The internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II was one of the most egregious civil rights abuses in our nation’s history. While our government has apologized for this unwarranted imprisonment of people, this dark period of U.S. history and its effect on the interned Japanese has yet to be fully integrated into our collective cultural memory. An exhibition at the Renwick Gallery in Washington DC titled The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946 showcases objects made by internees. The museum’s website tells us that the Japanese word ‘gaman’ means “to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience.” This moving show explores how creativity served as a necessary way of acquiring needful things that were otherwise unavailable, provided an outlet for frustration, and reinforced bonds in a painful and alienating time.
The exhibition focuses on the individuals behind the crafts as well as the objects on display. Each work is accompanied by a short text about its creator. Perhaps the museum’s humanistic focus is a result of guest curator, Delphine Hirasuan’s personal connection to the topic. Ms. Hirasuan first came up with the idea for the show after discovering a small bird pin that had belonged to her deceased mother. When she asked her father about the piece’s origin, he informed her that it had probably come “from camp.”
Many of the stories in the exhibition are heart wrenching. Several beautiful agate and silver rings were made by Shizuo Sasaki for his family. Before the war, Mr. Sasaki had been a gardener and community organizer in Berkeley. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was arrested, separated from his family and interned in a camp in North Dakota. Mr. Sasaki was eventually allowed to rejoin his loved ones in a camp in Utah, but soon after, he was classified as a troublemaker and was sent to another facility in Texas. He was not reunited with his family until after the war.
A marble bust of a woman seems out of place amongst the collection of artifacts made from scavenged materials. The artist, Isamu Noguchi was a renowned New York sculptor before the war. Because he was a Nisei, or second generation, the government’s internment order did not apply to Noguchi. Nevertheless, he was tormented by what he saw happening to the members of his community. Noguchi lobbied unsuccessfully in Washington on behalf of his fellow internees. He eventually concluded that he could be more useful to his community volunteering in a camp. Noguchi voluntarily entered the Poston camp in Arizona, where he organized a craft guild. Nonetheless, he soon found life in the camp to be unbearable. Although he had originally been told that he could leave at will, Noguchi found that to the camp’s administrator’s he was indistinguishable from the other internees and his request to leave was denied. His piece in the show is a portrait of the actress, Ginger Rogers, who posed for its creation. Noguchi completed the bust during his internment
Despite its tragic subject matter, this show is careful to highlight the communitarian nature of craft in the camps and how the artists in the show used creativity to transcend their unfortunate circumstances. Art was not simply an individual outlet but a way of bringing together a fractured community. Those in the camps who were particularly skilled in a craft offered classes where they shared their knowledge with other internees. Several small dolls on display, made by made out of old kimono material, thread, toilet paper, pipe cleaners, and scrap wood were crafted by students of Sho Tabata, an instructor interned Topaz, Utah.
Overall The Art of the Gaman is a well-curated, thoroughly moving exhibit. Many of the objects are incredibly beautiful, and even the clumsier ones show an extraordinary attention to detail. The show shines some light on the pain and drudgery of camp life while proving how creativity can provide a silver lining that makes the unbearable seem bearable. The exhibition also allows these objects, some of which had been boxed up for decades, to be displayed. Many of the former internees discarded or put away their camp crafts after their release. These works served as brutal reminders of a terrible time. Tragically, some artists even abandoned their craft all together. Akira Oye, who had been a farmer before the war, taught himself to carve beautiful wooden animals while interned. After his release, he never carved again.