logistical help from a local humanitarian aid group, and is planning one more. By the end of that one, he plans to have completed all 1,000 sketches. 

Nakagawa has been best known as a painter of still lifes and landscapes. While his grandfather Murakami Kagaku was a great traditional ink painter of Buddhist and poetic subjects in Japanese landscape, Nakagawa’s own art has gone from manmade objects in Pop Art and Hyperrealist periods to detailed Hudson-River landscapes. He has worked mostly on a large scale, and I have never seen him make portraits before. There is something powerful and intimate about intently studying the details of someone’s face. In the exhibit, one can see that as he drew the likenesses, he became more and more proficient at it.

Nakagawa was inspired to start on portraits, he said, because these people had lost everything: their homes, their most treasured possessions, and their mementos and photos of their loved ones. He wrote in his artist statement, “The response was overwhelming; when I focused on my subjects, they started to talk, or sometimes to cry. One woman told me that she had lost all her family photos in the tsunami, and was so grateful to have my portrait of her.” 

In the show at the Mishkin Gallery, about 50 of the portraits have been placed on three adjacent walls to comprise the installation. We look from one to another of these people, having the feeling that we are among them and of them. We share their misfortune, but also their fortitude. The sketches are quick, flickering, and incomplete. Each captures sparks of personality and inner life that snapshots might only hint at. Together with Solé’s photos of the area, they impact the viewer powerfully, projecting the inner strength of the Japanese people. The two artists contextualize the earthquake survivors’ experience. We as viewers and fellow human beings get the opportunity to share some of their suffering, their hope, their courage, and help in the healing process. 

Confronted with the enormity of catastrophes, whether they’re natural (earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes) or manmade (war, terrorism, nuclear power plant failure), we tend to feel overwhelmed and helpless. Or we wring our hands, scream about the apocalypse, and talk of dystopia. Natural and manmade disasters, murder, mayhem, hysteria, and horror—these seem to be perennially popular subject matter. Humans are drawn to them. Films of atomic disasters and fraught psychological dramas like The Hunger Games make for huge box-office success. But perhaps we would be better served by rewarding artists who make the sometimes more difficult choices, the ones who attempt to do something constructive.

Nakagawa’s response in many ways echoes the immediate and long-term responses of alumnus William Harvey to the September 11 attacks. As a freshman in 2001, the young violinist took part in a Juilliard-organized ensemble that played at the 69th Regiment Armory, where families of the missing went to try to get information and some of the Ground Zero workers went for a break from their toils. “Never have I played for a more grateful audience,” he wrote in the October 2001 Journal (the article was partially reprinted in the September 2011 Journal). “Somehow it didn’t matter that, by the end, my intonation was shot and I had no bow control. I would have lost any competition I was playing in, but it didn’t matter.” That experience was part of what eventually led to him to embrace President Joseph W. Polisi’s concept of the artist as citizen and found Cultures in Harmony, a nonprofit that promotes international understanding through music.

“We do not go to a country to extend a hand down and lift people up,” Harvey wrote in a 2008 Journal article about Cultures in Harmony. “We go to extend a hand outward, to walk together in friendship towards greater mutual understanding. We aim to transform our country’s image in the world by building enduring friendships through the universal language of music.” Later in the article, he mentions how moved he was when a youngster named Amal in Tunisia thanked him for his music-making and his humanity. Her name, Harvey learned, means hope, which moved him to ask, “Is there reason for hope?” 

Art can give us that hope, even in the face of terrible devastation. The faces that look out at us from Nakagawa’s drawings range from very young to quite old. In the five minutes Nakagawa spent with each of these survivors and heroes, he gave them a gift of intimacy and let some light into their shattered lives. These exhibitions make us all the richer for it as well.


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