'The Art of Gaman': Life behind walls we were too scared to live without

After Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the infamous executive order 9066 in 1942, some 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned in concentration camps. The Renwick Gallery's Art of Gaman exhibition displays the arts and crafts of people who lost homes, businesses and professions during this dark chapter of World War II history.
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 28, 2010

The National Japanese American Memorial was dedicated just two days after the Bush-Gore election madness of 2000 grabbed headlines and diverted the national attention. Since then, this little memorial just north of the U.S. Capitol has faded into the background, like so many other small monuments located off the Mall.

The memorial, which recognizes both the patriotic contributions of Japanese Americans and their shameful internment during World War II, is a generic space. It has an obligatory water feature, a decent bronze statue of two cranes struggling against the confinement of barbed wire, and an intriguing, low-pitched tubular bell, which sometimes rings and sometimes doesn't when you pump a nearby handle. But it speaks in all the usual memorial cliches, and it struggles to find a clear voice.

Contrast this effort at pompous solemnity with a new exhibition at the Renwick Gallery, "The Art of Gaman," devoted to art and crafts made by some of the 120,000 ethnic Japanese who were shipped off to inland detention centers by Franklin Delano Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066. While the memorial strains at permanence, the works on display at the Renwick are provisional and makeshift. They include furniture cobbled together from scrap lumber, simple tools and household goods, and small works of art that in many cases spent decades stored away in garages until broader American recognition of the internment travesty gave the items new historic and cultural vitality.

While the memorial sets the names of the camps in stone, the crafts on display at the Renwick give texture to the improvised social life and bleak architecture of places such as Manzanar, Minidoka and Rohwer. After being forced to liquidate businesses and abandon homes, the internees began building new domestic lives in far-away, often dusty places.

First, they made the stuff of sitting, sleeping and eating. The exhibition opens with a crude but stoutly built chair, made from two-by-fours by Mits Kaida, who was interned at California's Tule Lake.

From that simple, functional object, there follows what feels like an explosion of the aesthetic impulse. Elaborately woven vases were made from the most basic of materials: wire, paper and shellac. A cigarette case was made from string unraveled from an old onion sack. Pins and corsages that would pass muster at any Washington diplomatic reception were put together from beans, sunflower seeds and shells.

Traditional Japanese arts found outlet in whatever stone or wood was at hand. Homei Iseyama, interned at Topaz, Utah, carved teapots, cups and suzuri (inkwells for calligraphy) out of local slate. Flower arranging continued with unfading blooms made from pipe cleaners, stored as if sealed off from time and history in commercial-size mayonnaise jars.

Many of the works are anonymous, though some of these are among the most powerful. An anonymous watercolor landscape shows the Sierra Nevada with the Manzanar camp lightly painted in the background, almost as an afterthought. To city folk, Manzanar must have seemed desolate, and as a concentration camp, it was drab, uniform and dehumanizing. But it sat in the shadow of some of the most majestic and powerful mountains in the world, and you sense the artist putting the powerful beauty of inanimate nature in front of man-made ugliness -- an expression of hope, perhaps, that the latter will fade in reality as it seems to do visually in the painting.

There are also works by more recognized figures. Isamu Noguchi, the modernist abstract sculptor, volunteered to be interned at Poston, Ariz., where he expected to help organize an arts guild. When his utopian aspirations were dashed on the reality of concentration camp life, he asked to leave. Despite promises that the renowned artist could leave at will, he ended up staying there (unhappily) for seven months, during which time he finished a hauntingly blank bust of Ginger Rogers. It's easy to read too much into Noguchi's abstraction of an American icon into an impassive, dour mask. But it's definitely not the Ginger Rogers of "Top Hat," "Shall We Dance" or "Carefree."

There's also a striking painting by Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, the subject of a 2006 documentary, "The Cats of Mirikitani," which surveyed his complicated and often sad life that included long years as a homeless artist on the streets of New York. In a powerful image from around 1945, Mirikitani creates a Japanese-style landscape, with a rigid row of barracks tapering into the background at a strange angle. The barracks are no less beautiful than the natural landscape, but they are at odds with it, a rigid, orderly band of prisonlike structures incised into something more colorful and organic.

