Wes Senzaki

Wes Senzaki
copyright Wes Senzaki
copyright Wes Senzaki - War and Asian Americans

 from East Wind Magazine Vol. 1 No. 1 (1982)

Subheadings were added to the original publication to make this more readable on the web.
After high school, I went into college and studied biochemistry. I was into a hippie stage . . . I was an idealist; you know, "peace, everyone should love one another and everything'll be alright." I went to U.C. Santa Barbara in 1968 when the first Third World strikes started happening. We were demanding our rights to an equal education, one that dealt with our people's histories rather than just falsified European male history. That was the crystallizing thing for me. I took part in anti-war and anti-draft marches. I had watched the Civil Rights Movement and ghetto riots while growing up. It brought changes on and that's when I decided to drop out of biochemistry to re-think my direction in life.
How It Happens
I got a job in a factory and got involved in my first unionizing effort. Later on, and it took a while, I realized that peace and justice don't happen by just waving the peace sign, smoking dope, kicking back and being good to your friends. Being good to people is basic but the only way to stop oppression and exploitation is by fighting actively against it in whatever way you can. Seeing people not only in the U.S. but around the world struggling and dying fighting for liberation made me realize that the oppressors will never stop exploiting people because you ask "Please stop ... gimme a break." It ain't gonna happen. I know we have to actively struggle to make progressive changes, and I feel that everyone hasaskill ortalenttogivetomaking positive change. For myself, I've enjoyed art since I was a child, so I felt that's something that I should pursue.
I really started to make a serious effort in that direction after I moved to San Francisco in 1974. I became involved with the Committee Against Nihonmachi Eviction (CANE) and joined their newsletter committee. I started doing illustrations. From that it progressed and grew. I started doing things for the October First Celebrations, for normalization of relations between the U.S. and China. That's when I was introduced to the Kearny Street Workshop which was flourishing.
I felt there was a real need on the cultural level to develop skills and promote a Japanese American community art. A couple of us on CANE's newsletter committee frequently talked about art. We used to talk with others too about the need for some place, a facility we could work out of. A place where we could develop politically conscious art and offer art classes that people normally could not afford. They wouldn't get the same perspective going just to an art school like the Academy of Art in San Francisco. We wanted more of a grassroots thing basically. So the idea of having an arts workshop in the community came about, and we were able to get some seed money from the Japantown Art Movement, a coalition of community groups that was formed to get funding for community art programs. We got use of the empty space at 1852 Sutter from the Redevelopment Agency. There were people interested at that time, most of whom are still involved: Doug Yamamoto, Rich Wada, Mitsu Yashima, Gail Aratani and others. So we began in early'76 to rehabilitate the building. By early 1977, around springtime, it was starting to take shape. We put the word out about this art workshop in the community. We had a formal organizing committee and started dealing with what we were going to call ourselves and where we were coming from. We opened on October 1, 1977. That's how the Japantown Art and Media (JAM) Workshop came into being.
When we first started, there were basically just classes. We started doing silk-screen posters and that evolved into graphic services. It's expanded beyond posters to leaflets, brochures and other art services to community organizations. There are special art projects such as the Asian Women Artists Project, Senior Citizen Art Project and Nihonmachi Garden Project. We're also involved in exhibitions and cultural events like the Oshogatsu Festival and Nihonmachi Street Fair.
When we first started we were totally volunteer. We had some funding from private foundations. At one point we had state money and paid people to work at JAM. But there have been cutbacks. It just means that we will rely more on volunteers and collaborate closer with other progressive art groups.
My Art
I feel fairly comfortable with my work now. As the years have gone by I can see the improvement in my work and hopefully that'll continue. Not being formally trained, the only way you can do it is to keep producing. I think the greatest leaps I have made in the quality of my art have been since working with JAM. This is what PROGRESSIONS (an exhibit of posters and drawings by Wes Senzaki and Richard Tokeshi at S.F.'s Chinese Cultural Center in March, 1982) is all about. We're not working in isolation. We're working with other artists and organizations in the context of a community and it's a process of constant sharing. I learn much from other people as I hope they learn from me.
Up 'til now, I've been focusing more on my art in terms of developing craft and skills. I think at one time my political understanding was at a much higher level than my technical art skills. I've been feeling though that my art skills have come up to a level pretty much on par with my political understanding. In order to get any further, not only in my art but in my politics, I have to do more study to get a deeper understanding of what's going on and what needs to be done. My art will always get better as I practice it, but the same holds true for my politics. It will only get better as I practice it.
The Asian Movement, if you look at it historically, is still very, very young. It's been progressing all along; it's been expanding. At the beginning, it was almost exclusively a political movement and it's expanded in the last few years by recognizing the role and power of culture. That's real encouraging.
Whenever other art/cultural groups like the Asian American Resource Workshop in Boston or Thousand Cranes in New York City are in the area, they stop by JAM and we have some really good discussions. We keep in contact; we send each other literature. It's funny because you can get the feeling that you're alone, that no other artists out there know what you are doing. But when other groups start popping up, there's a sense of a movement happening. It's encouraging for us, so at JAM we try to be as supportive and helpful as possible.
Knowing Who We Are
Though social and economic conditions are deteriorating, I have hope. On an important level, things are getting better. Better because people who have progressive political consciousness, their consciousness is deepening, and for those who didn't before have that consciousness, they're beginning to get it. There's also a growing sense of unity among the Asian nationalities. That's one thing I'd like to point out about JAM. Even though we focus on the Japanese community because we're located in Japantown, we work with and for groups of different Asian and Third World nationalities around the Bay Area. Our staff isn't just Japanese. In the future, we want to get more in touch with other Asian/Pacific nationality communities and build a stronger network of progressive artists.