The work of Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Toyo Miyatake and Miné Okubo are on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in L.A.
By Connie K. Ho, Contributor
Take a walk back in time with the newest art exhibits at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The exhibit “Manzanar: The Wartime Photographs of Ansel Adams” features 50 photographs by the famous photographer that display the treatment of Japanese Americans at the Manzanar incarceration camp during World War II. Images document life at the camp, including individuals in professional attire as well as individuals participating in various activities such as working in the fields or playing baseball. The Manzanar War Relocation Center was located 220 miles north of Los Angeles and was the first of 10 camps established to detain approximately 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Along with the images by Adams, the exhibition includes work by Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake, as well as publications, artifacts, propaganda materials and artwork on life and conditions at the Central California camp. In addition to the Adams exhibit, the Skirball also has on display “Citizen 13360: The Art of Miné Okubo.” This companion exhibit showcases the work by Japanese American artist Miné Okubo, who detailed the challenges she faced at camp. The exhibition will be shown until Feb. 21, 2016.
Photo: Ansel Adams
Connie K. Ho for the Pacific Citizen spoke with curators from the Japanese American National Museum and the Skirball Cultural Center to learn a little more about the two exhibits.
The Pacific Citizen: How did the collaboration come about?
Lily Anne Welty Tomai, Ph.D., a curator of history at JANM: They reached out to us, and we were happy to lend our collection — they wanted to make sure to get the story complete.
P.C.: Can you tell us about the exhibits such as the one on Miné Okubo’s art?
Tomai: Each page has about half a page; she drew waiting in line for the mess hall, waiting in line for the bathroom, seeing the winter, walking in the dusty sandstorm. She did the best that she could with the materials that she had, so her drawings — there’s a simplicity to them; I think that she captures the harsh reality of the incarceration camps. Her images also capture the day-to-day experiences. She was able to document the things that were invisible, all the stress and trauma of incarceration. Ansel Adams was commissioned to take these photographs, so the pictures are sort of from the perspective of an outsider taking pictures of the incarceration camps.
We also have an item from our collection: a suitcase that was donated, a neat 3-D artifact that was carried with a family to Manzanar. The exhibit is also made of artifacts like ID cards, other smaller pieces that can supplement that first-person perspective. Many times, family members will contact us and donate items to the museum. What we do is we ask for a family history — this gives an artifact the story behind it.
P.C.: How did the exhibit come about?
Linde Lehtinen, assistant curator at the Skirball Cultural Center: Our director called to our attention an exhibition that was put forward by a photographic traveling exhibition. It was a set of 50 photographs by Ansel Adams with some additional material, some magazines from the time, some paintings from former incarcees. When we showed interest in that exhibition and bringing it to the Skirball, we decided we wanted to enhance it a fair amount in order to really work with our particular mission at the Skirball and really use the resources we had here in and around Los Angeles.
The companion exhibition started as a result of delving into the research on Manzanar and into the history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II — Miné Okubo’s book really surfaced for us. We realized that JANM had a collection of original drawings, and we also realized that the archive of Miné Okubo was housed in Riverside at the Center for Social Justice and Civil Liberties. We worked with them to develop an exhibition about the book and its impact and really about Miné Okubo’s life and her experience in Topaz and how she captured it through these really remarkable sets of illustrations.
P.C.: What are some of the highlights?
Lehtinen: One of my favorites is a set of photos we got that are by both Dorothea Lange and Clem Albers, who was also photographing Manzanar in the early days of the camp development. We got these particular prints because they have the word “impounded” written in cursive at the bottom, meaning they were essentially censored. To me, they really say so much in terms of objects as documents, as images, as components of history in that they show that the government intervened in terms of who they were depicting in this particular story and how they wanted to publish them. Dorothea Lange’s images were too raw, too revealing in their minds, and it’s really fascinating to see that moment of government intervention and censorship.
Another one of my favorites is one of the portraits that Ansel Adams did of a man because it’s such a captivating portrait. First, it’s really interesting because people aren’t used to seeing Ansel Adams’ portraits. Everyone’s used to seeing the landscapes, and even kind of adjusting to that is a bit of a process. This portrait is cropped so tightly — he looks so directly at the viewer that it’s almost confrontational and just haunting even. What we did in the exhibition was that we paired that with original documents we found in UCLA’s collection, original authorization forms that he would have signed to allow Ansel Adams to photograph him. That might sound mundane, but there were additional questions asked of him. The first part of the form has the basics with a signature; the second part of the form has some of his background information, which is a barrack number in Manzanar — you see that he went to high school in Los Angeles, wants to be a businessman and studied social science. The third page asked him a series of questions: What were your feelings before
What was your life like before the war? He described things like I was friends with Caucasians, we were happy. Postwar, he indicates clearly that he would like to see a society where the actual principles of American democracy are practiced. It’s interesting to see a portrait like that paired with real documents where he shared his mind and stated that the real principles of American democracy are not happening — to me, that’s really powerful.
We have things like a clip of a home movie that was filmed by a visitor to camp. It’s in color, and it’s really striking and vivid to see this experience in color. We see most of these images in black and white, but then to see the action shots, to see the children playing, to see women and men move through gardens, things that you wouldn’t imagine that were part of this space, this prison camp — it was a life, it was a community, it was a microcity that they were trying to make the best they could because they had to cope and make do and the resilience of the community can come together despite the adversity, another lesson to learn from and really admire in terms of what they were able to do despite the circumstances.
What do you think is the impact of these two
Lehtinen: Students will be coming to the exhibition to learn from and engage with the materials in the Skirball space. That was a big part of why we wanted to do this show — to reach that particular segment of our audience and examine the different lessons we can learn from this history, and how we can apply it to contemporary issues that deal with race,
discrimination and immigration.
Our mission is to explore Jewish culture and life and values, especially in the United States. Our second mission is to branch off of that and look into broader issues of social justice and civil liberties that intersect with the Jewish experience but also goes beyond it and explores American democracy and the freedoms we can have in the United States. We found that kinship in terms of our mission and in terms of JANM, in terms of being a cultural center that looks at specific ancestry. The reason that we’re doing it at the Skirball is that Jews, as we’ve learned throughout history, we understand what can happen when a minority is deprived of their rights and their dignity.
This event in American history in terms of the incarceration of Japanese Americans really has a special resonance with the Jewish people, too.
I feel privileged to been able to explore this material and present this particular history, which was an incredibly dark and difficult and shameful moment in our history. But to me, it’s important that we share it with as many people who can learn from it.