The border as a symbol functions rather incoherently. Jagged lines surround diverse populations, converting open land into territory. Although they appear solid, borders are mere illusions of security. They are as fragile as the materials that bind citizens to nations. This is the central tenet of a new exhibition at the International Print Center. In Paper Borders, artists Emma Nishimura and Tahir Carl Karmali articulate the experience of displacement using delicate materials crafted by hand.
Printing and papermaking are rituals of remembrance for the artists, who integrate government documents and old photographs into mixed media works and sculptural installations. Nishimura focuses on her family’s internment in Japanese Canadian camps during World War II, and Karmali addresses Kenya’s independence from Britain as well as his own relocation from Nairobi to New York. These ordeals ground the exhibition within an archival context, while the work itself conveys their emotional depth.
Just as immigration is a type of screening, so too is papermaking. Karmali draws this comparison in his site-specific installation, PAPER:screening (2017). Upon filtering pulp through a long stretch of aluminum mesh, the artist noticed that only some pieces made it through. The others stuck to the metal and formed into separate bunches, resembling land masses. The flowing work casts a complex shadow on the gallery wall, setting a dark backdrop for the white clusters. Walking around the piece creates movement in the intersecting layers of mesh, with dark waves projecting across the surface like contour lines on a map.
Two sculptures face each other at the center of the gallery, offering different interpretations of highland terrain. In PAPER:landscape (2017), Karmali shreds and rearranges photocopies of government-issued identification papers with collage elements and scraps of aluminum mesh. The artist incorporates his grandparents’ identification cards as well as blank asylum forms and his own visa application. The result is an expansive mountain of paperwork, critiquing the excess bureaucracy of foreign citizenship.
Nishimura’s Shifting Views (2013) turns her own photo of a Canadian mountain into a multidimensional garden of black and white reeds. From afar, the viewer can make out the details of the actual photo. Up close, however, individual pieces reveal how the artist meticulously slices and sculpts bits of gampi around thin steel wires. The Canadian government placed internment camps in the valleys of mountains, which served as their borders; thus, a mountain stripped of its volume appears weightless and incapable of enclosing. Budding from a rectangular soil bed, the delicate reeds convey new life and sway like bunches of goldenrod in the wind.
Other thematic consistencies appear in Nishimura’s Constructed Narratives (2013-ongoing) and Karmali’s PAPER:work (2016-ongoing). Borders of minuscule text surround Japanese Canadian internment camp territories in British Columbia, displayed catercorner to maps of British-occupied Kenya and Uganda. Nishimura recreates the borders by hand, transcribing interviews she held with former prisoners. Karmali cuts up photocopies of actual maps, deconstructing countries from their original shapes. Loose pieces of string draw similarities to security thread — the dark fibers woven into official government documents to prevent counterfeiting. Karmali lays many of his final products onto oxidized steel plates, allowing them to collect amber traces of rust.
Passport portraits of Karmali’s grandparents appear alongside photographs of Nishimura’s grandparents in An Archive of Rememory (2016-ongoing). In the latter, Nishimura etches her photos onto damp pieces of handmade flax and abaca, which she wraps around bundles of sand. The pieces draw influence from furoshiki, a traditional Japanese wrapping cloth used to transport personal belongings. The artist seals the bundles shut, dries them and then empties the sand from a slit at the bottom — so that they actually contain nothing. Photography was banned during internment; therefore, these hollow mementos preserve the poor conditions originally excluded from public record.
All works in the show are easily inflammable and highly susceptible to degradation. As such, we would be naïve to assume they will remain in their current form for very long. The stories behind them will always remain, though, which is perhaps why the artists operate so comfortably within the paradox of permanence and change. Knowing full well they could always produce them again, Nishimura and Karmali embrace the momentary release of remembering, ever returning to the original sources for new inspiration.
Paper Borders: Emma Nishimura and Tahir Carl Karmali continues at the International Print Center New York (508 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 18, 2019.