Art Works Blog

Bearing the Unbearable: The Art of Gaman

Washington, DC

Homei Iseyama, Interned at Topaz, Utah, Teapot. Photo by Terry Heffernan

The first thing I noticed when I entered the exhibition, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946, was the quality of the craftsmanship. This small but utterly compelling show is currently at the Smithsonian?s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC.

The 120 objects in the exhibition include utilitarian pieces such as chairs and tools as well as art pieces---floral corsages made of tiny seashells, intricately carved Buddhist altars, ink drawings, and more. The Japanese word gaman means to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience, and that idea is borne out in the sense of forbearance and pride that permeates the show.

Isamu Noguchi, Interned at Poston, Arizona, Bust of Ginger Rogers, Pink Georgia marble. Photo courtesy Isamu Noguchi Foundation

Delphine Hirasuna organized and curated the show based on her book of the same title. She too was "blown away by the quality" of the objects when she began to collect them in 2005, especially since most of the detainees had had no artistic training or experience prior to living in the camps.

Since the detainees could only take what they could carry with them, the materials and tools they used to create these objects had to be made from whatever they found in the stark environments to which they were confined. Materials came from the detritus of the camps---such as slates from wooden crafts, empty mayonnaise jars, string from an onion sack, or dried beans---as well as from the natural environment including pieces of slate or serpentine mesquite branches.

Kametaro Matsumoto, Interned at Minidoka (Hunt), Idaho, Puzzle, Wood, paint, shellac. Photo by Terry Heffernan

Hirasuna noted, "When all has been taken away from you, the only thing to hang on to is your creativity; it allows you to own your personality." In fact, she speculated that perhaps a reason some of the detainees became seemingly obsessed with drawing and painting the landscape of the camps was to reconcile themselves to the reality of their situation; only by recreating their surroundings over and over could they get past the shock and accept what had happened.

Although the role of curator was new for her, Hirasuna has "defined in my own mind" that it means building stories. "I want to stir curiosity about each person who is represented in the show. I want those coming to the exhibition to see the people here as people, not as statistics." In fact, she noted that the whole experience of writing the book and curating the exhibition has brought her a new perspective on her grandfather and his generation. She?s come to appreciate, "the courage, resilience, and dignity they demonstrated by doing something creative and worthwhile during their detainment."

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