Review: Art of Gaman
By William Richards
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, about 120,000 Japanese-Americans were sent to 25 short- and long-term camps in the United States. As prisoners of war, they were collected and processed with military efficiency, and the lives they established prior to the war—albeit as an immigrant population in political limbo—were effectively suspended. “Art of Gaman” documents that period of suspension, with 120 art and craft objects that testify to the collective experience of first-, second-, and third-generation Japanese-Americans during World War II.
The Japanese word “gaman” refers to the preservation of one’s dignity even in the most undignified circumstances. It is the Japanese version of having a stiff upper lip, but gaman is also a transformative artistic force: scrap wood turned into a chest of drawers, tule reeds and onion-sack string into flawless baskets, and slate stones into polished teapots. An abacus, a pencil holder, ironwood ornaments, pins, playing cards, and even a model train—the range of art objects produced by interred Japanese-Americans is staggering. Among the most touching objects in the exhibition are watercolors of the camps themselves by 15-year-old George Tamura, painted on the back of discarded evacuation notices. Devoid of people and rendered in blacks, browns, and pale greens, the watercolors convey a palpable sense of isolation.
Other objects are celebratory. The technical mastery of a nearly five-foot-tall butsudan, by the Nishiura brothers—both skilled builders of the Japanese Pavilion at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition—belies the origin of its making in raw, found materials from around the camp. Gaman, in this sense, is about concealing hardship as much as it is about obdurate pride.
“Art of Gaman”—the third time these objects have been assembled as an exhibition—represents a critical mass of evidence about craftways and technique, but it amounts to more than a snapshot of one culture’s artistic production. Traditional Japanese art forms, American popular culture in the 1930s and early 1940s, and the politics of wartime detention intersect, raising larger questions about cultural identity: What does art created in captivity tell us about the experience of its makers? What are the costs of loyalty, enculturation, and acquiescence to an imprisoned immigrant population? Would you change your mind about architecture if it held more than your attention captive?
Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1
Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Delphine Hirasuna, guest curator
Runs through January 30, 2011
The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946
By Delphine Hirasuna
Berkeley and Toronto: Ten Speed Press (2005)
William Richards is the Editor-in-Chief of Inform: Architecture and Design in the Mid-Atlantic.