JThe desolate stillness of a photograph showing a row of barracks belies the turbulent conditions of its making. Two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Executive Order 9066 authorized the forcible removal and mass incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast by the United States government.
Cameras were considered contraband and banned from the camps, but Toyo Miyatake, a respected photographer before the outbreak of war, managed to assemble a makeshift one from a lens and a film holder. which he had smuggled into the Manzanar camp in California. For months he took pictures like this clandestinely, compelled to capture for posterity the realities there; eventually, the camp director allowed Miyatake to become the camp’s official photographer on the condition that a white assistant click the shutter, technically staying within the rules.
Photography has long been used as a means of documenting, but as Miyatake’s work attests, it can also be used to resist. A new exhibition at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and the Garden Museum in Queens, No Monument: In the Wake of the Japanese American Incarceration, examines how Japanese American artists have represented and remembered incarceration through the experimentation of photography and sculpture.
Sculpture, after all, is the traditional medium for monuments, and the presentation marks the 80th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 in February 1942 while expressing an ambivalence toward the commemoration and memorialization of historical trauma, particularly at a time where the monuments of racists and colonizers are eliminated.
“Monuments tend to be erected at the expense of the people whose forgotten lives and labors make their construction possible,” said Genji Amino, who curated the exhibit with Christina Hiromi Hobbs. “Instead of aspiring to elevate ignored events and degraded life to authoritative history, what would it mean to look to the experiments of artists of color to imagine alternatives to monumentalism?”
Works of art by famous modernist sculptors like Isamu Noguchi and Ruth Asawa are on display alongside a small selection of craftsmanship made by as yet unidentified Japanese Americans in the concentration camps, with examples of artistic creation in the periods before, during, and immediately after World War II sharing space with more recent efforts to deal with the legacy of heartbreaking events that marked the height of anti-Japanese sentiment in the 20th century.
No Monument interrogates common frameworks and official histories of Japanese American incarceration. “Our exhibit aims to move beyond stories of resilience and sacrifice which, despite the truths they hold about the US-Japan wartime experience, can often have the effect of distracting attention from violence. racial perpetuation by the state during this period, of romanticizing the Japanese American suffering and failing to consider the fact that the legacy of incarceration has not survived and that the structures that produced it are still intact,” Amino said.
White photographers like Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams played a role in these narratives, creating widely circulated photos that some criticize as showing Japanese Americans as loyal and unhappy victims, exemplary citizens and assimilated into society – all forerunners of the myth of the model minority of the hard-working Asian Americans who play by the rules, triumphing over adversity. “Many members of the general American public don’t even know that the incarceration of Japanese Americans took place, or if they do, they might believe the incarceration wasn’t that bad,” says Hobbs. “Japanese Americans were allowed to make art and play baseball, and so the experience is not comparable to other atrocities.”
But its impact was felt everywhere, which the exhibition proves with works not only by West Coast artists who were incarcerated as a result of the executive order, but also those who lived in Hawaii under martial law. after Pearl Harbor and those on the east coast who lived under threat. but not confinement. “No monument suggests that the hurt of incarceration extends beyond those immediately affected to also include those who lived in other parts of the United States at the time, as well as the descendants of those who were incarcerated,” says Hobbs. And the incarceration was not a quiet event, but rather one that reverberated long after and even before the war: the exhibition includes striking and expressive pre-war photographs of Japanese-American pictorialists from the West Coast, an influential movement extinguished by incarceration whose lost and destroyed works are only now beginning to be appreciated.
Some artists turned to abstraction to deal with what many found unthinkable (and was later euphemized by official histories as internment). Evoking confinement and the revealing of memories, a transparent sculpture in polyester resin by Leo Amino (the curator’s grandfather) and the gutted Noguchi Heroes Monument, riddled with bones and wooden blades. (As a resident of New York, Noguchi was exempt from government evacuation orders, but in 1942 the already established artist voluntarily – and controversially – entered Camp Poston in Arizona, where he spent six wasted months trying to improve conditions and develop an arts program.)
The legacy of imprisonment lives on, even though 80 years remain on few physical structures. From 1993 to 1995, Patrick Nagatani, a descendant of incarcerated Japanese Americans, photographed the 10 major concentration camp sites, finding remains of buildings and detritus in some, while others bore no trace. of this story; what can and cannot be seen is one of the themes of the exhibition. “It’s this seamless surface, the wounds that can’t be seen, that connect again to the idea of model-minority,” Amino says, pointing to a giant, closed-shaped ceramic peanut-like design by Toshiko Takaezu, of Hawaiian descent, which nowhere betrays that. it contains a rattle. “I hope that in the exhibition, descendants can reflect on the possibility of silence as a form of memory and inscrutability as a form of remembrance,” adds Hobbs.
In conversation with these works of art were handicrafts made by Japanese Americans in the camps, including carved wooden nameplates that differentiated the barracks. But the discourse around these objects has sometimes been problematic. “The way they’ve been celebrated is often synonymous with celebrating Japanese American sacrifice, industry, and even grace in the face of adversity,” Amino says. “The title of the first publication documenting the arts of incarceration, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, says it all, celebrating the Japanese-American ability to turn circumstances of degradation and deprivation into art.” These objects are now housed at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and are circulating as part of the traveling exhibition and memorial project Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collection, which arrives at the Noguchi Museum this weekend in collaboration with No Monument and continues to collect information on the objects.
The centerpiece is Kay Sekimachi’s ethereal 1969 nylon monofilament sculpture, Ogawa II, a fitting alt-monument that floats from the ceiling and has won over curators for its interiority, transparency, and haunting quality. Citing this work, Hobbs hopes the exhibit will provide Japanese Americans with a space to mourn and reflect: “For members of the community whose ancestors found the experience of incarceration too difficult to name, I hope spending some time with the works in the exhibition might bring some comfort. It may not be made of stone or set firmly on a plinth like typical monuments, but the force of its presence is just as undeniable. .