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UMFA showing art as survival from three Japanese American women in 'Pictures of Belonging'

May 22, 2024 12:44PM ● By Genevieve Vahl

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor just months prior. Executive Order 9066 gave way for Public Proclamation No. 4, “which began the forced evacuation and detention of Japanese-American West Coast residents on a 48-hour notice,” according to the National Archives.

Thus ensued incarcerating approximately 122,000 “foreign born (issei – meaning ‘first generation of Japanese in the US) and American born citizens (nisei – the second generation of Japanese in America, US citizens by birthright.)” in fenced, confined, isolated “relocation centers,” also known as internment camps. One of which being Topaz near Delta, Utah. 

Three Japanese American women artists, in response to being amongst the many forced to flee the west coast or into internment camps, used their painting as survival, coping, historic record to document the horrors Japanese-Americans were forced into during the rise and denouement of World War II. Seeing their art transition from blissful reflections on their worldly meanderings to survival mechanisms and historical documentation through the end of the war. 

Now showing at Utah Museum of Fine Art, “Pictures of Belonging” showcases a telling progression of work from Miki Hayakawa, Miné Okubo and Hisako Hibi, of pre-, during- and post-World War II perspectives on being victim to the onslaught of anti-Japanese-American sentiment following the enactment of FDR’s Executive Order 9066. Their work tracks the wave of historical current that was World War II, through the lens of women living the horrors, documenting for the world to understand the realities of their trauma. Showcasing the evolution of how their painting practices served each woman from before, during and after the war.  

Hibi and Okubo were sent to Tanforan in California and both later to Topaz in Utah following 9066. Hayakawa fled the west coast in 1942 at the onset of forced evacuations and found herself in Santa Fe New Mexico. “Nearly 70,000 evacuees were American citizens,” according to the National Archives. Furthermore, “More than 30,000 Japanese-Americans served with distinction during World War II in segregated units.” 

Entering the back Temporary Exhibitions gallery through the large mural hall, the show opens with three self-portraits of the artists, each in their distinct styles seen throughout the gallery. By the end, getting to know the style of each artist so well, there is no need to use the title cards to identify a piece’s artist.  

The gallery was chronologically curated, intermingling the three women’s works into sections before the war, during the war and after the war. The transitions throughout their work in reflection to the increasingly troubling current events is easily seen when the women’s works are amongst one another. Even when the women were existing separately, common themes emerged in mutual time periods.

Their collective prewar work reflects a bliss, a calm before what we know in hindsight to be a storm of international devastation, particularly acute for west coast Japanese-Americans at the time. There is a naive softness to the body of work from the three women, in the countryside, with lovers, seeing the beauty in vased flowers, a delicate gaze at the tree out back.

Miki Hayakawa graduated from the California School of Fine Arts in 1928. Fleeing to Santa Fe in 1942, she avoided incarceration and picked up southwestern affects in her work. While interpolating remnants of traditional painting canonry like Degas and Monet impressionism (“Untitled (Woman with Blue Hair))”  and Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in her cubist portraits of a 1930s lover, Edward. 

Miné Okubo puts an indigeneity in her work, with strokes and lines combobulating Americannah, Japanese and Mexican folk art. Okubo was a second generation Japanese-American, nisei, interpolating Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco with Americannah folk art. Her figures do not smile often, like in old time photos where the process to capture a single frame is gratuitously long, the figures hold a stoic face and firm eye contact. 

Okubo’s pre-war work too can be traced back to a happy bliss through young adult life, traipsing through Europe in the 1930s, influencing her style sharply. A French impressionist dreamscape in the countryside (“The Village Street,” 1940) – beautiful chaos of a pastel dream. But even in that same year, Okubo painted “Grocer Weighing Produce,” depicting patrons peering over their shoulders, keeping a close eye on these precious apples being weighed out, eliciting the lingering approach of wartime scarcity. 

Hisako Hibi too took to the countryside in her pre-war works, finding beauty in the simplicity of the quiet and rolls of the pastures. Hibi, her husband, Matsusaburo George Hibi and their two small children were eventually incarcerated at Tanforan in California and later Topaz in Utah from 1942 to 1945. Hibi’s opening portrait is circa 1944, in the late throes of the war, still incarcerated, depicting herself in beige seemingly mass-issued uniform with sadness and a look for help in her eyes. 

The still lives, landscapes, architecture and the beauty in the mundanities of life almost become arbitrary when flowing into the dark and heavy war time works with the turn of a gallery partition. 

“My paintings became cloudy gray,” Hibi said of her work during this time in 1976. Most of the works after 1942 turn gray and blue and slate, or red in horror. The countrysides and beautiful residences turn into “thick heavy lines and abstract forms convey[ing] the trauma and toll that forced removal and subsequent incarceration experience took on children and adults alike” a title card read for an untitled Okubo piece.

Okubo kept rigorous sketches and documentation of her experience incarcerated and in 1946, published those works in a graphic memoir called “Citizen 13660.” Images of survival and documentation of the inhumane conditions sanctioned by racist federal legislation.  

Both Okubo and Hayakawa maintained membership in the San Francisco Art Association through at least 1945, “suggesting the artists tried to maintain a sense of belonging to their artistic communities even as they experienced wartime displacement.”

In a title card for Okubo’s “Sunday” circa 1943, it reads that “[Okubo] continued submitting artworks to participate in art shows in California and elsewhere from behind barbed wire at Topaz.” Using blue and slates in sullen, precise lines of order and restriction, like their lives as incarcerees. In her piece “The Camps Were Unfinished So the Evacuees Had to Prepare for Living There,” circa 1943, she conveys the sick irony in people building their own incarceration. What was once thought to be stoic facial expression on her figures from antiquitous photography processes now can be read as solemnity from incarceration and inhumane conditions they were subjected to in the camps. 

