Tim Okamura / Breathtaking renderings of human face and form

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Renaissance Fresh: Tim Okamura
by Takeema Hoffman

To hear New York-based artist Tim Okamura tell it, it is in times of crisis that the artist’s voice is at its most profound and important. Politics and politicians are as shady as ever. The struggling economy has knocked several people and industries off their center. Homegrown revolution is brewing in the streets of major cities from the east to the west coast, and rapid advancements in technology have made geographical barriers obsolete. As we move deeper into the abysmal unknown that is the future, we find ourselves stretching into uncharted terrain; a time rife with great triumph and crisis. In the middle of all of these things stand individuals like Okamura, intent on presenting us with “a diversion [from] the day to day struggle, capturing imagination in whatever form.”

His assessment is reflective of our intense and intimate relationship with the arts and he is the quintessential artist-as-journalist, documenting and recounting our humanity back to us. Through his work, Okamura presents us with a humanity that is not just black and white, but also all of the varying shades in between.

True story: after admiring some beautiful portraits of African-American women on Tumblr I found myself genuinely surprised to discover the artist who painted them, Okamura, was of Japanese and European descent. The graceful beauty that radiated from the striking images was so impactful I assumed that his ethnic background must include at least some African. As antiquated as that reaction may seem, it was automatic and speaks to the politics surrounding racial imagery, the ability of art to shock the system, and the necessity of that shock to the system in order to further social dialogue. His imagery tends to have a strong effect on those who find themselves in his audience.

“I’ve done my job to make accessible work. I get letters from kids saying ‘hey, your work speaks to me’ or thanking me for depicting [people of] color in such a positive way, it’s amazing. It’s never something I intentionally said I was going to do and it’s great to have people be so interested.”

It seems to be that one of Okamura’s most alluring traits, as his 2006 series La Familia represents, is his ability to process and articulate the inherent beauty of diversity and the basic familiarity that exists between all of humanity. Inspired by the concept of “urban tribes” presented by Ethan Watters in the book of the same name, the series is comprised of portraits detailing the makeshift families that come into being through our close relationships and include members that span the racial and cultural spectrum. On his site, Okamura makes reference to the wordplay between familia and familiar.

When asked about his perceived connection to the African-American community and experience, he explains that he is often asked that question and the more it is asked of him the more perspectives he has on the issue. Recalling his youth in Edmonton, Canada, he says he’s readily identified with minorities, not just in relation to race or ethnicity, but also culture.

“Growing up half Japanese and white, none of the other kids liked me. I remember being upset that I didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes. I was treated differently. I was called names. My friends ended up being two brothers from Jamaica, a couple kids from Trinidad, one from Guyana, the weird German kid ... We were all kind of minorities in a way and we all banded together.”

Okamura’s parents were the first interracial relationship for either side of their families. It is interesting to note that his paternal grandparents, who were Japanese, were imprisoned in internment camps and his maternal grandfather was a WWII veteran who fought against Japanese forces. As our familial histories have a tendency to do, the cultural and racial dynamics within his family were crucial in the formation of his world view. He calls that “the base that allowed me to see the world differently.”

Hip Hop is also a pronounced force in Okamura’s work. “Hip Hop came along and everything about it spoke to me. I’ve always been into drums and beats but the message was incredibly intense for me. It was that connection to another world for me. I always was into rock and punk, but when hip hop came along it really captured my imagination and spoke to me. Then I got into radio and I had the only hip hop show [in Canada] at the time, in the late 80s.”

After moving to New York in 1991, Okamura found himself naturally gravitating towards the east coast’s booming hip hop scene and felt an affinity with the concept of African-American’s exploring their identity and heritage, much as he had done during his youth.

“In my art it was a natural thing, exploring. During the time [in New York] a lot of African-Americans were investigating their identity and it was right up my alley. As a painter, you deal with the subjects that interest you and as a figurative painter, people want to make a connection between the subject and the person. Like, you’re Chinese, you should paint Chinese people. So I’m half Japanese and white, am I only supposed to paint Japanese and white people? I wanted to tell stories I was interested in and stories I think are important, and depict them with a great deal of respect.”

He often likens his artistic approach to that of the pioneering djs of hip hop’s formative years. With its classical influence and radical execution, his work is like the spark created when Dr. Dre reworked “Mothership Connection” into “Let Me Ride”.

“It’s interesting, because I do feel like an old school dj. There was a freedom there where they could sample from all these different things ... to take from this and that, to come up with something unique, different, soulful, and profound. The fact is that I do still love Rembrandt and Caravaggio but I get turned on by seeing certain tags on the street. When you listen to a song and you hear a couple notes of that one little sample that reminds you of an emotion, it resonates a slightly different way within a larger context, like here’s a little bit of this soulful content from work about 30 years ago that still resonates today, or here’s a color palette from 400 years ago that still works today. Music is an area where everybody feels like they could have some expertise, so when you explain the art in musical terms it’s like, okay this is not necessarily something I can’t relate to.”

Much like Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Okamura’s renderings of the human face and form are breathtaking. The same care and respect with which he tells stories is employed in every nuance of his subjects; from fine lines and tonal variations in the skin to the tactile representation of hair texture.

“I think about the physicality of a painting and the art object. It’s about the surface, finding aspects of sculpture. I like the idea of shifting gears in a painting, using different washes. I love just going for that and capturing a dimensional feel and I think it adds visually and conceptually but it really adds a physical presence that is more than the illusion. Oil is a great medium for translating flesh and hair because there is oil in the flesh and the hair. I love blending the lines between reality and fantasy.”

Okamura is preparing for his second solo show at Lions Where gallery next year and working through the details of his newest collection, Girl-illa Warfare. Inspired by a reaction to his drawings of a model with a head-wrap, Girl-illa is shaping itself to be a study of power, politics, and the strength of the feminine.

“The work is moving forward in a way that challenges people and I think it’s going to be controversial. I’m going to be dealing with iconography. I wanted to deal with one issue in particular; I was working with some models that were doing things with their scarves, tying them and wrapping them in different ways and that immediately meant something to somebody, like they connected it to the Middle East and I’m like, this is just a Brooklyn girl who wraps her scarf like that. So this new series is taking that all the way ... I’m kind of inventing an imaginary girl gang that is fighting for racial and sexual equality and I want that show to come out in early 2014.”

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