“KIPUKA” by Ai Iwane – the bonds between land and people

Ai Iwane

Ai Iwane (b. 1975 –) has been fascinated by the traditional Bon Dances, particularly the “Fukushima Ondo,” that have survived in Japanese immigrant communities on Hawaii. In 2006, she began visiting the island countless times—a journey between space and time—for twelve years. The photographs she took during this journey have been collected in the photobook “KIPUKA”, published by Seigensha in 2018.

“FUKUSHIMA ONDO, Shosuke Nihei, Kailua Camp”, from “KIPUKA” © Ai Iwane

This photograph draws your attention in the opening pages of the photobook. Human figures and their expressions are obscured within darkness and a green fog; pay closer attention and you notice that plants and the ground are depicted in the strange green mist. Rather than a double-exposure, in which family portrait and the foliage were taken on separate occasions, the photo was created in a different way: Iwane projected the photo of a Hawaiian Japanese immigrant family onto the thick foliage of a sugarcane plantation and took a photograph of the resulting amalgamation of textures. As the sugarcane leaves swayed and blurred in the long exposure image, the human figures and the leaves fused together into a whole; the photograph presents a haunting vision, as if the family appears in the plantation as ghosts.

Ai Iwane’s decision to summon the phantoms of these people in a sugarcane plantation is rooted in the deep insights she gained into the history of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii. Sugarcane production became an important economical sector in Hawaii in the 19th century. As sugarcane spread over the entire Hawaiian state, laborers were imported from many different countries—among them Japan, China, Portugal, Korea, the Philippines—to work on the plantations. Sugarcane cultivation gradually lost significance during the 20th century. But the plantations—planted and cultivated by immigrant workers—are forever engraved with the families of these people, with the communities they created, and with the stories of leaving behind their far-away home countries. By projecting the family portrait, Iwane stirs the imagination, eliciting the thought that their souls may still be living and breathing in these lands, and she highlights the ways in which humans and nature are entangled.

Further, if we consider that the sugarcane onto which the family portrait has been projected is an edible plant that will one day be harvested and processed into food, these phantoms become more than an image of a past life; they are intimately connected to the source for future life, too.
“KIPUKA”, the photobook’s title, is the Hawaiian word for “place of new life.” Budding plants, land that grows new life, past and future of people with deep bonds to both—within this image, we can see Iwane’s intention to stare and find the traces that connect different times and spaces.

Mika Kobayashi

Photography researcher

Active in many fields including conducting lectures and workshops on Japanese and international photography, planning exhibitions and contributing to magazines.

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