Postcard Rec: The Art of Gaman

Let’s talk about perseverance and oppression

Hi, all. I know it’s August and most of us would love a vacation from the realities of this year, but that’s not where my head or my reading has been. (But if you’re desperate for a beach read, this one literally called that should scratch that itch.) As wonderful and vital as I think fiction is, I’ve been finding a lot more reward in my nonfiction and research reading lately. It lets me keep opening my mind while I have to physically stay put. So, on to the past to understand the present and how we can be better humans.

The Art of Gaman, Delphine Hirasuna

Gaman is a Japanese word defined as “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” Delphine Hirasuna’s beautiful and accessible catalogue visualizes this concept with powerful, detailed storytelling alongside Terry Heffernan’s photography.

As Hirasuna explains, after the US entered World War II, over 120,000 Japanese American citizens were rounded up and forcibly relocated to incarceration camps around the West. Because the camps had not yet been built at the time of “detainment,” thousands of people were held in makeshift shelters, including the horse stalls at the Santa Anita Racetrack in LA.* When we talk about the inhumanity of war in the US, the conversation so often centers around atrocities that happened elsewhere. But we need to reckon with the racist programs of incarceration that happened and are happening here. This particular program was created on the unfounded suspicion that Issei and Nisei (first- and second-generation citizens) would support the Japanese government during the conflict. It was explicitly racist, because the government discussed—and dismissed—interning German Americans as well.

The artworks created in the camps encompassed all media: sculpture, embroidery, painting, drawing, carving, pottery, furniture, jewelry. Artists led classes in many of the camps, and their resourcefulness and gaman transcended terrible living conditions as well as extremely limited materials: much was made from scrap wood, supply bags and boxes, shells, and stones. While paintings and watercolors often depicted the immediate landscape of barbed wire, guard towers, and tent barracks, other artworks provided an imaginative escape through intricate carvings of animals and flower brooches made from shells. Functional and necessary items like furniture were made beautiful with inlaid patterns. All of these items were incredible acts of resistence in the face of oppression—because continuing to create when you have been silenced, incarcerated, and marginalized is a powerful act, whether or not the work is explicitly political or polemical. And Heffernan’s photography emphasizes this dignity and spirit throughout. One of my favorite layouts from the book juxtaposes an intricately patterned cigarette case, woven by an unknown artist from onion-sack string, next to a matchbook with an American flag printed on it. Their symbolic dynamic—how much the flag hides and the case reveals, the push-pull of oppression and perseverance—is flawless.

Hirasuna provides an incisive overview, especially in how the experience of the camps differed for Issei and Nisei and how each generation dealt with the memory afterwards. I’m grateful for her work to survey and preserve the art of this period, and ashamed that, as an art historian, I had never come across examples of it before. (While it’s not my period of focus, I never challenged survey courses’ definition of WWII art as ‘propaganda posters, photojournalism, end of list.’) I only found her book after attending a recent Zoom talk given by Ted Tanaka about his experience as a young child in Manzanar, in which he shared some stunning pieces of embroidery his mother made during their time in the camp.

Statistics convey the enormity of a problem, but art conveys the experience of it. I think we need both to understand what’s at stake. The point is not that people create beautiful art under horrific circumstances; the point is, they shouldn’t have to.

If you like it:

Try Mine Okubo’s Citizen 13660, which also tells the story of Japanese American incarceration through art: it’s an illustrated memoir/graphic novel written by a woman who experienced the camps.

If you don’t:

If you’re interested in a broader understanding of which stories get privileged in art and history, try The Whole Picture. Alice Procter’s book elucidates how museums control the narrative around art—from what gets prioritized, to how works have been (often violently) acquired, to how they frame objects through a colonial/imperial lens. While focused on the UK’s institutions, it’s entirely relevant to the US’s artistic imperialism as well.

*My friend Caroline Liou touches on this in a recent piece about the representation of Asian American landmarks in the San Gabriel Valley.

Things I’ve written lately:

A history of US women’s suffrage in five objects, Apollo Magazine

How can we revive public art during coronavirus?, Artillery Magazine

Compound, a space for art and wellness, to open in Long Beach, The Art Newspaper