Monday, April 19, 2010

The Art that Fear Created

'The Art of Gaman': Life behind walls we were too scared to live without:>

Though the National Japanese American Memorial, erected in 2000, sought to memorialize the efforts of Japanese Americans participating in World War II and recognize their internment, it was lost among headlines covering election hysteria, and ultimately faded into the background among other monuments. In describing the monument, Washington Post reporter Philip Kennicott (author of the above article) said: “But it speaks in all the usual memorial clich├ęs, and it struggles to find a clear voice.”

This month, however, the opening of the Renwick Gallery’s exhibit, “The Art of Gaman,” at the National Museum of American Art lends a voice to the victims of internment in the nation’s capital. The exhibit features artwork and crafts created by former camp detainees which range from “furniture cobbled together from scrap lumber, simple tools and household goods” to the more traditional forms of art such as paintings and calligraphy. The author of the article focuses on one piece by Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, a painting which depicts the camp’s barracks contrasted against a natural landscape. In describing the piece, Kennicott explains: “Many of the most powerful moments in this exhibition share something with Mirikitani's paradoxical painting: Ugliness isn't foregrounded or emphasized, but contained, contextualized and diminished through integration into the decorative, the beautiful or the normal.”

This description evokes the spirit of “shiktataganai” (“it cannot be helped”) described by Kuramitsu. Internment detainees typically acquiesced to the demands of camp life in order to show their loyalty, and “every effort was made on the part of the captor and captive alike to maintain a sense of normalcy behind the barbed wire” (622). Pieces like that of Mirikitani demonstrate an effort to portray normal life experiences or natural beauty, refusing to let them be overwhelmed by the bleakness of the camps. While the exhibit helps depict the lives of interned Japanese-Americans, I wonder if (and hope) it does more, like the Framed installation at the Long Beach Museum, by examining the issue of identity construction so pertinent to the internment experience.

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