The desolate stillness of a photograph showing a row of barracks belies the turbulent conditions of its making. Two months after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, executive order 9066 authorized the forced 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 film holder he had smuggled inside the Manzanar camp in California. For months he took photos like this one 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 would click the shutter, thereby remaining technically within the rules.
Photography has long been used as a means to document, but as Miyatake’s work attests, it can also be used to resist. A new exhibition at the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Queens, No Monument: In the Wake of the Japanese American Incarcerationconsiders how Japanese American artists have represented and remembered the incarceration through experimentation with photography and sculpture.
Sculpture, after all, is the traditional medium of monuments, and the presentation marks the 80th anniversary of the signing of executive order 9066 in February 1942 while conveying ambivalence toward the commemoration and memorialization of historical trauma, particularly at a time when monuments of racists and colonizers are being removed.
“Monuments tend to be erected at the expense of the peoples whose forgotten life and labor make their construction possible,” points out Genji Amino, who curated the show with Christina Hiromi Hobbs. “Instead of aspiring to elevate overlooked events and degraded life to the status of authoritative history, what would it mean to look to experiments by artists of color in order to imagine alternatives to monumentalism?”
Artworks by celebrated modernist sculptors like Isamu Noguchi and Ruth Asawa are displayed alongside a small selection of crafts made by as-yet-unidentified Japanese Americans in the concentration camps, with instances of art making in the periods before, during, and immediately after the second world war sharing space with more recent efforts to contend with the legacy of the harrowing events that signified the apex of anti-Japanese sentiment in the 20th century.
No Monument interrogates common framings and official histories of Japanese American incarceration. “Our exhibition aims to move beyond narratives of resilience and sacrifice, which, despite the truths they contain about wartime Japanese American experience, can often have the effect of calling attention away from the racial violence perpetrated by the state during this period, of romanticizing Japanese American suffering, and of failing to address the fact that the legacy of the incarceration has not been outlived and the structures that produced it are still intact,” Amino says.
White photographers like Dorothea Lang and Ansel Adams played a role in those narratives, creating widely circulated photos that some criticize as showing Japanese Americans as loyal, happy victims, exemplary citizens and assimilable into society – all precursors to the model-minority myth of hard-working, rule-following Asian Americans triumphing over adversity. “Many members of the broader American public are unaware that the Japanese American incarceration even happened, or if they are aware of it, they might believe that the incarceration wasn’t so bad,” Hobbs says. “Japanese Americans were allowed to make art and play baseball, and therefore the experience is not comparable to other atrocities.”
But its impact was felt far and wide, which the exhibition proves with works by not only west coast artists who were incarcerated following the executive order but also those living 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 wound of the incarceration extends beyond those who were immediately affected to also include those living in other parts of the United States at the time, as well as to the descendants of those who were incarcerated,” Hobbs explains. And the incarceration was no discrete event but rather one that reverberated long after and even before the war: the show includes some striking, expressive prewar photographs by west coast Japanese American pictorialists, an influential movement extinguished by the incarceration whose lost and destroyed works are only now beginning to be appreciated.
Some artists turned to abstraction to process what many found unthinkable (and was later euphemized by official histories as internment). Evoking the enclosing and revealing of memories are a see-through polyester-resin sculpture by Leo Amino (the curator’s grandfather) and Noguchi’s eviscerated Monument to Heroes, riddled with bones and wooden blades. (As a New York resident, Noguchi was exempt from the government’s evacuation orders, but in 1942 the already-established artist willingly – and controversially – entered Arizona’s Poston camp, where he spent futile six months attempting to improve conditions and develop an arts program.)
The legacy of imprisonment endures, even if 80 years on few physical structures remain. From 1993 to 1995 patrick nagatani, a descendant of incarcerated Japanese Americans, photographed the 10 major concentration-camp sites, finding building remnants and detritus at some, while others bore no trace of that history; what can and cannot be seen is one of the exhibition’s themes. “It’s that seamless surface, the wounds that can’t be seen, which again connects to the model-minority idea,” Amino says, gesturing to a giant peanut-like closed-form ceramic by Hawaiian-born Toshiko Takaezu that nowhere betrays that it contains a rattle. “I hope that in the exhibition descendants are able to 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 fine art are crafts made by Japanese Americans in the camps, including carved-wood nameplates that differentiated the barracks. But the discourse surrounding these objects has at times been problematic. “The way they have been celebrated is often synonymous with the celebration of Japanese American sacrifice, industry, and even grace in the face of adversity,” Amino explains. “The title of the first publication documenting the incarceration arts, Beauty Behind Barbed Wire, says it all, celebrating the Japanese American capacity to transform circumstances of degradation and deprivation into art.” These objects are now housed at Los Angeles’s Japanese American National Museum and circulate as part of the traveling exhibition and remembrance project Contested Histories: Art and Artifacts from the Allen Hendershott Eaton Collectionwhich arrives at the Noguchi Museum this weekend in conjunction with No Monument and continues to crowdsource information about the objects.
Looming as a centerpiece is Kay Sekimachi’s ethereal 1969 nylon monofilament sculpture Ogawa II, an apt alt-monument that floats from the ceiling and appealed to the curators for its interiority, transparency, and haunting quality. Citing this work, Hobbs hopes the show furnishes a space for Japanese Americans to grieve and reflect: “For members of the community whose ancestors found the experience of the incarceration to be too difficult to name, I hope that spending time with the works in the exhibition might provide some solace.” It may not be made of stone or stand staunch on a base like typical monuments, but the force of its presence is just as undeniable.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism