Art From America’s Concentration Camps

Thacher Gallery marks 75th anniversary of Japanese American imprisonment

By ARVIN TEMKAR, USF NEWS Posted Wed, 08/23/2017 - 10:04

Seventy-five years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a wartime order following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The decree sent some 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — most of them American citizens — to remote concentration camps. About 5,000 came from San Francisco, primarily from the Western Addition neighborhood, which borders USF to the east.

USF’s Thacher Gallery is marking the anniversary with a new exhibition that features more than 100 pieces of prisoner-made art and artifacts — haunting examples of the ways inmates recreated aspects of their traditions and home lives from within the desolate camps. “Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps,” includes items like ikebana vases made from wood and roots, sculptures carved from scrap lumber, and floral brooches assembled from shells found in dried lake beds.  

“What little they had”

“It’s kind of eye-opening and beautiful that despite the fact these people were thrown into these camps and conditions were really rough, they were able to use what little they had to create art,” says Justin Barreras ’18, a design major and artist whose Exhibition Design class helped create graphics, advertisements, and labels for the show. “This art that’s being displayed is how they passed time and how they kept their culture near and dear to them. Despite everything that was taken away, creativity wasn’t.”

In addition to detainee-made art, the gallery will feature two contemporary art installations by artists of Japanese ancestry and will hold a poetry and memoir reading by camp survivors and their ancestors.

Tales of survival

USF rhetoric and language Professor Brian Komei Dempster’s mother and other relatives were inmates in the concentration camps.

“It’s important that we recognize the trauma of these former prisoners — along with their strength, grace, and resilience — and that we don’t allow this to happen again,” says Dempster, who is also director of administration of the Master in Asia Pacific Studies program.

Dempster has worked extensively with former prisoners who returned to the Bay Area and other parts of the country, helping them tell and publish their stories in two anthologies. Some of those men and women, who are mostly now in their 80s and 90s, will be at USF Sept. 14 reading from their work.

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