One wonders how they bore it. During World War II more than 110,000 residents of the United States, most of them citizens, were rounded up and incarcerated in detention camps for the duration. Their only offense was the color of their skin and the fact that this country was at war with their ancestral homeland, Japan. We were also at war with Germany but nobody suggested that President Roosevelt sign an executive order to lock up German-Americans.
The history of this country is stained and pocked with terrible acts of racism. All are sources of profound shame but none in living memory were so quietly horrible as the harsh, humiliating herding of blameless people into godforsaken compounds with names like Manzanar, Topaz and Heart Mountain.
How did they bear it?
Better, as it turns out, than their captors might have expected.
Among many other things, the internees tried to hold onto sanity and dignity by making art. That sounds a trifle absurd in the circumstance but it is not. Making art has always functioned as consoling escape from reality and, at the same moment, a way of coming to grips with it.
Now, for the first time, about 130 works by 30 artists from the camps have been ferreted out and put on public display at UCLA’s Wight Art Gallery. The exhibition, organized by Karin Higa, curator at the new Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, is called “The View From Within: Japanese American Art From the Internment Camps, 1942-1945.” Hardly an art exhibition in the conventional sense, the ensemble functions as testament to the persistence of grace under the most corrosive sort of pressure.
Standing denuded of their lives and possessions, a few of these Japanese-Americans were professional artists or educators who plucked courage from the maws of despair. At Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno they organized an art school. It was done within days of the center’s opening in 1942. They offered about 25 subjects in 95 classes a week. Students ranged in age from 6 to more than 70 years old, according to Higa’s catalogue essay.
The architect of this admirable act of resistance to hopelessness was a UC Berkeley art teacher, Chiura Obata. Among his works on view is a sentimental drawing of two little girls called “Two Angels in the Rain--The First Students of the New Art School.”
At a scan, the exhibition is neither the outpouring of protest nor the revival of traditional Japanese style that one might expect. We need to remember that these were Americans mainly trained in Occidental artistic conventions that had recently been of a markedly conservative bent. We need to recall they had a sense of being watched by their guards. Some of the trained people like Taneyuki Dan Harada often painted the landscape as if it were no part of a prison compound.
Masamori Hashimoto’s “Camp With Mountains” stands out because of its Oriental style. Others let their own style speak for the situation. Byron Takashi Tsuzuki worked in the haunted manner of Thomas Hart Benton. He needed little more than its built-in anguish to tell his story in “On the Way to the Delta.”
Some artists were chilling in their use of oblique symbolism. In “Barracks Huddled Together,” Harada borrowed German Expressionist distortions to suggest the vertiginous anxiety of the camps. Most telling is George Matsusaburo Hibi’s “Topaz Coyotes Come Out of the Desert.” It is a nightmare confession of fear of the exterior predator and fear of the anger within.
To some extent the professional artists tempt the viewer down the wrong path. Discussing style and technique here is only revelatory in terms of how desperately these displaced souls wanted to give their psychotic situation the feel of normal life.
Much of this art, according to Higa, was done by people of everyday occupation--gardeners and housewives--who made little art before coming to the camps and less after leaving. Paradoxically, their imprisonment offered a rare opportunity for creative investigation.
Hideo Kobashigawa, who worked as a gardener in East Los Angeles before the camps, is an exception. Now a recluse in Brooklyn, he is still making art in his mid-70s. He sent a huge book of drawings, photos and notes to the show. The work vacillates enticingly between naive Expressionism and good conventional drawing.
Both professionals and amateurs pursued their temperamental bent with fascinating results at both ends of the spectrum. Kango Takamura cast himself as a detached documentarian. His “Our Roommates” is as conventionally laid out as a high school graduation picture with each sitter carefully labeled. But some special seepage in the picture turns it into a jarring satirical record. Just a bunch of us guys hanging around here in an internment camp. Didn’t have anything else to do.
You know Takamura was an ironist when you see his drawing “Our Guard in the Watchtower Became a Spring Baseball Fan.”
It’s impossible to tell to what extent Mine Okubo had tongue in cheek when she drew “One Day the Canteen Sold Yard Goods and the Women Went Wild.”
Henry Sugimoto was among the most eloquent and revealing of the artists. He worked in a style that today might be wedged somewhere between Neo-Expressionism and thrift-store paintings. He set down such provocative subjects as “Old Parents Thinking About Their Son on the Battle Field.”
The strains of camp life show in his “Reverend Yamazaki Was Beaten in Camp Jerome, 1942.” It is a crucifix-like composition where a priest suspected of collaboration with the authorities is pummeled bloody by two assailants.
Sadayuki Uno was subtle and subversive. He could build a sense of the boredom of incarceration into a beautifully toned scene of card players. He could turn around and act the folk craftsmen in four portraits of dictators of the day: Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler and Churchill.
Wait a minute. Churchill’s not supposed to be in there.
That’s what Anglo America thought.
It probably didn’t look that way from Manzanar.
UCLA, Wight Art Gallery, through Dec. 6 . Closed Monday, (310) 825-9345.