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Roots

Tulsa Artist Fellow Akiko Jackson’s practice



Tulsa Artist Fellow Akiko Jackson

Melissa Lukenbaugh

Akiko Jackson and I walked through downtown on a bright mid-October day from her Cameron Street studio to Living Arts. Jackson, a Tulsa Artist Fellow, was invited by the gallery to exhibit there this month. She chose work that displays, almost as a chronological survey, what she has been working on over the past ten years. 

Visitors to Living Arts will notice Jackson’s love affair with black, though recently she’s transitioned into working with a black-and-gold color pallet. One piece in the show demonstrates this: black springs from a mattress with gold leaf sitting inside of their circles. Jackson uses affordable materials, most often clay, found objects, and hoarded and discarded materials. 

“I collect these things often when I have some connection to them,” Jackson said. “This mattress I once slept on, then tore apart to make a sculpture.

“I reference nostalgia a lot … My concepts begin from my cultural traditions or practices I had growing up with my mom and the things she instilled in me—like this idea of ‘mottainai,’ which is using everything that’s useful, not letting anything go to waste.” 

Jackson’s mother is Japanese and grew up in a family of farm workers. Mottainai, a Japanese word, called for Jackson to use her black clothing to make an massive, quilt-like piece, “boro: patchwork,” that hangs now at her Living Arts show. “Boro,” which looks to reference map-making, is made entirely from clothes that Jackson once owned and wore. Boro is another Japanese word signifying wasting nothing. Jackson’s mother often made aprons, blankets, quilts, and sacks with old clothes.  

“It’s the whole idea of repurposing something’s original intent. But then there’s a discussion on art—is it practical? What is it good for? For me, it’s about the experience people will have by looking at art. Hopefully it brings on some kind of dialogue, conversation, memory, referencing your own experience, which is exciting.”

Jackson loves hearing viewers’ personal relation to her art, rather than being the “artist in front of the art.”

“It detracts from me, which I love,” she said. “I feel very open and on display when I’m exhibiting. It’s a scary moment. I’m an inner-person, I guess, and the way you display something shows the way your mind works.”

As evidenced by her work and show, Jackson’s mind is concerned with traditions, roots, culture, and even race. 

On the easternmost wall of Living Arts hang “roots, embraced,” and “heritage braided,” two pieces that use hair as subject matter.

“When my hair is down, long and black, I find different types of interactions with people who haven’t seen a person like me before,” Jackson explained. “The appearance of long hair turns you into very much like an animal. People focus on petting me or touching me. They make comments—racial comments and epithets. They stay resonant with me. And this happens nationwide. But I also embrace my culture and don’t want to hide myself, and I love moving and traveling. So I started talking a lot about identity and hair and roots and where you come from and embracing that kind of culture and outlook and that difference is beautiful. This is a very autobiographical piece. It’s about embracing your roots.”

“Roots” looks as it sounds. The piece is an expansive vision of black hair roots (made of ceramic and epoxy on metal wire) coming out of the wall. There are roughly 500 in the installation, each handmade by various individuals. Some are tightly wound, some big and chunky, some skinny, some fat. The contrast between each one evokes the different people Jackson employed to help her make the install. Imprints of fingertips on each recall the human nature of hair; of, very literally, roots.

Next to “Roots,” a 1000-foot black braid snakes up and down, up and down the wall—“Heritage braided,” which speaks to the idea of taming and tying down hair. There’s a need—whether from yourself or the society you live in—to tie it down, braid it, control it. 

“Hairnets were part of my research. They came from wanting to tie back wild, black hair. What was interesting was that it was never about sanitation; it was a psychological sanitation. To see someone wearing a hairnet, for someone who didn’t want to touch that person, there was an ease for them to know that the hair was tied back.”

But the braid also evokes human relationships, bodies, touch between the braider and the braided person, the storytelling that might occur between the two.

Jackson will be here as a Tulsa Artist Fellow through 2017, and has recently received a large amount of stained glass from the local First Presbyterian Church. Next year, she plans to work in metal and stained glass, so Tulsans can look forward to seeing her body of work grow and change.

For more from Liz, read her profile of Tulsa Artist Fellow Crystal Z. Campbell.

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