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Jave Yoshimoto’s radical empathy



“Land of Freedom, Home of Courageous” (2018) – Laser engraved and cut digital illustration, glue, varnish on wood (12x24x1 in).

Jave Yoshimoto

In 2015, Jave Yoshimoto was working at a refugee camp in Greece when he learned about the life preserver scam. Red and grey lifejackets were made available to people who fled their home countries by boat, at a heavy cost. “They were being charged 100 Euros for a lifejacket,” he said.

The insidiousness of charging anything for the basic amenity of safe passage was compounded by instances of outright fraud. “The lifejackets weren’t always real. The human traffickers there are actually hiring refugees to build fake ones,” Yoshimoto said.

“The Breached Macrocosm,” an exhibition of Yoshimoto’s work, opened at TAC Gallery on Dec. 7 and will be on display through Dec. 29. The intricate, laser-engraved wood reliefs and brilliantly-colored paintings focus on social issues that have left an imprint on the artist’s life—like his experience helping refugees.

“Art to me is kind of a healing experience, because I think the world is a traumatic place to exist in. Trying to figure out how to navigate and get through each day,” Yoshimoto said. With that in mind, the 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellow says his highest objective is to create an opportunity for the viewer to pause, look, and empathize. “If I can just get them to stop and think for a minute, I think I did my job.”

Yoshimoto’s bright, finely-detailed paintings—like the ones in his “Disaster” series—often portray disturbing events like the Fukishima Daiichi nuclear disaster, as told through Yoshimoto’s rich visual language. Drawing inspiration from the works of Katsushika Hokusai and weaving elements of fantasy into social commentary, Yoshimoto’s paintings don’t merely beg the viewer’s attention. They earn it.

A year ago, a serious arm injury threatened to stall Yoshimoto’s artistic momentum. “The muscle in my elbow kind of started tearing away from the bone, so I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t hold anything in my right hand for awhile,” he said.

Unable to hold a paintbrush, he forged ahead nonetheless. “I thought, ‘I still need to keep making stuff. I have five shows coming up.’ That’s when I started making these laser cuts.”

Made entirely of thin, laser-engraved wooden layers assembled together as a 3D relief of an iPhone, “What is your emergency?” depicts a city scene shortly after a bombing. Smoke billows far off in the distance as soldiers and civilians wander amid the rubble and confusion. A Syrian woman in the foreground, her face bleeding, stares out into the distance as another woman to her side strains to breathe through a wadded handful of
her hijab.

The familiar graphics on an incoming call screen show the caller’s name, “Aleppo.” Underneath the name are two familiar icons: “Ignore” and “Answer.”

Groups of people huddle around displays of Yoshimoto’s work toward the end of his exhibit’s opening night at the TAC Gallery. They lean forward to discover the finer and finer layers of detail.

“People are curious about what’s behind the work,” Yoshimoto says. “They’re approaching me and asking me questions. It’s not just one person, but multiple people throughout the course of the night, so it’s nice.” His craft piques the viewer’s interest, calling them to get a closer look. What better way to share an urgent message?

In a world of trouble and pain, sometimes just to survive our own crises, we learn to file away horrors like bombings into slots in our mental ROM (read-only memory) where information can be read but not changed. Empathy, Yoshomito’s work suggests, is the moment we realize that we are not a spectator to an issue, but a participant.

It takes energy to break through that wall—and if you make a career of bringing viewers close enough to peer over to the other side, as Yoshimoto has, you need focus and discipline. The lifejacket hanging in his studio is a powerful symbol that cuts the artist’s purpose into sharp relief.

“The more time that passes since 2015, I start losing interest or faith. But whenever I see this, I’m like, ‘Right. I’m doing this for a reason.’”

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