Many of the most powerful moments in this exhibition share something with Mirikitani's paradoxical painting: Ugliness isn't foregrounded or emphasized, but contained, contextualized and diminished through integration into the decorative, the beautiful or the normal.

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The Renwick faces one of the bleakest stretches of Pennsylvania Avenue, the grand connector that links the legislative and executive branches in Pierre L'Enfant's original city plan. This spring marks the 15th anniversary of the closing of the blocks in front of the White House in response to the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City. Efforts to turn the closed avenue into an appealing pedestrian park failed miserably -- the space still feels like a closed-off street, not a plaza or extension of Lafayette Square -- and it remains one of the strangest, most arid places in the District.

The angles and lines of this barren streetscape seem as alien and hostile as the angle of the barracks crossing Mirikitani's landscape. The futile attempts to prettify the space seem as ironic as the watercolors 15-year-old George Tamura produced at Tule Lake, which show an uneasy overlay of guard towers and barbed wire on a mountainous landscape -- painted on the back of an Army evacuation notice.

Outside the Renwick, police don't even bother to park their cars parallel or horizontal to the lines of the street. They just leave them askew, in the middle of the paved dead zone, proof of who has the power and a reminder that you are always being watched. Temporary barriers that seem to spend most of their lives permanently attached to this landscape give it the same haphazard, provisional feel of the hastily erected electrical poles, fences and outbuildings one finds in the landscapes of "The Art of Gaman."

The Japanese internment is usually explained as a product of racism and the general ugliness of wartime. Both are true, and both explanations seem to place it safely in the past, as an anomaly, a hiccup in the march of civil rights and tolerance.

But it was justified then on grounds that still shape our lives and landscape today. It was a simple matter of security.

Not that those fears had sufficient justification. But Japanese Americans were shipped off to concentration camps because fear trumped all other values. You hear it in the racist gibbering of the politicians and hack journalists quoted in a video accompanying the exhibition.

I went to "The Art of Gaman" the same day that the Commission of Fine Arts signed off on plans to make the security zone around the Lincoln Memorial more beautiful, but also more permanent. Concrete blocks will be removed, bollards will be pulled away from the memorial and hidden, as much as possible, in the wooded areas to the sides of the structure. Walls integrated into the gentle slope of the landscape in front of the memorial will look decorative, and provide security lest someone careen off Independence Avenue, head overland through a forested zone, hurtle up the side of the reflecting pool and direct a car-bomb attack at the popular 1922 memorial.

The Japanese internment can't be equated with the security fears of post-9/11 America. But for Washingtonians, who have been disenfranchised from some of their most beautiful spaces, "The Art of Gaman" has special power. In both cases, the human need to be at home in the landscape, or cityscape, runs up against inexorable, bureaucratic forces. And in Washington, those forces are laying permanent claim to the look of public land.

At the same design hearing at which the Lincoln Memorial elements were finalized, the arts commissioners also got an update on the new Department of Homeland Security headquarters on the west campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital. The sylvan brick campus will be encircled by parallel bands of eight-foot security fence, with a 20-foot gap between. Where the hilly landscape will not easily receive this intrusion, the forested slopes will be cut and torn and remade with retaining walls.

The CFA loves the details of paving stones and light posts. When it comes to color and texture and the flow of pedestrian traffic, the commissioners are full of questions. But when the subject was security, they become more quiescent. One commissioner reminded the officials explaining the fences and guard towers that this is what the public will see of the historic St. Elizabeths. So do try to make it nice. Another pointed out that a grim guard station through which employees' children will have to pass en route to day care might terrify tender minds. This may be a child's first experience of a public building, he said. So do brighten it up a bit.

But what is done in the name of security is not to be questioned. Big ideas have always shaped Washington, from the ambition and speculation of the early 19th century to the City Beautiful and the promise of grand imperial vistas of the early 20th century. In the early 21st century there are multiple forces at work, but one is paramount. Fear is etched into the landscape above all else. It can make you feel helpless -- shut out, not in, but a little less human in either case. Not as bad as what happened at Manzanar, but certainly more permanent.

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