In a Westwood Village storefront just south of the UCLA campus hang roughly a dozen large, luminous frames, each featuring a photograph of a single item — a dress, a comb, a pair of traditional Japanese tabi socks — printed on black fabric. But what, a passerby might ask, does it mean?

The unique pop-up installation, “Where a Forest Once Grew,” on view through Sunday, Feb. 18, was conceived by artist and UCLA alumna Lua Kobayashi as a love letter to her late grandmother and highlights everyday objects that once belonged to her, creating an effect that is at once deeply personal and evocative of the broader Japanese American experience.

The idea for the project, said Kobayashi, who graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s in fine arts in 2019, came to her as she and her family went through her grandmother’s belongings following her death two years ago.

“It was a very emotional process,” she recalled. “Because she had Alzheimer’s for the last years of her life, as I sorted through her things, I realized I forgot some of who she was when she was cognizant. It was very bittersweet, but also a nice way to ultimately remember her and celebrate her life.”

A number of those objects had a personal resonance. Growing up part Japanese American, part Uruguayan in a predominantly white neighborhood, Kobayashi often struggled with the notion of identity. She found that her grandmother, a nisei — an American-born child of Japanese parents — had had similar experiences.

“I found items that reflected my own experience of what it means to be Japanese American,” said Kobayashi, who was surprised to discover that her grandmother owned those tabi socks and a kimono, also featured in the installation. “In my memories of her, she would sometimes vacillate between two cultures. I discovered photographs of her participating in a nisei pageant in her 20s, and it made so much sense. She always wore red lipstick, she always dressed up.”

But perhaps the most poignant testament to the difficulties of cultural navigation is a photo of her grandmother’s teenage diary, written in the days leading up to her family’s forced removal to a relocation camp in 1942. Feb. 19 will mark the 81st anniversary of the executive order that led to the incarceration 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, and Kobayashi has posted entries from the diary on her installation website.

“When I got home I sold my piano for 35 dollars. I was sure sorry I had to sell it ... This was the first time I realized how much the piano meant to me. I  sure am missing it now. It sum like I could just go to the piano and play a little piece but the piano isn't there. My mother cryed to see the piano go.” 

— Diary entry about the family selling their belongings before the forced removal

Valerie Matsumoto, UCLA’s George and Sakaye Aratani Professor on the Japanese American Incarceration, Redress and Community, marveled at the historic weight of the installation’s simple images.

“Viewing Lua Kobayashi’s evocative photographs,” she said, “I am struck by the power of material objects — a red wool coat, a string of pearls, a hair comb — to conjure a sense of individual personality and family history.”

Lua Kobayashi holding a photograph of her grandmother’s gloves.
Luz Kobayashi
Lua Kobayashi

“Where a Forest Once Grew” is funded in part by a grant from the George and Sakaye Aratani Community Advancement Research Endowment awards, under the auspices of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. The awards are given to projects that benefit the Japanese American community.

The pop-up also represents the continuing collaboration between UCLA and the Westwood Village Improvement Association. Looking for a place to show her work, Kobayashi had reached out to the association, which connected her with a building owner willing to donate storefront space. There are plans to host another installation after Kobayashi’s.

“Pop-ups convey the message that something exciting is happening in the Village, and the next time you visit, you might find a hidden gem,” said Michael Russell, the association’s executive director. “Our board of directors is committed to supporting the arts and hopes to inspire other local businesses to do the same.”

Russell said the board is currently looking for additional spaces to cultivate creativity and the arts in the Village, including a proposed pedestrian-only section Broxton Avenue, which could serve as a venue for more pop-ups, makers markets, and student musicians and artists.