By Cheryl Hirata-Dulas
Photographer John Matsunaga, a member of the Twin Cities JACL board and Education Committee, traveled to all 10 of the War Relocation Authority concentration camps to document the physical remains at each site. A collection of his photographs was displayed at the East Side Freedom Library in St. Paul, Minn., until Feb. 24. In addition, it also wrapped up its latest exhibition showing at the Asian Pacific American Resource Center at the University of Minnesota on May 4.
A diverse group of chapter members, community members, educators, students and artists attended the opening reception of the exhibition, titled “Nidoto Nai Yoni: Forgetting and Remembering the Wartime Incarceration of Japanese Americans.”
The exhibition was co-sponsored by the Twin Cities JACL through the Les and Karen Suzukamo, Donald S. Maeda, Helen Tsuchiya and Mikio Kirihara Funds.
Kent Mori, whose father was initially incarcerated at Jerome, Ark., and barely escaped deportation to Japan after answering “No,” “No” to the loyalty questionnaire, learned about his family’s incarceration experience later in life.
“This photo exhibit on the prison camps reminds me of the close link between demonizing minorities and overseas wars by the U.S. government,” said Mori. “I’m proud that my community, Japanese Americans, are saying ‘no’ and standing with our Muslim friends and neighbors being attacked now.”
In his artist’s statement, Matsunaga, a fiscal year 2017 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, explained that “this body of work explores the themes of memory and forgetting, particularly in regards to the loss in our understanding of this history that will inevitably occur when the last of those who went through this experience pass away and their lived memories vanish.”
Matsunaga was able to find and photograph the exact location of the barracks where his father was incarcerated as a youth at Gila River, Ariz.
In conjunction with the exhibit, three free public programs were also held. A discussion panel took place on Feb. 10 titled, “Experiences of Wartime Displacement, Dispossession and Confinement: The Japanese American Incarceration and Beyond.”
Panelist Sally Sudo was uprooted from Seattle, Wash., along with her parents and 11 siblings, and she spent her first- through third-grade years incarcerated at Minidoka, Idaho, during World War II. The other four panelists were Paul Lelii, a St. Paul attorney who talked about representing Cambodians who were facing deportation; KaYing Yang, director of programs and partnerships at Coalition of Asian American Leaders; Nagessa Dube, chairman of the Oromo Federalist Congress, International Support Group; and Omar Jamal, executive director of the Somali Justice Center.
Panelists shared their experiences and points of view, along with their stories of eventual resettlement in Minnesota. In summarizing the program, Peter Rachleff, co-executive director of the East Side Freedom Library, articulated two points that struck him: “One is KaYing’s point that our foreign policy has created the situation that brought people here. The other point is that these are Americans, and this is what America looks like. And though all of you in different places and different times have been through very difficult, unjust experiences, I want to say that I’m glad that you’re here, I’m glad that you’re part of our community. We have to figure out together how to make the world a place where people can find justice and live wherever they want to live.”
The second accompanying program was titled, “Representing and Resisting Injustices Through Art.” Three local artists joined Matsunaga in a conversation about how they have used their art to engage with the historical injustices that have challenged their communities.
Nikki McComb, a photographer, shared her inspiration and efforts to end gun violence in Minneapolis with her campaign, #ENOUGH. Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay, a Lao American spoken word poet, playwright and community activist, was born in a refugee camp in Nongkhai, Thailand, in 1981, and immigrated to Minnesota in 1984. Her work, including the award-winning poem, “When Everything Was Everything,” portrays first-hand her life as a refugee in Minneapolis and St. Paul with honesty and images that enable others to connect and identify with her experiences. Alessandra Williams, a UCLA-trained Ph.D. in culture and performance, talked about performing with the Ananya Dance Theater, which is choreographed with dance movements that, through the use of stories of local and global communities of color, relate to issues of social justice.
Lastly, the film “And Then They Came for Us,” directed by Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider, was shown on Feb. 19, in commemoration of the 76th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.
University of Minnesota Professor Yuichiro Onishi and Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, led the post-screening discussion. They shared their concerns about the parallels between the Japanese American incarceration and the experiences of Muslim Americans today, and they each encouraged people to speak out for justice and oppose discrimination, xenophobia and racism.
For more information about the Matsunaga art exhibit, visit johnmatsunaga.com.