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Focus on a Tragic Landscape: Guggenheim Fellow Osamu James Nakagawa

Since 1924, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has awarded more than $273 million in fellowships to writers, artists and scientists.

To a list of honorees including the likes of Linus Pauling, Martha Graham and Vladimir Nabokov will be added the name of an associate professor of photography in Indiana University’s Hope School of Fine Arts.

Osamu James Nakagawa has most recently been focusing on a dark chapter of history that Japanese textbooks tend to gloss over, or omit altogether.


In the spring of 1945, when Okinawa was under siege from Allied and Japanese forces, thousands of Okinawans—a group ethnically distinct from the Japanese—committed suicide by jumping off the island’s cliffs or blowing themselves up with grenades in the caves where they’d been hiding .

Nakagawa is not Okinawan, although his wife’s family is. Born in New York, Nakagawa was raised in Tokyo, but returned to Houston, Texas in high school. In his trans-nationality, he perceives a certain affinity with the geographically, politically and ethnically liminal island of Okinawa.

Nakagawa’s 60 by 20 inch prints of Okinawa’s suicide cliffs—or “banta”—technically exceeded the size guidelines stipulated within the Guggenheim application. But their scale is essential to the photographs’ effect. The tall, narrow pictures set up a one-on-one dialogue, forcing the spectator’s physical reckoning with the tragic site.

Nakagawa’s photos of the cliffs may be even more vertiginous than the experience of being there. You seem to be able not only to look up or down, but also straight ahead. A longtime practitioner of digital manipulation, Nakagawa stitches together shots taken from multiple viewpoints, and punches up detail and color, resulting in a hyper-real image.

In contrast with the hi-tech equipment and techniques Nakagawa employs, the culture the Guggenheim recipient has immersed himself in is ancient and deeply spiritual. When Nakagawa embarked on a companion project to photograph the island’s suicide caves, or “gama”, his Okinawan in-laws strongly discouraged him.

So they arranged for Nakagawa to consult a shaman, an Okinawan “yuta”. She not only approved of the project, but revealed that the photographer had a special role to play, and encouraged his exploration of more of the island’s caves, considered sacred long before World War 2.

The Guggenheim Fellowship, along with a grant from IU, will allow Nakagawa to spend more time doing just that. Nakagawa’s cliff and cave series will be exhibited in the summer of 2009 in Okinawa’s Sakima collection, which is registered as a Unesco Peace museum.

Yaël Ksander

WFIU's Arts Desk Editor, Yaël seeks out and shepherds the stories of artists, musicians, writers, and other creative people. In addition, Yaël co-hosts A Moment of Science, writes essays for A Moment of Indiana History, produces Speak Your Mind (WFIU's guest editorial segment), hosts music and news hours throughout the week, and lends her voice to everything from accounting courses to nature documentaries. Yaël holds a MFA in painting from Indiana University, an MA in art history from Columbia University, and a BA from the University of Virginia, where she studied languages and literature.

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