Asian Art @ Centre A

 by Janet Nicol

A is for “Asian” at Centre A gallery in Vancouver, and curator Makiko Hara, who moved from the art world of Japan to Canada, has found a home at this unique gallery of contemporary Asian art.

Hara curates three shows a year and helps select three other curators to exhibit annually. The gallery also rents to the public.  “We want the community to feel part of this place,” Hara says in an interview from Centre A’s downtown eastside location at 2 West Hastings Street.

Hara works in an open area extending behind the angular-shaped, high-ceiling gallery. The heritage building was once a railway station and the old brick sides remain alongside a modern wall of glass. From here, she helps give exposure to Asian-Canadian artists.

“I am driven by the artists’ ideas rather than the material,” she says. “With art,” Hara adds, “we have the ability to change people’s thinking.”

Hara became a permanent Canadian resident after she was hired at Centre A in 2006, but she was raised in Japan’s creative art world in 1960s Tokyo. Her father was a sculptor and professor, and her mother was an artist.

Hara rejected the life of an artist for herself. “Too much up and down,” she says. Instead she studied literature at university. But a summer job in an art gallery interested her and eventually she became an independent curator.

Hara was 25 years old when her partner, an architect and professor with whom she continues to have a long-distance relationship, gave her the idea of enrolling in the Banff Centre for the Arts program in Canada.

Hara travelled to Alberta “without knowing much about Canada,” she says. “I was the first applicant from Japan.”

“In Japan, art is very commercial,” Hara continues, “and does not have government support.  I wondered ‘what is an artist-run gallery?’”

She liked what she saw, describing Canadian artists’ ideas as “very fresh.”

Unable to speak English fluently but determined to succeed, Hara tape-recorded each class at the Banff Centre. “I would listen to the tapes at night and force myself not to speak Japanese or have contact with anyone who would speak Japanese with me.”

Later Hara returned to Canada to teach at Concordia University in Montreal, when its fine arts faculty wanted to develop an Asian-Canadian art program.

“I didn’t have an academic background,” Hara says. So she took a three-year undergraduate program in art history at Concordia and graduated in the spring of 2000. At that point, Hara considered a permanent move to Canada.

“And then September 11 happened,” Hara says. “My parents said, ‘Are you really going to Canada? Is this a great time?’”

Hara decided to stay in Japan. But, in 2006, she received an email from Hank Bull, the director at Centre A, encouraging her to apply for the curator position.

“The timing felt right,” Hara says. “I always wanted to come back to Canada. Japan is still very patriarchal. Women are not respected and there isn’t a lot of critical discussion.”

Now that she’s a Canadian, Hara does not want to be known exclusively for her knowledge of Japanese or Asian art. But she does believe that Centre A plays an important role in giving artists of Asian heritage exposure within a Western-dominated culture.
Really, though, “what does ‘West’ and ‘non-West’ mean?” she muses.

She is pleased to be part of the gallery’s current show Orientalism and Ephemera, exhibiting until April 26, with Jamelie Hassan, a Lebanese-Canadian, as guest curator.  Somewhere in this show’s 29 artists’ works, Hara may find her answer. 

Reprinted from the Canadian Immigrant, 2008.

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