Hibi’s wartime works used poppy reds and oranges in her ominous skies over gray silhouettes of desert mountains and the camps at their foot. They are an appreciation for the beauty of sunrises and sunsets in the vast desert of Utah, while also reading as harsh, tumultuous, fearful and dread in the internment camps in the fore. Hibi saw the beauty in the land despite her captivity, while addressing and documenting its bloody horror. A silence lingering, sadness, death and chaos emanating. 

These paintings are vital so as to never lose these conditions and experiences to white supremacy history. Painting as a life force, giving purpose and reason to survive. Bringing faces to the people in the camps. Depicting women specifically – raising children and helping their husbands – mothers doing it all in the most unconscionable conditions. Juxtaposing the draconian monotony of incarceration with the beauty of the landscapes. Showing the militarization of the land and people – the land defenseless against its weaponization towards Japanese-Americans.   

Okubo was eventually granted permission to leave incarceration for her illustration job with Fortune Magazine in 1944, moving to Greenwich Village in New York City where she remained for the next 60 years. In September of 1945, Hibi and her family moved to New York City too.  

Lights of hope begin to glimmer out of the wartime grays and reds and blues as years rolled into the mid 1940s. 

“Peace will come and we will have to endure. Like you cannot have flowers in the winter. You have to go through the winter to spring,” Hibi said. “You have to endure winter to have spring. The spring doesn’t come after autumn.” Coming out the other side stronger because of the winter of war they just survived.  

Hibi’s series of farm product oil paintings continues her gratitude for the simple beauty in her dark reality. Painting an ode to the farm products her and fellow incarcerees nurtured over their time in the camps. 

“Topaz Flower – Sunflower and Corn” from 1945 is Hibi “creating life out of nothingness” while incarcerated. “They can thus be understood as collective portraits of community displacement and gaman – the Japanese term conveying perseverance, patience and acceptance of the reality of the moment.” Also seen in “Mother’s Day Present” from 1948, the yellows and bright pockets amongst the scenes of reds and grays show the first glimpses emerging out of the dark depths of war. 

“After the camp, my colors changed,” Hibi said. From red and gray and dread to brighter and lighter on the other side of the war, where the grass is truly greener. 

There is a collective reclamation of their practices for pleasure, reinvestigating their influences and styles they could not explore while rapidly trying to create out of survival during the war. Hibi was experimenting again with interpolating geometry cubist masters with French impressionism and Basquiat-like intentional chaos. 

Hibi urged the government to apologize to those wrongly imprisoned during World War II while giving testimony. “The vital role as an artist and advocate for righting historic wrongs,” she said. “Through our bitter experiences of World War II, I hope we contribute something to the better future for peaceful existence for all on earth,” (1965)

Hibi layers scenes in different planes, like the masterful ways of Digeo Rivera (“Waiting for Bus to Work,” 1955), depicting the everyday, the beauty in small things again, with strength and resilience. Coming out the other side, the sun still shining, the sky transitioning from dusk to golden, grateful to have survived another day. Like Hayakawa’s post war works that are Georgia O’Keefe in softness and Southwestern in influence. Wispy and terracotta with soft desert hues of dusk emerging at the foot of the mountains (“Rooftops,” 1946). The sun rising over a new day. 

The post war freedom gave way to taking back autonomy in the artist world. “Hibi and Okubo talked about how they strove to unlearn their training in Western Art traditions in order to discover a new kind of freedom and truth in their art.” Hibi returned to Japanese tradition of balance and symmetry in Japanese gardens to guide her abstract intermingling of pastel softness from pre-war impressionist influences with the brutality and chaos from the displacement and disruption of war in browns and murky blurriness (“War and Suffering,” 1982). Like when dust whips around from disturbed desert soils. WIth yellow daisies peeking through as some of the few legible subjects, a symbol of brightness emerging. 

Okubo’s post war practice experimented with modernist geometric abstraction, reducing objects and figures down to their most basic elements. “Beauty and statements of truth revealed themselves in the simple and the sensitivities and all that is conceited and false fell aside,” she said in 1972. Going back to the basic form. Playing with color and brightness again, joy and beauty in the simple things. Because there is now capacity to do so out of survival mode. Okubo and the others could return to the basics of their practices, redefining her language to visually communicate.

This return to experimentation in the practice can be seen in works like “Boy, Goat, Fruit” (1972),  “Mother and Child” (1992) and “Boy with Fish #2” (1995). Returning to play and lightness as war faded into history, but is forever embedded in their personal fibers, into their art practices. Having gone to dark places to emerge back into the brightness, appreciating and seeing the beauty with survival gratitude. “Now that I can talk in painting, there is so much beauty and wit and humor to be spread,” Okubo said in 1972. She uses simple gestures of color, light and shadow with flecks of folk traditions, memory, neons and flowers. 

“Pictures of Belonging” is a history lesson in context, a style combobulation in visuals. It shows the evolution of how painting can serve as personal expression as well as a historic record for underrepresented communities. This is one of the first times some of these works are being shown, recognizing the women interpolating different techniques and influences often unrecognized in their contribution to American art history. Documenting and keeping their personal and cultural history alive. Had these women not captured the horrors of Japanese internment camps, would this history have been preserved? The Japanese-American experience of history. Not just the American Government’s record, but that of the people on the inside of the barbed wire and those forced to flee. Personal history could be lost and no accountability held without these realities documented in paint. 

“Pictures of Belonging” is showing through June 30.