Written on the Body #40, August 11, 2021: Shadows of Remembrance

Note on websites cited in this post: Due to a computer quirk I do not understand, please do not click on the links directly from the website. You need to take the extra step of copying and pasting the site into a new tab on your browser. I am trying to correct this, but for now I hope you take the extra step — it is worth it!

With so much going on in the world today — covid19 and its variants and vaccines; extreme climate change, with droughts, forest fires, and floods; uncovering the graves of children at Residential schools; other instances of systemic racism; the plight of “the two Michaels” held prisoner in China; even successful events like the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo — one can forget to remember a world-shaking event that took place 76 years ago (the year that I was born.) I am speaking of the nuclear bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, and then Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It is important to remember the victims, the survivors, their families, and all who have been touched by the threat, if not the effects, of nuclear war. And to find ways that this weapon, and other catastrophic weapons, will not be used again.

For many years, Bryce Kanbara, Hamilton artist and owner of the You Me Gallery, 330 James Street North, organized the Shadow Project on/around August 6, in which volunteers would draw each other’s outlines in chalk on the James Street pavement, to represent the shadows of people instantly vaporized by the blinding heat of the nuclear bomb, leaving their shadows on walls or sidewalks. You can see historic photographs and read a fuller explanation of what happened here: https://allthatsinteresting.com/hiroshima-shadows

I participated for several years in Bryce’s Shadow Project. Although, of course, it was theatre, re-enactment and not “real,” lying down on the pavement and having my shadow drawn, or drawing someone else’s, and seeing the ghostly effects was moving, disturbing, even bone-chilling. And many passers-by stopped to ask what we were doing, and became interested. In 2009, I wrote a poem about this experience, which was later published in HA&L (Hamilton Arts & Letters), with an article about the project. Read the article here, and then follow the link to the poem: https://halmagazine.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/the-shadow-project-2016-%E2%80%A2-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/ I also published the poem in my book, The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and other poems (Pinking Shears Publications, 2019.)

Art, like life, works in mysterious ways. In 2019, Hamilton film-maker Teresa d’Elia began making a film of the Shadow Project, and learned about my poem from Bryce. I was honoured that she chose my poem as the narration of her short film; in the film, the poem is read by spoken-word poet Nisha Patel, with music by Kiyoshi Nagata. The film intersperses scenes from Hamilton in the present with shots from history. You can see a trailer of the film here: https://vimeo.com/534256661. (this is a correction from previous site). Teresa has submitted the film to several festivals, and we hope to have good news very soon, which I will share with you. I deeply appreciate Teresa asking to use my poem in this way.

In 2020, because of the covid19 pandemic, there was an abbreviated version of the Shadow Project, with people wearing masks and limiting their activity to a few minutes. In 2021, it was “on hold” for health concerns, but I hope it can take place again next August.

People have asked if, or how, you can make art from subjects as devastating as the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, 9-11, the Residential Schools, slavery, and other horrors. Some have said this is impossible. On the other hand, one of the functions of art is to make us really see and feel these experiences, to begin to understand and learn from them, and also to allow people who have experienced these events — or their children and grandchildren — to begin to heal. Look at Picasso’s Guernica, Primo Levi’s Night, the poems and paintings by children at Terezin concentration camp, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, the art exhibit “Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world,” co-curated by Bryce Kanbara at the ROM in 2019, and (going far back in history) Euripides’ The Trojan Women, for just a few examples. It is mind-boggling to think that the human mind can create both such devastating destruction and such deeply-felt responses in visual art, written word, and music — but we do; perhaps the art comes from using our open hearts as well as our minds.

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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