The Breman Jewish Heritage & Holocaust Museum’s exhibition “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts From the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946” is a story of national shame and personal redemption.
In 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States government ordered all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast into internment camps. Evacuated quickly, bringing only what they could carry, some 120,000 U.S. citizens were herded into camps across the West (and one in Arkansas) that were little more than barracks surrounded by razor wire. These citizens and the 6,000 children born to them during their four-year internment lost homes, businesses, property, reputations, careers and futures. But not their spirits.
Though photographs and two films document the hardships, the lion’s share of this illuminating traveling exhibition, which runs through May 31, is devoted to demonstrating how the people rose above their circumstances. They built communities replete with baseball teams, newspapers, dances and classes. They improved their barren environments with landscaping and their meager domestic spaces with handcrafted objects. In other words, they made the camps into home.
The exhibition includes toys, furniture, musical instruments, baskets, quilts and such, mostly fashioned out of found materials, often using homemade tools: a cigarette case beautifully woven out of onion-sack string; brooches of meticulously rendered flowers fashioned from shells, ribbon and wire; teapots of carved stone embellished with reliefs of flowers; a rusticated pencil holder made of rocks. Even the clogs made to negotiate muddy paths to latrines were embellished with painted flowers.
Some of the internees were trained artists. An elaborate shrine on display, for example, is the work of renowned craftsmen Gentaro and Shinzaburo Nishiura. But most were not. One comes away marveling at their skill, ingenuity and will.
Especially in the context of the Breman Museum, devoted to Jewish history, the exhibition brings to mind the art produced in Nazi concentration camps — and the reason why exhibitions like this are important.
The xenophobic irrationality that led to the internment camps was not momentary insanity. It is a universal human trait, evident recently in our reaction to Muslim Americans and still a part of our racial relationships. We keep the dark side of human nature in check only by holding it up to the light.
The exhibit also speaks eloquently to the uses of art. The making was an act of purpose and self-affirmation. The objects that resulted served to bring beauty and comfort to an unbearable situation. Art in the camps was neither a luxury nor a frivolous pastime. It was a necessity.
“Gaman” is a Japanese word defined in the excellent catalog as “enduring the unendurable with patience and dignity.” It is an apt title for a moving exhibition.
The bas-relief at the top depicts the tar paper-covered barracks at the camp in Heart Mountain, Wyoming.