On View: Waking Worlds, a museum exhibition featuring World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Nakamura
On the evening of January 27th, 2023, a few members of the Milkweed team ventured two hours south to the city of Winona, in the “bluff country” of Minnesota. As the sun began to set across the snowy expanse, we traded views of sparkling white fields for road-passes winding through hills and chasing the Mississippi River. Long before we arrived at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum’s Waking Worlds exhibition preview party, I’d begun to ponder what world we had left behind, and what new one awaited. I’d been hoping for an experience immersive enough to stop time if only for a moment; an homage to the wonders of nature that was warm and colorful enough to briefly dispel another unending Minnesota winter, and to remind us of all we can look forward to still with the coming of spring.
It was all of those things, of course. And more.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by an undeniably contagious sense of collective like I’ve never experienced before at a museum. With over 250 people in attendance at the sold-out venue, folks were milling about excitedly, snacks and fizzing cocktails in hand, while eager crowds formed in a main room set with a low stage, a few chairs, and microphones. We’d arrived just in time: the event host took a seat opposite two of the evening’s stars, the beloved World of Wonders author and artist duo, Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Fumi Nakamura.
What inspired the animal-centric book that was to become a Barnes & Noble book of the year, and a New York Times national bestseller? Aimee painted a portrait of a family that traveled the country often for her parents’ work. While the scenery always changed, two things remained constant: the scarcity of other Asian American families in the rural areas she wound up in, and the immediate kinship she felt with the non-judgmental, nonhuman residents: flora and fauna. For Fumi, illustrating this book was an opportunity to connect to one of her greatest teachers (nature), and to channel the wisdom that trees exhibit in their silent, roots-deep communications. Rooted, coincidentally, is exactly how I’d describe the room’s audience: firmly planted in place, sharing the respectful crown shyness of separate entities in the same engaged ecosystem. At the brief interview’s end, we dispersed as if released from a spell, set free to wander the three captivating exhibitions that also stood together but apart, as we all did, and as nature sometimes does.
What awaits in the eponymous exhibition of Waking Worlds? A curated selection of books can be found near the entryway, where copies of Kazim Ali’s Northern Light, Diane Wilson’s The Seed Keeper, and Elizabeth Rush’s Rising beckon with their bright, beautiful covers. Just ahead, there’s a series of galleries displaying vases with intricate floral patterns carved in relief against their interiors, while their deceptively plain exteriors leave you curious about what other inconspicuous containers hold marvels within. The next room over houses historical Japanese prints of birds and flora, and nearby, there’s a series of interactive QR codes peppering the wall, encouraging you to pull out your phone and encounter an indigenous herb or plant in 3D. As you continue your wandering, you may pass by an interactive installation adorned with cards you can write on beneath the prompt: “What world would you like to wake up to?” And finally, your eyes will meet a set of blue and green double doors, the trademark smiling axolotl your first indicator that one of your favorite books has found a new, expansive home to flourish in. Delightfully, the art from World of Wonders is displayed in dialogue with art from Wake Up Island and Hush, Hush, Forest, reminding us that this experience is one that flourishes through interdependence and collectiveness. As children of nature, and as readers with curious minds, we find here that we are not alone.
In the brightly lit room beyond, you’ll find a vast square-shaped gallery covered every few inches in a framed portrait of one of World of Wonders’ fantastical creatures. Remember the whale shark, the vampire squid, and the barrel eye fish? More intimately than you’ve ever seen them, they’re displayed in their original black and white sketches thanks to the preservation of Fumi’s gorgeous original sketches. Each one is accompanied by a beloved paragraph of Aimee’s from the original text, introducing a recontextualization of what makes it remarkable. Some of these creatures have escaped the confines of a frame, displayed larger and more colorfully directly on the walls, beckoning you closer to a pair of striking eyes you might never gaze into otherwise. Remarkable indeed.
The Waking Worlds exhibition is a must see not only because it features stunning illustrations and passages from one of our most beloved books (though of course, it’s exhilarating to witness the way a book can transform beyond the confines of its pages). This exhibition reminds us that there is more than one way to experience nature—and it implores people of all ages and walks of life to consider just how worthwhile experiencing nature can be. From showcasing snippets of ancestral wisdom featuring natural remedies such as Dakota Bee Balm, to encouraging guests to turn the pages of reproduced volumes of Japanese bird prints, there’s a sense of worldly connection to each and every plant and animal on display. It’s a testament to the many ways nature impacts us, and a beautiful homage to the ways people all over the world have celebrated, documented, and preserved those meaningful moments of contact. Aimee and Fumi might not be there in person whenever you decide to visit, but you’ll find plenty of their wondrous spirit left behind in the space they inhabited on opening night. On view now through January 7, 2024, the story can be yours to behold, wander through, and wonder at: and perhaps you’ll even make new and surprising connections along the way.