The Art of Gaman Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942 to 1946


of an Exhibition

by Devora Liss

Published on March 17, 2011, Modified on March 18, 2011

  • Description:

    Visitors to the Renwick Gallery may be disappointed if expecting the grandeur of the Smithsonian Institute’s other museums. At first glance, the gallery seems to have been forgotten by its sister institutions; located seven blocks north of the National Mall and nine blocks west of the main American Art Museum, the Renwick Gallery seems more like a satellite of the Smithsonian than part of it. Located on a busy street corner, the gallery lacks the open lawns and the wide entrances that serve as a public invitation to enter the other museums. Perhaps to compensate for its inconspicuous facade and perhaps to differentiate the Renwick from the main American Art Museum, two vertical banners hang outside, declaring ‘american craft’ [sic]. The informality of lowercase letters, along with the use of the word ‘craft’ insinuates that the artwork housed in this gallery is distinct from the “higher” and “fine” artwork displayed elsewhere.

    Upon entering the gallery, this notion is further developed. I requested a brochure, and was informed by the docent that one did not exist. As one of four temporary exhibits at the American Art Museum, The Art of Gaman did not merit its own brochure. Instead, the docent continued, the gift shop was selling the guest curator’s identically named book, but warned that “it’s quite expensive, might not be worth buying.” In its lieu, she offered a photocopied page detailing the history of the Renwick Gallery.

    The first object the visitor encounters is a wooden chair constructed out of discarded two-by-fours. Located alongside the opening message, the chair exemplifies the curator’s point that crafts were “essential for simple creature comforts and emotional survival” of the internees. The label notes that Mits Kaida, who made this chair, took care to split the boards in such a way so that the backrest slanted back, making it more comfortable. This object sets the tone for the entire exhibit, highlighting the functional rather than “higher” ideas. Indeed, the script informs the visitor that the internees who made these objects “did not view themselves as artists.” Thus visitors may be relieved to discover that their expectations have been met; the exhibition will display nothing sophisticated; only objects created out of boredom or necessity.

    Yet by casting the exhibition in this light, the curator inevitably dodges around addressing the harsh reality of internment. The Japanese word Gaman (pronounced gáh-mon) means to “bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience” (quoted from the script). Instead of representing the “seemingly unbearable” internment, the exhibition focuses on maintaining “dignity” through crafts. Visitors interested in learning about life in internment camps are advised to look elsewhere. Despite the opening script introducing the objects as bearing “witness to that experience,” the exhibition fails to do so. In fact, it actively confuses the visitor in regard to the condition endured in the camps.

    What first strikes the visitor is the diversity of materials used. A quote by the curator appears on the wall, “[S]crap wood. Sand. Discarded tin cans. The ingredients for art surround us.” Indeed, many of the objects displayed are made of readily available materials: wood figurines, pebbles cemented into a vase, and baskets woven from rolled paper. Yet the image of destitute people seeking any scrap with which to creatively while away their time is confounded by other objects’ labels, which inform the viewer that their materials were procured through mail-order and Sears Roebuck catalogs. Such are the floral centerpieces carefully crafted from colorful, textured pipe cleaners, the paints applied to wood carvings of birds and leather wallet making kits. The visitor is unable to solidify a relationship to the objects, or their creators, because they are rooted in seemingly contradicting narratives.

    Furthermore, the exhibition’s few direct portrayals of internment reveal how this thorny topic is carefully avoided. The first is an enlarged evacuation notice, upon which hangs an American flag made of origami cranes. While the overall message is quite powerful, the birds and their shadow act as a buffer between the visitor and the historic notice, making it nearly impossible to read. The second representation is the exhibition’s third gallery, which stands apart from the other two, and is accessible only through the gift shop. This is the only place where video and photographs of the internment camps are displayed. Why did the curator decide to relegate the real images, so conspicuously absent from the main gallery, to this detached room? Is it because the visitor encounters the images and voices of internment without any mediation?

    A similar idea may be present in the main galleries as well. Two particular wood carvings stand out. The first, cartoonish busts of Hitler, Churchill, Mussolini and Stalin; the second, monkeys in the classic “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” pose. Although both objects could be interpreted as their creators’ commentary on their predicament and world events, the curator chose not to use them to raise larger questions.

    The exhibition includes over one hundred beautiful and interesting pieces of handcraft: exquisite butsudans (Japanese Buddhist shrines), meticulously assembled and painted sea-shell brooches, stone carvings, paintings and more. Some were done by internees who were accomplished artists before internment, some by internees who created only in the camps.

    True to the initial observations that opened this review, this exhibition democratizes all the objects under the category of “craft.” Another example is the juxtaposition of two pairs of geta (stilt clogs), one made of rough wood with twine straps, the other elegantly carved and painted, with sewn corduroy straps. By displaying these side-by-side, the curator chose to highlight their functionality (sturdy enough to withstand sand and mud) rather than their social context (class or gender differences) or historical context (the need to make new shoes as the internment drew on). Yet categorizing the exhibition as “crafts” does not justify the lack of historical and social contexts and the absence of difficult questions. It was an intentional curatorial decision to foreground the objects and offer minimal interpretation and context.

    The gift shop offerings are aligned with this reading of the exhibition. It proclaims to offer a “selection of Japanese inspired crafts, gifts and books [that] evoke the images and subjects featured in the exhibitions.” On one hand, this includes decorative Japanese items such as kimonos, silk scarves and neckties, bonsai trees and tea cups, which indeed have nothing to do with internment. Yet the store also offers a wide selection of books with photographs of the internment camps, oral histories of the camp experience and a true story of a child’s internment years. The critical visitor cannot help but wonder why the realistic images and stories are again excluded from the exhibition and are made available only for purchase.

    The frustration a visitor may feel at this one-dimensionality is further exacerbated by haphazard aspects of the exhibition. The objects are distributed throughout the gallery in no particular order, some cases feature mismatched items and labels, and one label mis-transcribes and mis-translates a Hebrew plaque that had belonged to an interned Reverend.

    Overall this exhibition succeeds at impressing the visitor with the beauty, diversity and intricacy of the objects on display, yet the avoidance of historical, social and political context renders the exhibition somewhat pale.

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