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Mizuki Nishiyama—A Third Culture Kid’s Journey of Self-Discovery Through Paintings

Raised in Hong Kong and based in New York, Mizuki Nishiyama is a mixed Japanese painter who used art “as a crutch” for her curiosity when she felt she couldn’t connect to her roots.

By Ashlyn Chak
November 5, 2021

With a Japanese father and a Hong Kong mother, Mizuki Nishiyama is a “third culture kid” who uses art to make sense of the more tempestuous periods in life. ECHELON sits down with the artist to dive into her unusual upbringing that led to her creation of beautifully raw, vivid, and multifaceted paintings exploring the fragile human condition.

Describing her cultural background as “a dense, assorted soup”, Nishiyama was raised primarily in Hong Kong while her parents periodically lived in France and Italy. She recalls mixing up languages as a young child, struggling to form sentences—so much so that she couldn’t even speak in public situations because of how difficult and disorientating it was for her.

Photo: Mizuki Nishiyama

“I was teaching in New York at a Japanese institution a few years ago when I met this little girl who was Russian and Japanese. Whenever she attempted to speak and express herself, she would burst out crying.” She sympathised, “I could see that she was looking for the right puzzle pieces, but she just couldn’t manage it yet.” In Nishiyama’s own words, “Cultures make up the way one sees the world.” Bouncing between six languages at home, she says that watching the Russian-Japanese girl grow and learn was particularly eye-opening as it helped her reflect upon her own experience.

Though admitting that her Japanese is “quite awful” despite it being her family’s primary language, she reveals an urge to challenge and respond to her traditional and modern Japanese heritage, “It is a complicated relationship, but I do feel a philosophical connection with the essence of Japanese culture.” She cites a delicateness to approaching life, which she finds herself resonating with now as a 23-year-old.

Nishiyama’s artistic practice, on the other hand, is another way for her to reconnect with one of her home countries. “In my last few series, I began paying homage to my Japanese heritage and researching niche Japanese topics.” She elaborates, “Currently, I’m working on a series titled ‘Seiza’, which translates to the traditional Japanese sitting-kneeling position, to investigate the Japanese female experience as well as Japanese philosophies regarding sociopolitical aspects of constraint and liberation within the culture.”

Still, the artist concedes that she is on a never-ending path of self-discovery and reclamation. “As a mixed Japanese woman, there are many aspects regarding my gender experience that I feel a need to inquire further. There were moments when I was too self-conscious to dive into my Japanese heritage; hence, I used art as a crutch for my curiosity. Ultimately, I’m trying to learn more about myself, my family, and where I stand amongst all.”

Instead of actively touching upon each culture that made her who she is today, she says it is “simply embedded” in her to put all that she knows into her being and practice. Looking back at her work now, Nishiyama recognises a blend of inspirations and considers painting to be a gateway to see clearly, whilst granting her the courage to navigate through life—“Painting is a language all on its own.”

For somebody like Nishiyama, “home” can be a complex concept. She contemplates, “Hong Kong is the most ‘hottosuru’ (comfortable, heart sighing, homey) place. It is where I feel empowered.”

It seems that perhaps Hong Kong’s longtime status as a melting pot of cultures has a deeper meaning for a third culture kid like Mizuki Nishiyama. “I’ve asked myself why I don’t call myself mixed Hong Kong, but I feel that is the gift this city has given me. Being mixed Japanese is what being mixed Hong Kong is. This city paved the way for me to learn about my disoriented identity, with no strings attached.”