BON was commissioned by Asian Arts Initiative, where I was invited to participated in their Pearl Street Micro Project program. The event took place during Philly’s First Friday event on August 04, 2017 at 5:00 – 8:30 pm.

Video by Andrew Tran @tranphotog 

The project was influenced by my time growing up in Okinawa Japan where my family practiced in the Obon Festival honoring the spirits of passed ancestors and loved ones during a three days period around August 14-17th depending on the lunar calendar.

I invited the public to come to a community potluck to share a meal together in respect for the dead. Pictured above is a dish made by Yvonne Lung AAI Social Practice in Residency who learned her grandmother’s recipe from her mother. You can learn more about Yvonne’s DISH project here where she is using food as a vehicle for storytelling and preserving family and cultural tradition.

I worked with the students in the Young Arts Workshop (YAW) at AAI, talking about the tradition of Obon Festival in Okinawa and asking them to share their stories and memories of similar pratices in their own communities. Also, there was a lantern making station during the event where messages could be created to send to passed loved ones.

Following the potluck was a brief lantern lighting ceremony. A lantern making station was setup where participants were asked to draw and write messages they wanted to send to their passed loved ones.

Taiko performance by Therese Stephen of KyoDaiko Japanese taiko drumming group in Philidephia.

Therese explained that the song/prayer she performed comes from the Esashi Shishi Odori (Deer Dance) tradition from Oshu City in Iwate prefecture in northern Japan. This tradition is said to date to as far back as 700-900 years ago.
The traditional costume  includes bamboo ‘antennae’ covered in paper strips and strapped to dancers backs which are said to help direct the prayers up to heaven. In the old days the dance was only performed by priests or holy men and often on a mountain top to get as close to heaven as possible. The full costume weighs about 15 kg/33 lbs, the heaviest part being the wooden headdress painted to look like a mythical deer creature meant to chase away evil spirits.
It is danced for a variety of reasons, but in the context of Obon it is danced as a memorial to one’s ancestors or for a loved one who has recently passed, but also to chase away any lingering evil spirits in order to protect and bless the remaining family with good health. Although Obon is a Buddhist tradition, the Shishi Odori dance is more closely tied to the Shinto tradition. Since the Japanese include both religions in their homes and lives, this combination of Shinto dance in a Buddhist festival is not unusual. Nowadays, the dance is performed by ordinary people (not necessarily priests) and women really began to be included about 20-25 years ago.

Before the event there was an open call to the community to send in images and songs of friends, family, and those who were close that have passed and would like to be remembered. Below is the sequence of images played during the event.




There was also a YouTube playlist compiled of the songs sent in that played during the potluck.

Photos by Andrew Tran @tranphotog