emily hanako momohara

Emily Hanako Momohara is a lens-based artist, activist, and teacher who makes sculptural photography about multicultural identities. She is Associate Professor of Art at the Art Academy of Cincinnati where she chairs the photography major. She has exhibited nationally and internationally, most notably at the Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, CA) in a two-person show titled Sugar Islands (2015), and the 2015 Chongqing Photography and Video Biennial (Chongqing, China). She received an Ohio Arts Council Excellence Award in 2011 and has been a visiting artist at several residency programs including the Center for Photography at Woodstock (Woodstock, NY), Headlands Center for the Arts (Sausalito, CA), Fine Arts Work Center (Provincetown, MA), and Red Gate Gallery (Beijing, China).

Due to wonderful coincidence that she had work up in Cincinnati, we had the privilege to shoot both in her studio on the third floor of her and her husband's home and in the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. 

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Five-Dots: How long have you been in this studio?

Emily Hanako Momohara: I want to say that I moved in here seven years ago. . . Maybe six?. . . I’m not a fan of the house—  but I’m a fan of having an entire floor as a studio—  I’ve been working on it this entire time and it's still a work in progress.  I started by ripping out the carpet and installing insulation in the ceiling and it has evolved from there.

F-D: When you moved in here, did you have an idea for how you wanted to lay it out or did it develop organically?

EHM: I guess you can say that it developed organically. I changed things as the need came up. For the sake of mobility I knew that I needed to have a deep space to be able to shoot.  I move things around as I need new storage and so on. I'd say that it's a pretty fluid space. I do like having my little reading area because reading and educating yourself on contemporary issues and art is so important, but I don’t necessarily want to do that in my living space seeing as how it still fits within my idea of work. So I just like to keep it up here. I like to separate my work and home life. That way I can feel free from guilt when I’m just trying to chill on the couch at home.

F-D: Has the location of the studio (i.e the neighborhood, city, being in your home) influenced your work in any way?

EHM: I’ve always had a studio at my house. Even when I was in grad school and we were provided a space— I still kept one at home. As a photographer a place to shoot isn’t necessarily an artist studio per say. You may have a studio space, but that doesn’t mean you have the right equipment or the right space.  The other part of it, for me, is the tinkering and building— and that I can do anywhere. So I’d prefer to do it in my pajamas at home with coffee and my cat. 

F-D: Can you describe a typical day for yourself, inside the studio and out?

EHM: Well, I guess there is no typical day; especially with teaching at the college level because you don’t have to be there at a certain time every day and a lot of the prep work usually happens here. In addition to my studio I also utilize the dark room at the AAC. The first thing I usually do every morning is make coffee and check my email. I do that and then I make a list for what I need to get done that day.  I make my list, I prioritize, and I figure out scheduling for the day. I have a brain injury from a car accident I had in high school where I hit my head pretty badly. So I’ve got some dead brain tissue and thus I have some short term memory loss. It was, at the time, pretty traumatizing. I was top five in my class and on the honor roll and all of that. I thought pretty highly of myself too. So it worked out, I guess. I’m a much better person now because of it. It humbled me in a good way. Now I feel like I came out on top. But anyway, that is something that informs my day, because I constantly have to refer to a plan.

F-D: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?

EHM: I would say that my work and activism tend to revolve around issues of identity and immigration. My work has dealt with my great-grandparents’ migration over here from Japan for a while. With this current administration's stances on immigration, it just seems like a more important conversation to have right now.

F-D: What mediums do you work with?

EHM: The arrangement against the back wall will end up being a photograph. I tend to make, construct, or build things and then I photograph them. So with this, I wanted to create a landscape with the sushi grass. Now I’m just playing around with it and trying to figure out how to light it. It’s very reflective and so it has been a bit of an experiment. I had built that set up a little while ago and then put it away.  I've pulled it back out so that I could play around with it for a group show down at the Weston called Unfunction. Maria Seda-Reeder, whom is curating the exhibition, was here for a studio visit a while ago and she showed some interest in it while I was still constructing it. So now I’m like, “Alright, I’ve got to do something with this now”. I also have the documentary film that I’ve been working on for about four years now. I just got back from Seattle where I was doing some more shooting. 

F-D: Can you tell us about your process and how it has evolved?

EHM: During my undergrad I took some footage of the World War II Incarceration Camps. It was a landscape going out into the space. It's interesting, now that I’m thinking about it, if I were to do that now I would not do it the same. I’d probably go out there and do some performances out in the field; but at the time I was much more of a purist.  Also keep in mind that this was during my undergrad and we only had Photoshop II. We had to render before you could see anything at all. It was miserable. But I did do that and then I started getting into staging things out in the real world; but I’m still not sure how I’ve gotten to where I am now or what I’m doing in the studio right now [laughs]. That’s interesting. . . I hadn’t really thought about that.

F-D: Do you think it's something you've begun because of it's practicality?

EHM: I think it has to do with personality. I’m a bit of a control freak. I mean, I would fly out to these locations sometimes and the weather would suck or the lighting wouldn’t be right. You never know what you're going to get and you can’t control anything. I think that, shooting here or in the studio, I can control everything; and so I know it’s exactly what I want it to be. I also find it hard to work with other people within the same space. It’s nice for me to just be by myself. It's my alone time. Although, after a full day of being in here on my own, I’m gonna want to go out and get dinner or drinks and see friends. I’ll need that interaction by the end of the day. 

F-D: Do you work with narratives, plot, or any general progressive ideas?

EHM: No. . . I’d rather think of them as poems. 

F-D: I love that. How so?

