Museums can reach out and snag you when you least expect them to, though, and while waiting for the class in question to convene my friend took me to a visiting exhibition at the William Benton Museum of Art, a museum space associated with the University’s school of fine arts and Connecticut’s State Museum. The exhibition was called “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946”.
I knew about the camps. But I had not, before I crossed the threshold into the room which housed this exhibition, heard the name of Manzanar. It was a name I would, within the space of a few breathless minutes, find it hard to forget.
The bare facts of it all are that Manzanar was the first of the internment camps to be opened (in March of 1942) and the sixth to be closed (in November of 1945). At its peak, it housed 110,000 inmates, the population of a medium-sized town, many – if not most – of whom were American citizens, born on American soil, with American birth certificates to prove it. But they didn’t LOOK American. They looked Japanese. And they were brought to this place, a desert cauldron where the climate was utterly foreign to some and harsh to all, billeted in cramped quarters, treated like the enemy. They had all been brought there, without being given much of a choice; their property in the outside world, their possessions (those that wouldn’t fit into a single suitcase), their jobs, their entire world was moot once they set foot into this place. When Manzanar closed, these self-samel people were simply given their marching orders – the government had brought them there, but the government wasn’t about to take them home, even if home still existed. The inmates were given $25 each – that would work out, apparently, to roughly $300 in today’s terms – a one-way train or bus fare, and, for those who had less than $600 (about $7000 in modern terms) to call their own, a free meal. Some took it, and went. Some, those who had nowhere to go, refused. They had been brought there by force and in the end they were removed by force and taken… elsewhere, anywhere else, even if they had no place to go.
But in those handful of years of privation and suspicion, the inmates of places like Manzanar managed to find beauty and serenity even here – and this, the art they created out of the detritus and trash of their captivity, was the subject of the exhibition at the Benton.
Some of the stuff being shown there was unbelievable. Exquisite. The loving attention to detail was breathtaking. Carvings from scrap wood, textile arts from discarded bits of material or yarn, miniature things made from matchsticks, things carved or painted on panels of plywood, all showing incredible insight, patience, passion, love for the world around them despite what it had done to them, a fabulous artistic eye and the touch of a sensitive artist’s hand.
It is possible, indeed quite probable, that very few items in this exhibition or their ilk would ever have been created had those who made them been left to live a normal American life. The artwork – the materials that had to be scrounged or reinvented or repurposed to create it – speaks as much of passionate creativity as it does of a refusal to allow themselves to be ground into despair by their circumstances. The sun might have been an anvil during thehot desert summers but the sun still rose every morning, and so long as it did, so long as a new day was re-born every dawn, that very day might be the one on which their ordeal ended. In the meantime – in the meantime – they would live. They would survive. They would endure. And they would create some of the most astonishing art I have ever been privileged to gaze upon.
The last thing I remember seeing, as we left the exhibit, was a large American flag hung inside a glass cabinet. It seemed to shift and shiver in there, as though stirred by a passing breeze – which, of course, was impossible. When I stepped up to the glass for a closer look I saw the reality of that flag – it was made out of strings of origami cranes,folded in red white and blue and hung side by side until a full American flag was achieved.
It so happens that the crane is the only thing I can fold in origami, and my fingers knew exactly how each individual one of those cranes were made. More than that, each and every one of them was crisp and perfect, and tiny, and this flag had taken hours – days – perhaps weeks to get right. It was a painstaking job, but not a fold was out of place and every star and every stripe was precisely where it was supposed to be.
That flag, that American flag made out of very Japanese paper cranes, spoke as loudly and clearly to me as anything I have ever seen before. It spoke of passion and of pride, and it pointed out in an exquisite manner that the internees at Manzanar might have worn the features and the hair and the skin colour of their ancestors – some of them might have even spoken with an accent – but many of them, including those who had wrought this flag, believed themselves to be Americans first, Americans who happened to have ancestors who had originated in faraway Japan.
The flag said, “We are you. You are us. We are one.”
In time – many deaths later – the conflagration of World War Two ended, and the internees of Manzanar and camps like it returned to living some semblance of a normal life. In time, the cloud passed over. In time, the camps themselves vanished into the swirling dark fog of history.
But that flag remained, to remind, to bear witness.
We are you. You are us. We are one.