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Home is Where the Heart Is

Being an immigrant is one of life’s necessities for Amsterdam based Japanese designer Sayaka Abe. Her current project with artist collective Home-Work explores her life as an immigrant. 

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 14-02-2013

“As an artist I couldn’t live in my hometown in Japan,” says Sayaka Abe. “When I go back to Japan I feel relaxed, but I can’t imagine being there forever. I would have to quit being an artist if I did. Being in a foreign country keeps me unsure, insecure, and curious for changes.” 

Trying to figure out how other immigrants deal with the concept of home, artist and design collective Home-Work explores life as an immigrant. Specifically Chinese immigrants – first and second generation – in the Netherlands. Their research has led to an exhibition opening this Saturday 16 February at the Lloyd Hotel in Amsterdam.  

Abe’s work on identity started during her studies at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam where she struggled with the blunt criticism she received that would have been unheard of in Japan. “In Amsterdam you need a lot of energy, just to be here,” she says. “It’s not easy.”

She describes herself now as “Japanese and non-Japanese” at the same time. To address this issue Abe and three others initiated the project “Stamppot met Rodekool” back in 2009. The title refers to something that doesn’t really exist – a national Dutch dish of mashed potatoes topped with red cabbage that resembles the Japanese flag.  “We understand Dutch culture, but at the same time we don’t,” she says.

Her current Home-Work project started during a stay last year in the Chinese city of Xiamen with fellow young artist Krimo Benlaloua, a young Dutchman of German/Moroccan descent. “Everyone migrates to cities in China, and Xiamen also has an enormous number of students from all over the country,” says Abe, “so we did a month-long workshop about identity, where we all come from and where we’re going.”

Back in the Netherlands the questioning continued. This time with Chinese immigrants in Holland. They visited first generation immigrants at a centre for elderly “Foe Ooi Leeuw” in the Amsterdam suburbs. “These people were used to travelling,” Abe says.  “Holland usually wasn’t their first port of call on their world travels. For them ‘home’ is simply the place where they are surrounded by family and can enjoy good food together.”    

For the younger generation, however, it is more complicated. With them Abe is doing a series of workshops leading up to the opening of the exhibition this weekend. The workshops will lead to the production of wearable art pieces based on the participants favourite objects.  

Abe herself might not find home anytime soon. “In my head I can’t find home yet, because I’m afraid of staying the same,” she says.  “As soon as I like something and want it to remain I will get stuck. I will become stiff as an artist. We have to be open and flexible. We always have to keep questioning … Is this good? Where do I want to go? How do I want to be?”

But it is so often out of the confrontation of cultures that interesting things happen. “Maybe that’s why I work for Home-Work, and share the story about finding home,” she says.  “Looking for someone to talk to about home. But never finding it myself.”

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