Editor’s Note: Sudhiti Naskar was my colleague in the journalism MA program at UNR. We graduated in 2019. In the graduate lab, Shu often talked about how much Eastern influence she noticed in American art and culture. This is the first in a series of three articles in which she interviews an artist from an Eastern country who works in Reno—looking at their work and ideas through her own cultural lenses. Stay tuned to read about Shu’s conversations with MFA student Sogand Tabatabaei in June and printmaking professor Eunkang Koh in July.
I was born in the suburbs of Calcutta in eastern India. Growing up, my siblings and I had access to books and music, but our TV time was closely monitored. Saturday and Sunday afternoons were the only times we were allowed to watch TV without getting a scolding. So, we read books. Detective stories, fairy tales, science essays for children—even math books. At university, reading was still my sanctuary. I’d pore over books of Western classical art.
Later, I was lucky to have friends who were artists. We are talking about late 2000s here, before the burst of social media in India. We’d visit in person. In studios, when they painted or sculpted, I’d sit and watch. During breaks, we would talk about their work over steaming cups of tea, and I learned how artists pour their philosophies into their work.
This habit of watching artists developed even more during my years of journalistic reporting and fieldwork as a researcher. I met people from different religious, racial, cultural and class backgrounds. Stepping outside of my own little cocoon showed me people’s humanity.
The Masters program in Media Innovation brought me to the University of Nevada, Reno in fall 2017. In the middle of all this gorgeous nature and a fulfilling intellectual environment at school, I’d feel homesick and yearn for human interactions. The locals would greet me on my walk to campus with a friendly “good morning.” At the pubs and karaoke places downtown, strangers often asked, “So, where are you from?” And before we knew it, we were discussing our economies, cultures, and politics, pleasantly surprised at the common nature of our values, hopes and fears.
After I graduated from UNR in 2019, I stayed for Reno’s people, their big-hearted, weird, hipster coolness, opportunities, the mountains and the open blue skies. I connected with Kris, the editor of this website, in grad school, and we talked about all of the Eastern influences I’d noticed in Reno art and Burning Man art.
Meeting of the minds
It was with all of this in mind—my own background, the way my viewpoint expanded as a reporter in India, and my vantage point as an international student—that I met with Miya Hannan. She’s a UNR art professor, originally from Japan, and much of her artwork is a meditation on death. She uses materials like bone ash, charred objects, soot, and other stuff that looks like human remains. Her installation “Sphenoid Bone” creates a passage between life, death and after. There are a total of 500 butterfly-shaped bones, created with epoxy resin and a type of adhesive polymer. In my years of gallery-hopping as an art admirer, I have not come across work like Hannan’s—the bones, the charred phone books, the strong sense of peace they all convey.
Her “Release of Memory,” is a series made of burned phone books dissolving into dark smoke and thin air. It brings back some of my old memories: ribbons of sweet-smelling smoke from the incense sticks wafting over photos of dead relatives; smoke dissolving into an overcast sky from the cremation of my grandfather by the river Ganges.
“You go through a lot of trial and error,” Hannan said. Trial and error is something she has gotten good at in the 20 years since she came to America. In order to understand, we need a bit of backstory.
Transitioning from science to art
In another life, Hannan worked at a hospital in Japan’s Kyushu Island, nestled on the Pacific Ocean south of Hiroshima. “I was fascinated by the human body since I was young,” she said. “I carried my anatomy book everywhere like the Bible.” She was passionate about “fixing the human body.” But she had to do a lot more than that as a radiation technologist. There were politics, paperwork, and insurance companies. “I felt like a machine,” she said. “It’s not only about fixing a patient’s body. You need to understand what’s going on in their minds. You need to see what’s going on with their family.” Some of her patients did not survive. “Nobody teaches medical staff how to deal with that,” she recalled. “And that’s when I started to think about human fate, a lot! I was questioning myself: ‘Is this what I want to do with my life?’”
She took a sabbatical, came to America, and enrolled in an English language class. Then, she enrolled in drawing classes. “This was my first time learning how to express myself,” she said. “Also, I began to understand something that’s not physical, not tangible. And it changed my whole life.”
But the process was not without growing pains. The sadness of losing patients found its way into her art. “I feel some of my patients did die, maybe, because of me,” she said. One of the images she remembers is of families waiting in the hallways. “I wish I could have helped them,” she said. “I wish I knew better.”
