Tomie Arai, "MOMOTARO / Peach Boy", November 2 – December 22, 2002

Tomie Arai

Tomie Arai

MOMOTARO / Peach Boy

November 2 – December 22, 2002

Momotaro/ Peach Boy is a series based on the popular Japanese folk tale about a baby boy who emerges from a giant peach and grows up to become a hero. The piece is composed of thirteen wood panels arranged to form ‘pages’ of a fictional narrative. Each of the panels is composed of a painted laser transfer that incorporates family photographs and images assembled from popular culture. These images include photographs of my father, grandparents, and son, as well as cartoon characters, material from the National Archives, traditional Japanese motifs, and illustrations appropriated from magazines, and children’s books.

As a third generation Japanese American, my interest in constructing a contemporary Japanese American folk tale was inspired by family memories of the internment. At the heart of this narrative is the experience of the Issei (the first generation of Japanese in America) and the role the Nisei GI’s played in changing American attitudes and opinion after World War II. My own work over the years has focused on projects which explore the relationship between art and history, and which combine autobiography, oral history, and portraiture in the art making process. Oral traditions, storytelling and nontraditional forms of bookmaking have also fascinated me. I am particularly interested in folk tales, folk histories, and stories created to explain historical events that are passed down by word of mouth over many generations.

Momotaro is a classic adventure tale, but it is also a story of hope and redemption. It can be read many ways. During World War II, the Japanese government used Momotaro as a propaganda vehicle for promoting nationalism and imperialist expansion overseas.  In my updated version, Momotaro is a story about the immigrant experience; a story of possibilities and second chances.  The traditional story is told as follows. An old couple nearing the end of their lives have always dreamed of having a child. One day they discover a giant peach floating in the river and when they open the peach, a baby boy leaps out. The boy grows up, goes off on a journey to defeat the monsters that have been terrorizing his village, and returns to his village laden with riches. In both the traditional and contemporary versions of this story, the couple is rewarded for a lifetime of hard work and self-sacrifice with a perfect child. Momotaro’s brave deeds redeem his aging parents in the eyes of society. The peach, an Asian symbol of longevity and fertility, is woven into Momotaro’s clothing in the form of a crest and appears as an ever-present reminder of the importance of family and community.

Momotaro was told to me as a young child, and it was not difficult to see my father as the brave young boy who goes off to fight the wicked ogres. I have tried to retell this story from both a child’s and an adult’s point of view. In the retelling, I was less concerned with the truth, as with presenting a completely imaginary version of the truth. Momotaro is not a celebration of my father¹s heroic deeds, but an examination of the ways in which we create folk heroes and share stories of survival by bending the truth, fictionalizing history, and embellishing memory. Momotaro is a piece that explores the fusion between folk traditions and a contemporary art practice that is grounded in the recording of personal and social experience. Unlike the original folk tale, there is no ending. The final panel in this sequence, a self-portrait with my first child, becomes both the end and the beginning of the story.

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Tomie Arai lives and works in NYC. Ms. Arai has painted murals with community groups in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, taught art to children in NYC public schools, and has designed permanent public works of art for the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cambridge Arts Council, and the New York City Board of Education. Her work has been exhibited nationally and her prints are in the collections of the Library of Congress, the Avon Corporate Collection, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, the Japanese American National Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art. She has been a recipient of two New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship, and a MidAtlantic Arts Foundation Visual Artists Residency. In 1997, she was one of ten women nationwide to receive an Anonymous Woman Grant for achievement in the visual arts. Ms. Arai is currently completing a 60-foot mosaic mural commissioned by the Percent for Art Program in NYC, which will be installed in the lobby of the new Administration for Children¹s Services Center in NYC. This winter she will begin work on a memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in honor of the civil rights movement commissioned by the Riverside Church in NYC.

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