EHM: They’re not direct. But perhaps each line is, like, an idea. For example, with Tending My Grandmother's Garden, it was the idea of preserving her legacy, cultivating growth, and symbolic isolated ideas. Then the visuals came out of how I was connecting them in my head.

F-D: Do you consider your work to be autobiographical at all; does personal history work its way into your making?

EHM: Yes. I  take motivation from either my or my grandparents’ experiences. My family is all mixed up: my father is a third-generation Japanese American and my mother is of British decent but from many, many generations ago. My parents divorced when I was younger. On my mother’s side I have an adopted older sister who is Laotian. She came over as a teenage refugee after the Vietnam War. Then I have a little sister who was born after my mother remarried to my step-dad, she is thirteen years younger than me and she is fully Caucasian. So we have a mix of variant immigrant generations in our family and it’s influenced how I think about the world and life.

F-D: What influences outside the visual arts inspire and impact your approach to making work?

EHM: Politics. I was involved with a group that does pilgrimages to the Incarceration Camp where my family was placed during World War II. Those travels have influenced quite a bit about how I was thinking about my family's relationship to that history. I had access to people whom were there at the camps, and so I also had access to information regarding to their first hand experience. Even though the pilgrimage was an act in and of itself, it was also motivating and feeding me intellectually. Another influence, I'd have to say, are the Islands of Hawaii in general: there’s just this beauty to them and an old world mysticism that’s really intriguing, you know? We try to go back at least once a year. Last year we were actually able to go back twice. There is just something home-like about being there that is inspiring.

F-D: What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?

EHM: I think the physical space is necessary because sometimes-- and this is pertaining specifically to artists that work digitally-- don’t have a set space. It becomes hard for them to say, “I’m at work now”. It’s important to not see the dishes and to not spend mental energy on life stuff. Being able to focus is important. Personally, as far as the space goes: it could be anywhere. I’m pretty flexible in that way.

F-D: Do you see your work as relating to any current movement or direction in visual art or culture? Which other artists might your work be in conversation with?

EHM: I was thinking about that question before you came. Still life is the natural genre that people would gravitate to when they look at the work that I’ve been making recently. Some of the new work, specifically the three dimensional pieces; I'm not so sure. There are a lot of photographers that are thinking about the physicalness of photography; rather than thinking of it as a window into their subject. So I’ve been thinking about [photography] as material. For a few new works this includes printing them and attaching them together so that they resemble an obi, which is a sash or belt for a kimono. I’ll print the image to be 150 inches and I’ll print it on a paper that has a high sheen so that it resembles the satin used to make kimonos. So, I guess to sum up, I'm thinking of photography in terms of a more tactile execution. I don’t know if that’s being called anything yet. There is a newish book called Photography is Magic by Charlotte Cotton. It shows a lot of work by artists and photographers that are just working differently with photographs and different materials. It is interesting to think of photography as something of an heirloom or personal artifact rather than a framed, printed, image. It’s interesting to play with.

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F-D: Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist you live by?

EHM: I don’t know. I just try not to be lazy. I just try to always be working on something. I don’t know if that’s a motto or not.

F-D: When asked; what do you tell people you do for a living?

EHM: I say I’m an artist. I usually specify that I’m a photo and video artist because if I say I’m a photographer they’ll ask if I shoot weddings because that’s what the world thinks photographers do. When there’s a whole world of things that you can do with photography!

F-D: What risks have you taken in your work, or for your work?

EHM: I don’t know! I don’t know if I’ve ever considered it risky. I’ve always put the work first. In undergrad my car was stolen. I didn’t buy a new one. I did buy myself a new Hasselblad which is about the same cost as a used car. But the use that I got out of that camera was so much more than I would have gotten from a car. Maybe for me it it was never about risk, but rather sacrifice. Twice this semester I've had to have the discussion with students about how life stuff should be the means to the ends, which is the work. Especially working with young artists, eighteen to twenty-somethings, a lot of times they will have a ‘problem at home’, mental health issue, or money issue and sometimes, honestly, life can seem so debilitating at times that you can’t make any work. But if that stuff gets in the way, what is the point of it. Get over the worry or stress and make the work. At least show up, because if you don’t do that then why are you even going to school and procuring all of this debt? It’s for nothing if it isn’t for the work. We often times let life get in the way of showing up, myself included. 

F-D: Words of wisdom, a specific quote that’s important to you? 

EHM: You know. . . Just do it. Just show up and make the work. Most of the time, in actuality, you have to do something five times before it does work out. My work has so much to do with past and present, and there’s always one quote that sticks with me. It’s by Alice Walker and it’s from her book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens which is where I got the title for this last body of work. The quote reads, “I suffer from a racial vertigo that can only be cured by taking what one needs from one’s ancestors”. I just love that quote, because that’s what I feel like I’m doing with my work. I’m trying to figure shit out by looking at the past and comparing that to where we are now. On the flip side of that; there's the final thought from the forward to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in that it is a "novel from a pillar of salt". I just love that. I think about both of those a lot. How relevant can the past be? Then again, how can we really investigate what we are without looking to the past. There’s just always that constant push and pull. They’re little book ends to how I like thinking about my work.

F-D: Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?

EHM: I’m working on a project for one of the windows at the Art Academy for Blink. It’s funny, it’s a completely digital project, but I still made hand-drawn sketches. 

F-D: Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when? 

EHM: I am showing in UnFunction, a group exhibition curated by writer and independent curator Maria Seda-Reeder that examines the intersection of functional objects and fine art. The exhibition includes artists from Cincinnati, Chicago, South Carolina, upper Ohio, and Indianapolis. It's running from now until November 19th. 

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