On view at Honolulu Museum at First Hawaiian Center is Reflect: Miki Nitadori, a series of photographs printed on textiles. That the artworks exist at all is almost a miracle. The images that Paris-based artist Nitadori uses were thrown out in a suitcase in Lahaina, and through a circuitous case of kismet, made their way to her. Nitadori, who was born in Japan and moved to Maui with her family at the age of 9, talks about her works in Reflect. On view through March 31.

The way you came to own the photographs you use is very interesting. Tell us about that.
The photographs I am using came from Lahaina. There was a French man who used to live there for a year. His neighbor died and the family was cleaning out the house and they threw away a suitcase full of photographs that were taken from the end of the 19th century to the 1950s. They’re from Japan and Hawai‘i. In this one suitcase is an immigration history of a family. This French guy saw this and thought, ‘I cannot throw this away—it’s the memory of these people.’ So he brought the suitcase back to France.

I used to work in an atelier that was open to the public. There were a lot of people passing by. I had a photograph of the Lahaina sugar cane mill. And this guy saw it. He said he used to live in this neighborhood. He told me he had some photos [from Maui] and he asked me to see them. About four years later he decided to move to Los Angeles, and by chance I ran into him again in the travel agency. We spoke and he said he wanted to give me those photographs. That’s what started everything.

In 2010, I got funding from the Centre d’Art et Photographie de Lectoure to create work for an exhibition. This is why I came to Maui in 2010 and started to work on it. I wrote to the family and got ahold of some of the members. One family member I met with said he didn’t recognize the people [in the photographs]. While this meeting was a little disappointing, I started to work on the images.

Your work in Reflect was previously shown at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center last May, in the exhibition Passion Photography and Risk.
Yes, at the Maui show, two men who were old neighbors of my parents came. One was a son of the photographer of one of the works I used. And another person recognized some people.

What is the concept behind Reflect?
Basically the first part that I presented in Maui are groups, and individuals within groups. I chose the images of people that I was attracted to. Now I am working on individuals and couples. I’m trying to find this relationship—what is the group, and what is the individual within the group? What is does it mean to be an immigrant in Hawai‘i and what is the connection between two people? This is an ongoing work that is still evolving.

I was torn by the idea of using a document for a creative work. But it’s not a factual document anymore because it becomes a creation, but it was a difficult balance to find at the beginning. It’s a document, but is also a fictional work. It’s based on documents, but is no longer the documents.

I am a migrant myself—I lived in Japan for my first nine years, then lived outside. The community in Maui has had a huge effect on my life. My inspiration is also, when you’re an immigrant, you leave your culture, and how much do you carry and transmit to others and in what way? It’s about learning about myself, and what happened before me, all these people that opened a world to me. They were pioneers who left the country. Also I’m interested in the generation that comes after. I can try to understand what will be the development of all these transmissions. It interests me a lot to see different generations mixing and evolving.

Tell us about your process.
The technique is simple but very physical. I have fabric, I have an image. I will try 10 works, and one will work out.  You put the textiles and image and glue it together, and take off the paper. Transfer ink of image onto acrylic medium. It’s very simple, but because the format is big, and the materials I use are fabrics, and fabrics have so many different charactieristics. It doesn’t always work out. It is physically tough. You need to be patient. I work everything by hand. I clean the surface with my hand, I sometimes bleed.

People ask me why the fabrics I use are so European. They were imagining Japanese patterns. I come back to this idea again, when you are leaving the country, you are moving to a western society. There is constant confrontation. Even though they’re related, there is a dialogue between the cultures and between the times.

Textiles are a symbolic representation of society. Sometimes it’s traditonal, some are current, it’s fake. Everything is about layers and it’s a thought process and emotional process.

What do you want people to take away with them from seeing Reflect?
I want them to experience the images as they are, because they are quite emotional, and physical. But I would like in the second layer that people will think about their origins. Because people still have images like this at home, maybe in the dark corners, and don’t look at them anymore. But because they existed we exist today. It’s nice to give the value to honor these roots, and they are beautiful people. I would appreciate it if everybody in Hawai‘i would think about all the people who came before and honor them, and pass that beauty and energy of life to the next generation.

Miki Nitadori. ‘Share,’ 2013. Transfer on printed fabric.