Community Identity?

Community Identity?

Background Information.

Editor's Note: This lesson was designed to supplement the Japan Society Gallery exhibition Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York (October 5, 2007 - January 13, 2008). To see the lesson in its original form, please click here. A modified verion of the lesson to be used without visiting the exhibition is below.

What is "Japanese contemporary art?"  The Japan Society Gallery exhibition Making a Home sought to expand viewers' concepts of this term by presenting Japanese-born artists who were currently living and working in New York City.  In specific, the pieces disussed here by artist Kunie Sugiura and Ushio Shinohara offer a starting point to discuss the definition of "community." 

For an overview of the issues facing contemporary Japan, please read Professor Peter Frost's essay Contemporary Japan, 1989–Present.  Additional relevant essays can be found in our Essays section, and artwork and photos can be found in our Resources section.

Information about the Artists
Kunie Sugiura

Kunie Sugiura's signature works are life-sized photograms, images created by exposing photographic paper to a light source and then developing with chemicals, as a regular photograph, revealing the subject’s shadow. For Sugiura, this process produces an image that not only records a moment, but also expresses something about the intangible qualities of the objects that she captures.

For her series The Artist Papers, Sugiura has chosen as her subjects visual artists in various media who are current or former residents of New York City. These portraits capture images of these artists, often with an iconic, identifying element. The subject of the particular work shown here is artist Ushio Shinohara (who is profiled below). Like Sugiura, Shinohara is another artist who was born in Japan, but has lived and worked in New York City for many years.

Ushio Shinohara

Ushio Shinohara was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1932.  He moved to New York 1969 and currently lives and works in Brooklyn.

Ushio Shinohara is an important figure in the international development of contemporary art. His paintings, performances and sculptures reflect an interest in communicating intensity, action and chaos. In 1960, he was a co-founder of the Neo Dada movement, which emphasized improvised artistic performance and production, as well as found object assemblages and other avant-garde forms of expression.6 In the late 1950s, he created the technique of “Boxing Painting,” a performative process of painting which involves the artist donning boxing gloves, dipping them paint or ink, and “boxing” paper or canvas. For the piece included in the Making a Home exhibition at Japan Society Gallery, Shinohara used sumi ink (a type of ink primarily associated with traditional Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and scroll painting) on paper, and then applied the paper to a traditional folding screen.

Shinohara has lived and worked in New York City since 1969. Many of the artist’s current works reflect a heightening of the everyday realities of metropolitan life. This includes interpretations of both the outlandish as well as the mundane.

[NOTE: As of 4/2008, several videos of Ushio Shinohara executing boxing paintings were available on YouTube.]

Learning Goals.

1. Students will strengthen their comparative skills by contrasting well-know artistic techniques with more avant-garde and less well-known ones.

2. Students will analyze the meaning of "community," specifically in regard to Japanese expatriots in New York City.

Common Core Standards

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening K-5

  • Standard 2.   Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language K-5

  • Standard 1.  Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading 6-12

  • Standard 7.  Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 6-12

  • Standard 1.  Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Key Concept.  

Essential Question.  

Primary Source.  

Thought Questions.  



Focus Activity Ideas.  

Main Lesson Activity Ideas.

The goal of the following activity is to engage your students in an open-ended dialogue about works of art, leading to learning in several disciplines. This material may be used verbatim by teachers of students in grades 7-12, though the questions are broad enough to be modified easily for grades K-6 with the substitution of less advanced vocabulary. Use the presented comparisons and Inquiry as bases for discussion of the images with your students. You need not follow these questions as a script, though you may. You may also choose to have students respond to questions in written form. For more advice on ways to use these activities, please click here.

1.  Inquiry for The Boxing Papers (Shinohara B) by Kunie Sugira.

  • Describe the person that you see in this image. What are this individual’s physical characteristics? How would you describe this individual’s personality based on what you see? Why?

Explain that this is a type of photogram; an image of objects’ shadows created by exposing photographic paper directly to light (without using a camera) and then developing the image. In this photogram, the white areas (shadows) are places where the light was blocked from the paper by an object.

  • How does this technique for capturing an image differ from a photograph?
  • What does this image say about the person pictured that a photograph might not be able to communicate? On the other hand, what might be left out?

2.  Inquiry for Scene from Boxing Painting by Ushio Shinohara.

  • What do you see going on in this photograph? Be as specific as possible. What is happening in the foreground? What is happening in the background?

This is a photograph of a performance by artist Ushio Shinohara, which took place in New York City in 2006. During part of this performance, the artist created a painting in a style he invented called “Boxing Painting.” In this method of applying color to a surface, the artist wears boxing gloves, dips them in ink or paint and then punches paper or a canvas to create the painting.

  • What words can you use to describe the process of Boxing Painting, or product of this method?
  • How is the action of holding and using a paintbrush different from wearing and using boxing gloves?
  • Besides brushes, what are some other ways that an artist can apply paint to paper or canvas?

Summative Activity Ideas.

Inform students that both of these images depict the artist Ushio Shinohara. One is a photo documenting a performance/painting that he did, while the other is an image of him created by another artist, Kunie Sugiura. Both Shinohara and Sugiura were born in Japan (Sugihara was born in Nagoya; Shinohara was born in Tokyo), but now both live and work in New York City.

  • Why might Sugiura have chosen to create a portrait of Sugihara?
  • Does the fact that these two artists were both born in Japan but living in New York make them part of a community? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean to say that these are two “Japanese contemporary

Resources. Resources for Educators/Older Students
Blohm, Judith M. & Lapinsky, Terri. Kids Like Me: Voices of the Immigrant Experience. Boston: Intercultural Press, 2006.
Essays by children and teens describe their experiences acclimating to life in America. Also includes accompanying questions and activities for educators; includes photos and illustrations.

Bode, Janet. New Kids on the Block: Oral Histories of Immigrant Teens. London: Franklin Watts, 1989.
In these narratives, teenagers from all over the world talk about their reactions to being immigrants to the United States, highlighting each individual’s personal responses.

Danquah, Meri Nana-Ama. Becoming American: Personal Essays by First Generation Immigrant Women. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
Essays by women making a home after immigrating to the United States. Provides the perspectives of upper- and middle-class immigrant experiences.

Dublin, Thomas (ed.). Becoming American, Becoming Ethnic: College Students Explore Their Roots. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
These essays were written by college students exploring their ethnic heritage; covering the historical immigrant experiences of their family members, to their reflections on their contemporary lives and efforts to define themselves/be defined.

Foner, Nancy (ed.). New Immigrants in New York. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.
Essays related to current immigrant groups to New York and how these groups are shaping the city.

Resources for Younger Students
A website maintained and written by students and faculty of a public elementary school in Bellingham, Washington. Of particular interest may be “Our Immigration Wing,” in which students from the school relay their families’ personal expereinces as contemporary immigrants to America.

Rosenberg, Maxine. Making a New Home in America. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1986.
Young boys and girls talk about immigrating to the United States; a photoessay.

Say, Allen. Grandfather’s Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Caldecott Medal-winning account of the author’s grandfather's life in Japan and the United States.

Say, Allen. Tea with Milk. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Elegantly-illustrated story of a young woman’s search for “home.”