Art releases the soul. Whether free or imprisoned, the soul needs to express, release and share its truth. Across the street from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., the Renwick Gallery of American Art presents The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps from 1942 to 1946. The show is introduced with the following passage on the wall, “Everything was lost except the courage to create.”
Gaman in Japanese refers to the notion of endurance and patience with grace. A few months after the attack of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered all Japanese-American interred in camps, many horse racetracks and remote desert areas inhospitable to humans. More than 110,000 people were given short notice that they would lose their business, their home, the opportunity for an education and ultimately every freedom they knew up to the very day they were imprisoned. Fear and racism prevailed. Thousands were removed entirely from civil society. Yet, art endured to tell the story of who survived and how beauty shined despite the dismal conditions.
The Art of Gaman exhibits treasures lost in attics, passed down through generations or quietly shared among friends. Art and crafts in all forms are included from furniture, boxes, silk embroidered pictures, paintings, jewelry and Buddhist shrines. On one exhibit wall describes the “rule” as said by Lawson Fusao Inada for the prisoners, “Only what we could carry was the rule, so we carried Strength, Dignity and Soul.” Small shells found in the desert earth create delicate colorful flower brooches for weddings and even funerals. Scrap wood became Buddhist shrines for hope and spiritual respite for many. Illustrators capture moments of horror that otherwise would have been lost in memories yet now endure to tell a story of complicit conduct of so many.
One artist in particular illustrates the contribution and value of art to record history and news of the day – Chiura Obata, an art professor at the University of California Berkeley. He was relocated to the Tanforan Assembly Center (Tanforan racetrack and stables) in Topaz, Utah. The exhibit includes several of Obata’s pen and black ink illustrations. One is of the first ‘evacuation’ point at the First Congregation Church in Berkley, California. Did no one go to church that day? In another, Obata paints the story of the deaf old man who is trying to capture a stray dog. The old man is shot and killed by a guard who decides this old man is a threat as he strayed too close to the fence. Or, another illustrates a family walking into their new ‘home’ … a horse stable at the racetrack (see included picture Finding New Dwellings). Obata preserves history in its grace and horror to ensure a lesson is learned.
A visitor to the exhibit from Tacoma Park, Maryland writes in the guest book, “It is an important reminder of what shameful things we can do to other Americans in the name of ‘national security’. May we not repeat this – ever.”
Quietly, slowly we learn that leadership and community reactions with racism, acting on fears, prejudices and removing peoples’ liberties is pointless and inhumane. This little known tragic chapter in American history is revealed and recognized for its senseless fear tactics and prejudices in leadership. It wasn’t until forty years later in 1988 that President Ronald Reagan authorized $1.6 billion for reparations and an official apology to all of the families.
The courage to express truth and reveal truth is true leadership. While at the same time, in Asian cultures the lotus flower is admired for its beauty that rises from mud. In this Asian American spirit, The Art of Gaman is a testament to the courage of artists to express beauty in life at all times even during those times of great despair.
The next time you are in Washington, D.C. take a few minutes to appreciate the art and the journey of interred Japanese Americans in The Art of Gaman exhibit. Pause also to reflect on the location of the exhibit … across the street from the White House. The Art of Gaman will be on exhibit at the Renwick Gallery until January 30, 2011.
By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer, Washington, D.C.