Collage artist Eryn Kimura is a fifth-generation San Franciscan who uses vintage print media and decorative, handmade Japanese paper to create vibrant collages that aim to deconstruct orientalist depictions of Asian women.
In Frisco Fauna, the slender, burgundy body of a 1970s Thunderbird crosses the profile of a geisha he photographed National Geographic in 1969. The windshield of the car takes the shape of her lips, chin and forehead. A Muni bus transfer flashes out of her hair ornament. Translucent leaves sprout from her kimono and engulf the image.
The collage is a work of personal and political importance. Kimura’s mother used to drive around town in a ’70s Thunderbird, and Kimura considers Muni one of her most defining classrooms. She recalls that the old bus transfers required passengers to travel within a strict time frame, which always led her to think of them as a form of time travel.
“Every time I show a mode of transportation, it’s a tribute or an understanding that we’re traveling to the future, which is also the past,” Kimura said in an interview with The San Francisco Standard.
The collage artist has spent years cutting up and re-gluing images of San Francisco to capture the city’s nostalgic vibrancy and ephemeral microclimate. She compares her creative process to being a DJ remixing different images and visual fragments. The San Francisco that emerges from her collages is a city hurtling into the future while recycling the past.
Kimura’s family has close ties to the city’s Chinese-American and Japanese-American communities, dating back to the 19th century. Her Chinese ancestors immigrated to the United States from Toisan, China in the 19th century to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Her Japanese side of the family ran a manju shop in Hiroshima before coming to California via Hawaii after World War II.
Kimura grew up in Japantown and attended Lowell High School — just like her parents, who met there and became high school sweethearts. It was at Lowell that Kimura was first introduced to SCRAP, a non-profit repository that diverts recycled materials from San Francisco’s waste stream into art classes in public schools. She searches the group’s warehouse in Bayview for materials and inspiration.
Back in her studio, she first rips out photos and sorts them by colour, subject and object. She then cuts out the images and organizes them into small boxes, while wryly acknowledging that the images themselves can never really be divided.
For Kimura, flipping through print media over the past hundred years is a way of imagining what her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents saw and experienced. Reliving history isn’t always easy: Kimura sees her collages as a way to directly intervene in mainstream media’s portrayal of Asian women.
In the collage Her English Was Unusually Good, a faceless woman freaks the viewer out as the piece’s title, taken directly from a National Geographic article on Japan in the 1930s, scrolls across the negative space where her facial features should be . Although “her English was unusually good” could be read as a full sentence, Kimura keeps the comma at the end of the sentence, leaving it as an unfinished thought, the middle finger of linguistic hegemony.
The Golden Gate Bridge is another recurring motif in Kimura’s work, and she likes to imagine it as Mazu, a Chinese sea goddess associated with safe passage and childbirth. Like the Golden Gate, Mazu mythologizes wearing a red dress as it roams the seas.
“Mazu had the ability to travel into the past as well as into the future,” Kimura explained. “She protects people on their journey while traversing the present and the past.”
Given that many of Kimura’s ancestors crossed the mouth of the bay to America long before the bridge was built, she considers the Golden Gate a personal Mazu.
“My family made it through safely,” Kimura said. “And we’re still here.”
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