Shadows from the Past: Sansei Artists and the American Concentration Camps
Curated by Gail Enns, Celadon Arts
The Exhibition was originated by the Monterey Museum of Art and Celadon Arts in cooperation with the L.H. Horton Jr. Gallery
- Opening Reception to Meet the Artists: January 21, 2021
- Tom Nakashima Artist Studio Tour: January 28, 2021
- Lydia Nakashima Degarrod Artist Talk and
Photo Transfer Demonstration: February 4, 2021
- Finding a Way Forward — A Conversation on the Impact of WWII American Concentration Camps: February 18, 2021
Jerry Takigawa, exhibiting artist and panel moderator, presents his photographic series, Balancing Cultures. Guest panelists include: Ann Burroughs, President and CEO, and Clement Hanami, VP of Exhibitions and Art, from the Japanese American National Museum; Susan H. Kamei, author, educator, and Managing Director of the University of Southern California Spatial Sciences Institute; and Larry Oda, past President of the National Japanese American Citizens League.
Concentration camps occur when the government in power removes a minority group from the general population — and the rest of society lets it happen. Throughout US history of roughly two hundred and fifty years, there have been times when the US ruling leaders have treated minority groups unjustly and without the sense of fairness that the founding fathers had envisioned. From the beginning Native Americans were treated as outsiders, forced to live on reservations where their lives and activities could be controlled. Slavery was tolerated for many years before African Americans were granted freedom and released from the crushing burden of physical and economic hardship.
In 1942 President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 brought imprisonment to all Japanese Americans living on the west coast of the United States—simply because of their ancestry. Indeed, as was later demonstrated, no examples of wartime treason or sabotage were ever found to involve Japanese Americans. Today many minority groups of US citizens are at risk from prejudice and discrimination for the same reason. They have a different ancestry than “mainstream” Americans. As our nation grapples with a wide range of issues related to disturbing incidents of anti-Asian violence and other forms of racism, immigration and the status of Dreamers amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the question is, what can art bring to the table?
Shadows of the Past, American Concentration Camps, answers the question by focusing on the art of a select group of Sansei artists whose work illustrates how they view their challenging cultural, historical and political place in America. Each artist contributes something vital and unique to the collective memory and struggles of Japanese Americans and the legacy of the American Concentration Camps.
Reiko Fujii has been able to give form and definition to this difficult history through performance art and conceptual installations involving storytelling and the use of a variety of mediums such as kiln-formed glass, photography and video.
Jerry Takigawa pieces together fragments of his family history through the use of old photographs and artifacts as an examination of his family’s story and the history of the American Japanese diaspora.
Tom Nakashima’s iconic images have metaphorically evolved as the history of world events change. One of his images is that of tree emerging through the roof of a wigwam. The wigwam could be interpreted as shelter, but also as a kind of cage. The tree, usually used as a symbol of natural life form; is not a free tree but a captive one — a bonsai.
Lydia Nakashima Degarrod creates installations which express feelings of displacement using the cotton boll as a symbol for the Japanese presence in Peru, and for the first wave of Japanese immigrants who came to work on the cotton plantations. Each boll contains mulberry fiber and photo etchings of her father and other Japanese Peruvians affected by the actions of the governments of Peru and United States during World War II.
Lucien Kubo uses her artwork to express her views on social change, environmental action and the struggle for social justice, juxtaposing photographs of her family in the American Concentration camp with images of current political concerns.
Wendy Maruyama addresses the forced evacuation and incarceration through the use of social commentary, humor, and sculptural forms. In her E.O. 9066 series, she combines photo images by Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake with objects such as a broken teacup and expressions like No! No! and Yes! Yes! which refers to the so-called “loyalty questionnaire” given to incarcerated Japanese Americans. Those who answered “No” to questions 27 and 28 or who were deemed disloyal, were segregated from other detainees and moved to the Tule Lake Relocation Camp in California.
Masako Takahashi is the only artist in the exhibition who was born in an American concentration camp. She uses her hair to create a single Japanese Zen circle or to stitch long sequences of script on Japanese clothing, silk panels and long rolls of silk fabric. The script is unreadable and undecipherable. Yet, its repetition of form and structure gives the allusion that it may be an actual language. It also may be her way of masking her feelings about the incarceration. She leaves it up to the viewer to decide.
Na Omi Judy Shintani brings to light injustice and invigorates compassion and connections between many different communities that have been labeled ‘the other’ whenever someone has to be scapegoated during times of economic stress and chaos.
Together, at a critical moment in time, these artists bring a dark corner of our country’s collective past to light and show how the power of art can transform even painful personal experience into an expression of the sublime.
Gail Enns grew up in Southern California and graduated from the University of Southern California with a BA in Cinematography and a BA in Psychology. She moved to Washington DC in 1983 where she established Anton Gallery, one of Washington, DC’s most prestigious art galleries. In 1990, she acted as consultant to the formation of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation Gallery and instrumental in producing solo exhibitions by artists Rob Barnard, Tazuko Ichikawa and Tom Nakashima. In the late 1990’s she mounted an exhibition titled Assimilations for the Japanese Chamber of Commerce at their Nippon Gallery in NY. This exhibition brought together over 500 Japanese and American business leaders. In 1997, Milo Beach, Director of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery, invited her to create an exhibition to celebrates the 75thanniversary of Freer Gallery. Titled, Inheritors of a Legacy: Charles Lang Freer and the Washington Avant Garde, the exhibition was held at the Japan Information and Cultural Center in Washington, DC. It was during this time that Enns formed Celadon Arts, a not-for–profit corporation, with the mission of mounting exhibitions which examine the cross-cultural influences of art. In 2003 she moved to Monterey, CA and, for a few years, was involved with a commercial gallery, Green Chalk Contemporary. In 2013 she organized an exhibition titled Transcendental Vision, Japanese Culture and Contemporary Art with the support of the JACL and Sand City. The exhibit attracted over 2,000 visitors. Her first exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art (MMA) was held in 2018 and featured eight women artists using craft processes to create contemporary art. The show was titled The New Domestics: Finding Beauty in the Mundane. Breaking Silence, Legacy of Incarceration will be held at the Monterey Museum of Art in 2022. It is the first exhibition on the Monterey peninsula concerning the subject of the incarceration camps.
