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Exhibit uses art and storytelling to explore Nanaimo’s history as a ‘herring capital’

Cindy Mochizuki’s ‘Tides and Moons’ featured at Nanaimo Art Gallery starting Oct. 22
Cindy Mochizuki as she hand-cranks one of six herring automatons that will be displayed in her ‘Tides and Moons: Herring Capital’ exhibit at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, opening Oct. 22. (Mandy Moraes/News Bulletin)

In the Nanaimo Art Gallery’s next exhibit, a Vancouver artist will juxtapose personal retellings with historical materials to show two ways of how history is told.

Cindy Mochizuki’s ‘Tides and Moons: Herring Capital,’ which will show at the gallery from Oct. 22 until Jan. 8, shares the stories of Japanese-Canadian fishing and boat-building families that lived in Nanaimo before the Second World War.

Although Nanaimo was known as a coal-mining town at the time, Japanese-Canadian fishers lived and worked along Hammond Bay, Departure Bay, Shack Island at Pipers Lagoon Park and Saysutshun. There were 43 herring salteries, Mochizuki said, mostly concentrated along what is now known as Stewart Avenue, Departure Bay’s Jesse Island and Saysutshun.

Because of an “unexplainable abundance” of herring, and a salt tax in Asia that created a demand for the salted fish, Nanaimo suddenly became known as a herring capital.

“It’s a history that not a lot of people know about,” Mochizuki said.

Her exhibit will include six herring automatons that, when hand-cranked, will mobilize the fish and create shadow play against the wall to express “the light and dark aspects of history.”

“I use shadow, theatricality, storytelling and animation because the content can be very stark,” she said.

In her memory work of interviewing different community elders, often children or grandchildren of late Japanese Canadian fisherman and boat builders, Mochizuki created a 13-minute mixed-media animation using watercolours, video footage and dolls to share the retellings of the elders’ childhood in the Nanaimo area from the early 1900s to the Second World War.

“They’re sharing stories of when they were kids, and now they’re in their 80s…” Mochizuki said. “There’s gaps and there’s silences sometimes … it’s all perspective… and working with ways of remembering, sometimes painful or difficult histories.”

To contrast and balance the intimate details of personal stories, archival material gathered from the City of Nanaimo and the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby will provide an additional factual side of history.

“I think together it fills in some gaps … and also point to things that we can’t see…” the artist said. “[The elder] won’t think about, ‘oh yeah, in 1941 there was the bombing of Pearl Harbour’ – that won’t come up. But they’ll talk about their favourite sweet or something.”

The gathered material will include black and white photographs, land deeds, old film footage and tools of fishing and boat building trades.

“Often times, the data doesn’t have the life … and I’m more interested in bringing forward the life experiences of these people rather than concrete commodities.”

Several dolls and set pieces used in the animation will also be display at the Nanaimo Art Gallery exhibit.

Tides and Moons: Herring Capital is the third exhibit of the gallery’s thematic question, ‘what stories do we tell?’ An opening reception will be held at the gallery on Friday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. with an welcoming by Snuneymuxw elder Lolly Good.

READ MORE: Nanaimo Art Gallery hosting exhibit based on responses to late artist’s work

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A still image from the animation in Cindy Mochizuki’s ‘Tides and Moons: Herring Capital’ exhibit, opening at the Nanaimo Art Gallery on Oct. 22. (Submitted image)

Mandy Moraes

About the Author: Mandy Moraes

I joined Black Press Media in 2020 as a multimedia reporter for the Parksville Qualicum Beach News, and transferred to the News Bulletin in 2022
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