The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946

Review

of an Exhibition

by Naomi Coquillon

Published on December 30, 2010

  • Description:

    Gaman, meaning to bear the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity, is fitting for the title of the astounding collection of artifacts included in The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946 open through January 30, 2011 at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. The exhibition is based on a book of the same name by guest curator Delphine Hirasuna. Finely crafted figurines made from scraps of wood or delicate jewelry and decorative pieces made of peach pits and small stones, often by untrained artists, celebrate the resilience of the human spirit and the restorative power of art. As Hirasuna notes in the only large text in the exhibition’s first room, “scrap wood. Sand. Discarded tin cans. The ingredients for art surround us.” Visitors would be hard pressed to miss the lesson that artists exist in all of us, and that that spirit can survive under many conditions.

    This exhibition is a welcome one in large part because it makes accessible such wonderful pieces, many of which are held in the private collections of the descendants of internees. In an interview for The Art of Gaman, the exhibition’s introductory film, Hirasuna described its purposes as celebrating the artists’ talent, bringing to light these representations of the human spirit, and helping people appreciate the larger story. While the first two goals are well realized, the latter point could be made more clearly.

    The exhibition gives a nod to the structure of her book, in which the particular circumstances of Japanese internment and its effect on the Japanese-American community are central and the artifacts are used as entry points into that story. The exhibition begins with an introductory panel that briefly describes Japanese internment and a small chair that illustrates the internees’ initial need to build simple furniture to supplement the meager supplies they received, as well as the aftermath of internment, as we learn that it was kept by an internee in his living room as a point of conversation. Behind this opening panel is a large reproduction of an announcement of Japanese relocation, covered with red, white, and blue paper cranes—symbols of peace—organized to look like the American flag. Below the cascade of cranes is a map of internment camps throughout the US—ones we may know, such as Manzanar, and ones we may not, such as Crystal City in Texas, which held people of Japanese descent from Latin America. This provides both a political statement and historical background for the event, but only once and in one part of the exhibition. Images of the desolate landscape of Manzanar offered as a contrast to the rich darkness of the carved figures in the exhibition’s second room or short audio clips of the artists’ descendants included with the works, for example, would help to weave the story of the internment experience into the entire exhibition. The history of internment and the experiences of internees are nicely covered in the two videos that accompany the exhibition, Voices Long Silent and The Art of Gaman. Unfortunately, due perhaps to technical and architectural limitations, these videos are only available for viewing away from the exhibit gallery, in a room through the gift shop.

    The focus of the exhibition is the objects, but added attention to the experience of making and then viewing them might help reinforce the larger issues presented. The choice of wall color—an institutional beige—gives a feeling of the depersonalization inherent in the internment experience and the bureaucracy that supported it. However, the interviews with former internees in the aforementioned videos discuss at length the rough and uneven walls that made up the makeshift homes where internees would spend the war years. Even one such panel, especially one that might be touched, would serve as a striking counterpoint to the beauty in the cases. That is one simple suggestion that could be extended by dividing the entire exhibition into small compartments, the size of a single room, to approximate the conditions in which the pieces were made. The individual’s detention location appears important to the story, too, in that each artist is identified only by name and that location, and Hirasuna notes in the introductory film that certain types of pieces developed in certain camps—bird pins in Tule Lake, for example—based on the natural resources available there. One wonders, then, why there was not more information about either, or why the location was not used as an organizing principle in some part of the exhibition to help visitors better understand the importance of place in the story of the objects.

    Organized in cases according to artifact type, the exhibition emphasizes these items’ artistic qualities above all else, and in its simplicity and lack of sound, the exhibition is something of a reverential or contemplative space. Yet, while there are few art museums that invite visitors into the artist’s work or living spaces, those that do, such as Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul or Diego Rivera’s studio in Mexico City, are truly memorable experiences. An attempt at such an invitation seems more than appropriate in this instance, for this topic.

    Yet, the art resonates with visitors, myself included. The comment book is filled with touching notes of gratitude for the opportunity to see such poignant pieces—including the senninbari vest of a thousand stitches made by an internee and her family and friends for her son serving in the US military—and it is clear that the exhibit helps visitors connect with powerful feelings related to this moment in American history. So, maybe it is enough that the exhibition speaks so eloquently to these larger concerns, rather than emphasizing above all the story of this group of people under these conditions in this moment in time. It would be wonderful, though, if the exhibition could tell that story equally well.

Latest Comments (1)

good review Naomi

by Kathleen Mclean - January 02, 2011

I wonder if the exhibition planners thought about including more historical context, as you suggest, and if so, why they decided NOT to go there.

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