Through all of the pain, confusion and struggles, Hannan had one constant in her life, her need for honesty. “My work has to represent who I am,” she said. This is why she turned away from Western painting, her original inspiration, and turned to Japanese culture. This is when she realized that her philosophy was inspired by Shinto Buddhism, in which it is believed that humans, flora, and fauna are all connected.
“I started seeing my world as layers and linkages of human history, instead of seeing my little life as a beginning and an end,” Hannan said. “I am just passing whatever I carry to the next generation. Every single person who lives in this world becomes part of our life somehow. They leave something on this road.” This philosophy gave her peace. It helped her live with the sadness and turn her pain and regret into what she called “a driving force.”
More on Miya Hannan from Double Scoop:
As deeply spiritual as this is, Hannan clarified that she does not believe in the afterlife or ghosts. She’s a believer in science and thinks death is a process of matter changing form. Humans, she said, “change into a pile of bones, powder, and something intangible. Scientists might call this the genetic code. Religion might call it the spirit.” Instead of taking sides, she takes inspiration from both.
Communicating across cultures
It’s hard to make art that people care about. It’s even harder to use visual elements to communicate your own cultural traditions—and the rich philosophies behind them—to an audience in another country. “It’s always a struggle,” Hannan said. “How much can I tell Americans? Sometimes I push too much. Sometimes I pull too much.”
Also, there is no typical American reaction. People in different cities react differently. Her “Sphenoid Bone” exhibition in California had a mixed review. About half the audience seemed engaged. And the rest “couldn’t take it,” Hannan said. As she wondered what happened, a friend from the East Coast, who now lives in California, told her “California is a place to come when you want to forget about death, when you want to forget about aging.”
Hannan does not want to stereotype. She noted that people develop personal ways of dealing with death and loss regardless of culture and religion. Even then, she has observed that there is a bit of an overall cultural resistance in America to talking about death. She feels that a lack of rituals might be one of the reasons. She is married to an American whose parents are Catholic. She noted that death rituals in America tend to be less extensive than the ones she grew up with in Japan.
“If somebody dies, we have a ritual that lasts 49 days,” she said. “My grandpa passed away when I was 12. We are in the crematorium. We press the button. Smoke is going out of chimneys. We have so many rituals every year around death and ancestors.” She said that the act of picking up the bones after cremation gave her “a good closure.”
The pain of losing a loved one forever takes time to heal. It takes time to grieve. Time is what many people don’t have in this fast-paced country.
I am not a fan of rituals myself. In my experience, sometimes, the positive and personally cathartic side of rituals get overshadowed by the commercial and political aspects. But I understand how they can help people process loss, how they can give the living a sense of continuity with the dead, if they don’t overpower people with a big bill and social pressures. In contrast, there is a degree of detachment in how loss and death are processed in the West. When I think of death rituals here, the image that comes to mind is of an elegantly decorated casket gently being rolled down in a pit, where the loved ones throw a fistful of dirt, or a rose. It’s poetic and controlled, unlike the vulnerability and scope of grief in certain Eastern death rituals both Hannan and I witnessed. The pain of losing a loved one forever takes time to heal. It takes time to grieve. Time is what many people don’t have in this fast-paced country.
One of the ways Hannan bridges the cultural gap is by not focusing on the cultural context but on the effect. “My cultural stuff is just my driving force,” she said. “It helps me to decide, shape, and design, but I always have a goal in mind. … I’m hoping that I can show a different point of view to the American audience to help them realize that there are many ways to deal with this difficult topic.”
She has been successful. In Richmond, Virginia, her audience connected with her in ways she did not expect. She was showcasing the “Sphenoid Bone” and was unsure how people would react. She explained that sometimes art-lovers are so engaged in her work that they want to have a conversation on the politics around death and violence. On occasion, for example, viewers have seen her work and been reminded of politically and racially charged incidents of violence such as the Holocaust. In Richmond, Hannan had Virginia’s history of racial violence and lynchings on her mind. She worried that she might be called on to address those topics specifically, and she said she feels unqualified to comment on something as horrible as that.
Contrary to her concerns, Richmond gave her a warm reception. “People came to me and asked me how I am,” Hannan said. “They held my hand and said ‘Thank you.’ One woman told me she was finding it a little easier to think about her son’s death. ‘I feel good in here about my son,’ she said. She showed me a photo and said, ‘This is my son. He committed suicide last year.’”
Hannan always listens carefully to her audience’s reactions. They let her know what works and what doesn’t. She’s learned not to make assumptions about what people will or will not understand. “Even if they don’t catch a hundred percent of my artwork, which I don’t expect them to, they may feel something. Maybe, let them think something.”