by Eddie Wong
Sansei artists Ellen Bepp, Shari Arai DeBoer, Reiko Fujii, Kathy Fujii-Oka, and Judy Shintani traveled to Manzanar Concentration Camp in 2018 to pay respects to their relatives and others who were removed from their homes and incarcerated during World War II. Their short documentary, Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey, about their Manzanar visit was shown at the opening day of their exhibit Sansei Granddaughters’ Footsteps from July 21 to August 25 at the Then They Came For Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties exhibit at the Presidio in San Francisco.
The following videos capture some impressions of the opening day and short artists talks that were conducted in 2018 during the work-in-progress phase of the project.
Artist Judy Shintani expresses why she creates artwork from the incarceration experience and discusses the process of using historical materials in her works. She also explores the parallels between the imprisonment of migrant families today with the Japanese American experience during WW II.
Artist Kathy Fujii-Oka shares some family history with the audience at J-Sei in Emeryville,CA at the work-in-progress presentation of Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey. She concludes her presentation with a poem.
The artwork displayed within the Then They Came For Me exhibit provided an interesting contrast with the massive black and white documentary images of the removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. While the photos by Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Francis Stewart, Tom Parker, Charles Mace, and Hikaru Carl Iwasaki are deeply moving, the varied pieces of sculpture, photo installations, paintings and graphic arts are distinctive. Each artist invested passion and multiple layers of meaning into their works, and thus waves of feeling, questioning, and awe swirl through the viewers’ minds. Here is how the artists described their works.
Scarred , 2019
Mixed media assemblage: handout paper poster, vase and sand
47” x 24” x 16”
Scarred is an altered civilian exclusion poster historically used in 1942 to order the removal of Japanese Americans during WWII. The words “I Am An American” are hand cut into the poster which emerges from the artist’s grandmother’s vase that she used for creating her traditional Japanese flower arrangements. The pleading image of cut out text is viscerally disturbing in contrast to the vase which is symbolic of harmony and grace in the art of flower arranging. The poster rises from a mound of sand conjuring images of the barren desert wastelands of the WWII camps.
The etching Transient Rooms started with a photo of DeBoer’s mother and aunt as young girls in front of the family’s Sacramento boarding house in the late 1920s. As imagery of family mementos and experiences were added, the etching came to tell the story of her family’s continuing adaptation from farming, to the nursery business, to incarceration and starting over again.
While in southern Oregon near Tule Lake last winter, the harsh weather and landscape moved DeBoer to create Barbed Wire Reflection in appreciation of the hardships her family experienced by being incarcerated at Tule Lake.
Detained Alien Enemy Glass Kimono, 2017
Images fused onto glass, copper wire
48” x 42” x 6”
Reiko Fujii designed Detained Alien Enemy Glass Kimono as a wearable kimono, made up of over 2,000 pieces of individually hand-cut glass. The 224 fused frames each contain an image of her family, friends or acquaintances while they were unjustly incarcerated during WWII in American concentration camps. The frames are tied to one another with copper wire. The kimono comes alive when worn, as the glass strikes together, creating the tinkling sound of wind chimes.
Remembrance Shrine, 2006-present
Mixed media with birdcage, paper and ink
60” x 72” x 36”
Fashioned from a birdcage wrapped in rice paper, Shintani’s artwork is reminiscent of an Obutsudan, a small Buddhist home shrine. The shrine glows like a paper lantern and signifies the dignity and resilience of the imprisoned. The memories of those who were incarcerated from 1942-46 are hidden behind shutters on the shrine. Viewers are invited to lift the shutters to reveal writings about this challenging time and to leave their own written thoughts by tying them onto the shrine.
Ellen Bepp, Shari Arai DeBoer, Reiko Fujii, Kathy Fujii-Oka and Judy Shintani
Ancestor Lanterns, 2018
Paper, wood and battery operated candles
3” x 3” x 3”
The artists created these lanterns with the intention to honor their ancestors who were incarcerated. Family photos are incorporated into each lantern. During their journey to Manzanar, the artists brought these lanterns with them and lit them in the early morning darkness.