The Art of Gaman

Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946

This summer in Santa Fe, get ready for another spectacular showing at the Museum of International Folk Art, where The Art of Gaman is the featured exhibition and opens on Sunday, July 8, 2012. It will be part of the International Folk Arts Week that culminates with the Folk Art Market from July 13-15th- October 7, 2012.

The Art of Gaman, organized and curated by San Francisco-based author Delphine Hirasuna, which highlights arts and crafts made by Japanese-Americans who resided in US internment camps during World War II. This exhibition received advised support from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and is based upon Hirasuna’s 2005 book, The Art of Gaman, published by Ten Speed Press. The show is a compilation of precious objects that have been collected from former internees and their families, including 100 items of historical importance such as archival photographs as well as artifacts and documentary films. 

Hirasuna’s hope in curating this exhibition, “… is that people who see the handmade objects in the show consider the individuals who created the pieces of art and the circumstances under which they were made.  Even in the United States, many people do not realize that the entire ethnic Japanese-American population (120,000 people) on the West Coast was herded into internment camps and left there for about three and a half years. Two-thirds of those interned were born in the U.S. and were American citizens.”

Considered enemies of the United States, but no charges were ever leveled against any Japanese-Americans, they were given a week to report to camp, and like persecuted Jews in Europe who were relocated to ghettos, were allowed to take what they could carry, the losses were tremendous. Hirasuna adds, “When they first entered the camps, they soon saw that the living units only had a metal cot and no other furniture. They scrounged for scrap wood to make basic things: a chair to sit on, a way to store their clothes, or a table to use for eating or a work surface. They then soon began making things to pass the time, amuse themselves, and beautify their surroundings. They refused to give up, and they refused to be reduced to a number on a lapel tag. The act of creating was a way to salvage their self-worth, hang onto their individuality, feel productive, and endure the seemingly unbearable living conditions with patience and dignity which is actually the meaning of gaman.”

The exhibit demonstrates that art can be made from anything. One of Hirasuna's favorite objects is a beloved bracelet made out of a meat bone, a unique piece that was sliced crosswise and strung together through the marrow with a red piece of thread. “It's charming.” She adds, “These objects prove that you can't use the excuse that you don't have the right materials and tools to make something good. The internees forged their own tools and even crushed glass and glued it onto cardboard to use as sandpaper. If there is the will, there is a way.”

Hirasuna’s interest in these curious objects formed when she was just a young girl and found a little wooden box of trinkets stashed away in her parent's garage. “Inside were knick-knacks from the WWII era, including a tiny carved wooden bird brooch with a safety pin for a clasp. I recalled seeing some other objects over the years, and started asking my parent’s friends if they had kept anything. Many said, ‘I think there may be something in the shed or attic.’ What they unearthed was often amazing and they hadn't looked at it for at least 50 years. I was astonished by the variety and imagination of the pieces.”

What moves Hirasuna most about these works is their ‘patina of humility’. She explains, “The artisans created to pass the time. They didn't view themselves as ‘artists.’ In fact, most of the artwork that was created in the internment camps was tossed out and left behind when the internees were released. I love the pieces that rise to the level of fine art, but I am moved to tears by the humble attempts at making things from knotty lumber and discarded paper. That kind of art comes from another place, perhaps a purer place.”

Hirasuna hopes that visitors feel uplifted by what they see, and celebrate the resilience of the human spirit. She hopes that people reflect on the instinctive need to create which can therefore give life a greater purpose. 

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