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Stolen painting represented in internment exhibit

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A photo of the Shimizu family in New Denver in 1944 is featured in an exhibition poster along with one of curator Samantha Kuniko Marsh. MONTAGE BY JOHN ENDO GREENAWAY

Ten years ago, a man walked into the Maltwood Gallery at the University of Victoria, pulled an original ­painting off the wall, took it into an adjacent ­washroom, stripped it from its frame and walked out with it.

The precious oil-on-canvas was one of a collection of 27 painted by local ­resident Dr. Henry Shimizu, ­memorializing “bittersweet” years spent in a New Denver internment camp after he and his family were uprooted from their Prince Rupert home in 1942.

I learned about the theft after I brought guest lecturer and Hiroshima survivor Koko Kondo to view the ­paintings — only to find the exhibit ­shuttered and all the paintings removed without explanation.

Who would perpetrate such a ­brazen theft? And why? Was it random ­vandalism? Or was it an overtly racist act to denigrate this poignant reminder of the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Canadians? And why had the university not gone public to try to retrieve the painting?

The questions remain, but the power of the paintings will come to life again as the university rehosts the collection at its Legacy Art Gallery in downtown ­Victoria, on now through June 18.

Isshoni: Henry Shimizu’s ­Paintings of New Denver Internment this time ­benefits from fulsome university ­support, with dedicated funding to hire a young Japanese Canadian artist to curate the exhibit, and to engage award-winning artist Bryce Kanbara to advise on the project. Kanbara won the 2021 Governor General’s award in visual and media arts.

Samantha Kuniko Marsh, a ­mixed-race yonsei cultural worker and ­independent curator, was chosen to curate the new exhibit. She aims to enhance the ­collection by centring the voices of three generations from the Shimizu ­family, strategically integrating ­quotations from Henry Shimizu, his mother, Kimiko Shimizu, and his son, Greg, as well as several family photographs. The ­prolonged, intergenerational impacts of internment are highlighted with all content presented in both English and Japanese.

Issues of changing identity, ­community and family are important to Marsh, whose grandparents’ assets were also seized during the Second World War. She has a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of B.C.

The timing of the exhibit coincides with the 80th anniversary of the ­uprooting and exile of Japanese ­Canadians from B.C. Henry Shimizu was 14 when he and the rest of the Shimizu family were forced to leave Prince Rupert, where Henry’s parents ran a ­successful restaurant.

Confined to the New Denver camp for four years, Shimizu refers to the ­paintings as bittersweet memories of the camp. In addition to capturing the exquisite scenery of the New Denver environs, the paintings also represent the ­resilience of youth — of hockey ­playing, dance parties and baseball games — and the humanity of young Japanese ­Canadians in tenuous times.

Even after the war ended in 1945, the B.C. government successfully lobbied to prevent Japanese Canadians from returning to the coast until 1949. So, the Shimizu family moved to ­Edmonton in 1946. Henry, like many Japanese ­Canadians, came away from the ­experience determined to be successful, contrary to the expectations of the B.C. government and the federal government who “wished to isolate and eradicate the Japanese Canadian presence in the province, a form of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ” he states in the booklet Images of ­Internment.

In Edmonton, Shimizu graduated in medicine in 1954, becoming one of ­Canada’s pre-eminent plastic surgeons. He chaired the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation from 1989 to 2001. He retired from clinical work in 1999 and retired to Victoria in 2006 with his wife, Joan. Active with the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society for many years, he is a recipient of the Order of Canada. The University of Victoria bestowed him with an honorary doctorate in 2012.

The stolen painting is represented in the exhibit with a giclée reproduction.

• For further information on the exhibit, go to uvic.ca/legacygalleries/events-and-programs/index.php or contact legacy@uvic.ca.

John Price is professor emeritus of history at the University of Victoria.