At the Renwick Gallery last week, a number of Japanese-American families gathered for the opening of the new exhibition, “The Art of Gaman; Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946.”
They were there to see some 120 hand-crafted tools, teapots, furniture, toys, games, musical instruments, pendants and pins and paintings and other artworks that had been made by family members or friends that had been among the 120,000 Japanese Americans, who were ordered to report to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Delphine Hirasuna, guest curator and author of the book The Art of Gaman, arrived at the idea for the exhibition after discovering a painted wooden bird pin among her deceased mother's things. It was a piece that Hirasuna had never seen before and when she asked her father about it, he said it was likely the pin had come "from camp." Hirasuna began to ask others in the Japanese-American community and soon discovered that many families had, but kept hidden away, a wealth of castaway objects they'd made in the camps, many of them exquisitely handcrafted.
The Japanese word "Gaman," says Hirasuna means “to bare the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience.” These objects were made as a testament to the hardships of the camps.
Internees could take with them only what they could carry. And when they arrived at the camps, they found that they would be provided with only the barest of essentials. Once in the camps, Hirasuna learned that out of necessity, the internees began to build from found scraps of metal and wood simple things like chairs and tables and pegs so that they could hang up their clothes. Soon, they crafted other items: dolls, jewelry, musical instruments and games as a way to pass the time, and, she added, to find a source of comfort.
Once out of the camps, the families put the objects away, like so many bad memories, in attics, or garages, or sheds.
Now, the items are on view in museum vitrines and hung framed on the walls of a Smithsonian museum, a powerful homage to the Japanese American story.
"The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946" will be on view at the Renwick Gallery, located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. through January 30, 2011.