In 2012 I curated an exhibition, Transcendental Vision, Japanese Culture and Contemporary Art, a blend of Eastern and Western elements and styles to express a vision of spirituality and the sacredness of everyday things.
During the exhibition, I observed a middle-aged woman quietly crying as she viewed the artwork. When approached, she stated that she wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact and surprised me with the comment that she felt it was the most healing exhibit she had ever seen—in either America or Japan, where she was from. She went on to say that she felt the show demonstrated the beauty and peace of the two nations in harmonious collaboration.
Although she clearly meant the restoration of relations between Japan and the United States after WWII, I began to see other connections between the artwork and the incarceration experience which has led to this show. The artists in Shadows From the Past, Sansei Artists and the American Concentration Camps use personal memories and stories in their artwork to portray first the devastation, then the subsequent recovery of their families’ self-esteem and standing within American society. It is my hope that this exhibition also contributes to the healing process and to the important role which the arts must play in society
It is a great opportunity to present the artists selected for the exhibition, Shadows from the Past: Sansei Artists and the American Concentration Camps. The selected works pay tribute to a linage of socially conscious and engaged Sansei artists who display a reverence for exploring their Japanese American history through the creative process. This exemplifies how the arts are fundamental components of all cultures and time periods. The artists demonstrate the radical belief that art has the power to build profound social change. As educational motivators for sociocultural and historical awareness, the artists’ work inherently promotes healing through their artistic practice. It is a personal journey for the artists that shared, may also engage broader community restoration from the impact of WWII American Concentration Camps.
The exhibited artwork significantly defends against the idea of Japanese Americans as “the other,” who were instead American citizens ostracized in their own country during a time of conflict between the two nations of Japan and the United States. To realize this concept, many of the artists’ work incorporates family photographs, artifacts, found objects and family heirlooms. Other works use Japanese artifacts such as the Kimono. Cultural forms are also presented such as the Enso, meaning circle in Japanese and associated with Zen Buddhism to symbolize absolute enlightenment and strength and illustrated by a Japanese minimalist aesthetic. Painted expressions of iconic imagery also realize the pain and discrimination of being cast as “the other.” The exhibition brings the personal into public discourse and generates the possibility for meaningful compassion, an understanding that is needed as much today as it was in 1942.
It is important to the mission of the Horton Art Gallery to present exhibitions that support the potential for integration into many areas of academic study, contributing to a more well-rounded education for our students and community at-large. I hope visitors to the exhibition will be inspired by the creative agency of the artists. To really appreciate how their work brings creativity as a strategy to address the complex social issues and struggles that continue in our country. As we collectively work to build an America for all of our citizenry, exhibitions such as this are at the forefront of the righteous efforts to foster a society that is ethnically, racially and culturally inclusive and empowered.
I am a Sansei, descendent of fishermen who immigrated in the late 1800s to the Monterey Peninsula. My family became deeply involved in Peninsula life and contributed by establishing the first Japanese abalone fishery in the United States. They thrived and shared not only their fishing expertise with the community, also cultural arts such as chado (tea ceremony), bonsai (miniature trees) and Ikebana (flower arranging).
My ancestors’ abundant lives came to an abrupt halt in 1942 when Executive Order 9066 forced the imprisonment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent. Forced to abandon their properties and take only what they could carry - all were relocated to government run concentration camps. Despite being betrayed by their country, those living behind barbed wire persevered. Their legacy of hope is perhaps the greatest gift handed down to me.
The Sansei are the last generation to know first-hand the stories of those who were incarcerated. I never tire hearing about farmers raising crops from the barren soil and carpenters rebuilding unlivable structures into a working community. Others created a semblance of sanctuary - artists like Isamu Noguchi, Chiura Obata, Ruth Asawa, and George Nakashima served as stewards for the spirits of fellow internees.
In this exhibition, Sansei keep the previous generation’s stories of hope and humanity alive. These artist activists transmute the experiences of shame, prejudice and injustice - and powerfully remind us that atrocities like the American concentration camps can never again become a reality.
— Larry Oda, past National President, Japanese American Citizens League
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Issei (1st generation born in Japan), and Nisei (2nd generation) Japanese Americans living on the west coast, were ordered to prepare to be removed from their homes to an “Internment Camp,” a euphemistic term now more commonly referred to as incarceration or concentration camps. Ten camps were built in California, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. The Day of Remembrance is a yearly commemoration of these ten camps, observed by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) chapters across the nation. The Stockton Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League is pleased to be able to co-sponsor the L.H. Horton Jr. Gallery’s presentation of Shadows from the Past: Sansei Artists and the American Concentration Camps for this year’s Day of Remembrance observance.
For several decades, the US history books and classroom curriculum were silent about this blatant violation of civil rights. However, through oral history, photographs, preserved mementos and artifacts, this history was passed down to the next generation of Sansei. Shadows from the Past: Sansei Artists and the American Concentration Camps captures this historical legacy through artwork that reflects emotion, memories, political activism, and multicultural identity and discovery. Thank you to the artists for passing on this historical legacy for the next generation to experience, and to remind us all that this must never happen again.
— The Stockton Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League