It’s still possible to find Idahoans who are unaware that during World War II Idaho was home to one of 10 government camps that held Japanese Americans and legal residents after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Idaho camp, known as Minidoka or Hunt, held more than 13,000 people between 1942 (when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order) until 1945. The camp operated a mere 130 miles from the capital city at a time when Idaho’s population was just 500,000.
“Minidoka: Artist as Witness,” an exhibition at Boise Art Museum now through Jan. 15, 2017, reminds viewers of that dark era through powerful, evocative pieces created by five artists. Each has a personal connection to the Idaho camp, whether firsthand or through painfully excavated stories of family members or strangers.
The exhibition features large sculptural pieces, traditional watercolors and paintings with a pop artsensibility. Side galleries offer documentaries about the era and displays of small items, carved figures, flowers, paintings on wood and more that came from the camps.
Seeing all the work together is “heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time,” said Melanie Fales, BAM executive director. “When you’re an artist, you have to create, regardless of the situation.”
A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts designated for art exhibitions in conjunction with historic sites is helping support the exhibition.
A note on terminology: Camps such as Minidoka have been called by various names, including internment, detention and concentration camps, even war relocation centers. The current preferred term for Minidoka and similar camps is incarceration camp or site. The term concentration camp fell out of use after the atrocities of German death camps, commonly called concentration camps, came to light. Internment refers to the imprisonment of prisoners of war, not citizens. Most people held in the wartime camps were citizens. Read more in the “Power of Words” handbook published online by the Japanese American Citizens League.
“Boise Art Museum has a curatorial thread that runs through multiple exhibitions that focus on human and civil rights,” said Fales. “Those are topics we tend to explore. We have a history of doing this. Art is a powerful way to help build tolerance and understanding.
“It’s so timely, really,” she said. “We’re looking at a time in history to make sure we don’t repeat the same actions.”
The exhibition is in conjunction with the annual Minidoka Civil Liberties Symposium at Boise State University on Saturday, Oct. 15, and Sunday, Oct. 16. This year’s topic is incarceration in its various forms in the United States.
“The symposium will address the topic from multiple viewpoints: private prisons; re-entry into the community after prison; racism and incarceration; war on drugs; effects on individuals and communities; and tying it back to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII,” said organizer Hanako Wakatsuki, who studied history at Boise State and whose great aunt, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, wrote “Farewell to Manzanar,” a seminal memoir of the camp era.
Artists included in the exhibition:
▪ Takuichi Fujii, a first-generation, or Issei Japanese American, born in 1891. When the war broke out, he and his family were sent to Minidoka. Parts of the extensive visual diary he kept during his time in Idaho will be included in the exhibition. Fujii resettled in Chicago after his release and became an abstract painter. He died in the mid-1960s, his wartime work largely unknown.
▪ Wendy Maruyama, a third-generation of Sansei Japanese American, born after the war. Maruyama only began to learn about her heritage through government documentary photographs of the internment era. Her family was silent about their experiences. (Note: Murayama will give a lecture about her work and its relation to Minidoka on Wednesday, Nov. 9). Included in the Boise exhibition is a piece acquired by BAM in 2015 for its permanent collection from Maruyama’s “The Tag Project.” She researched and found the names of every person held in each of the 10 incarceration camps in the U.S. and then made tags with the names of each person. She hung the tags in massive columns. BAM bought the piece based on the names from Minidoka.
BAM will provide binders with all the names in the exhibition so visitors can search for the names of family members or others.
▪ Kenjiro Nomura, born in Japan in 1896. His family moved to the U.S. when he was 10 years old. Nomura was a sign painter when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. He, too, was resettled at Minidoka with his family. Nomura continued to paint throughout his captivity.
▪ Roger Shimomura, whose work is included in the Boise Art Museum’s permanent collection and whose strong line, graphic novel-style imagery will be familiar to many in the Treasure Valley. Born in Seattle, Shimomura was sent to Minidoka with his family as a young child.
▪ Teresa Tamura, a Sansei unique in this group for being born and raised in Idaho. A photojournalist by training, she began a book project in 2001 after Minidoka became a national monument. Her book, “Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp,” features former camp residents and their camp experiences.
Minidoka: Artist as Witness
Minidoka Civil Liberties Symposium: Saturday, Oct. 15, and Sunday, Oct. 16, at Boise State University. Students can register for credit under several disciplines. The public is invited to attend for a $70 fee. For more information, contact Kristof Bihari at 426-2616 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minidoka: Lecture by Wendy Maruyama: The internationally known Japanese American artist will speak about her work in relation to the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho and how art can be used as a vehicle to document events and express personal experiences. 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the Boise State University Special Events Center, 1800 University Drive. $15 general, 10 BAM members and BSU students and faculty with ID at BoiseArtMuseum.org.
Note: The word “internment” is no longer the term of choice for the camps that held Japanese Americans. Learn more in the “Power of Words Handbook” from the Japanese American Citizens League at jacl.org.