Art exhibit presents vivid portrayal of life in Northwest internment camps
By Dave R. Davison
Artists have a number of functions. They channel the zeitgeist of a given time and place, they are sensitive observers and social critics. For historians, one of the most important functions of the artist is visual record-keeper. Using their picture making skills to document their experiences as individuals and as members of a community, artists preserve details of events and archive them for future generations. (Think of the debt that we owe to ancient Egyptian tomb painters for much of our knowledge of their civilization.)
The Washington State History Museum just unveiled a show that highlights the latter role of the artist as documentarian. Called “Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii,” the show is bursting with an abundance of work by Fujii (1891-1964), a Seattle-based artist of Japanese ancestry. Coming to Seattle from Hiroshima in 1906 at age 15, he later established a fish market and was an artist who took up Western media and modes of working. Fujii had embarked on a promising career as an artist before it was disrupted by his internment in the domestic concentration camps of the Western United States where some 110,000 Japanese-born residents and Japanese-Americans U.S. citizens were incarcerated during the Second World War.
In the 1930s, Fujii started to receive recognition of his art through exhibits in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area. He was one of 10 artists from Washington State exhibited in the 1936 First National Exhibition of American Art in New York.
In May 1942, however, Fujii, his wife and his two daughters were forced to leave their Seattle home, their schools, their livelihood and all that they knew to be taken to the Puyallup Assembly Center, known as “Camp Harmony,” located on the Washington State Fair Grounds. There, 7,000 people were kept under armed guard and behind barbed wire in hastily constructed barracks.
After four months, in August 1942, the Fujii family and their fellow internees were taken by train to the Minidoka Relocation Center, built on 950 acres of federal reserve land on the Snake River Plain in Idaho. They were there until October 1945 and never returned to the Seattle area. Fujii ended up in the Chicago area where he died in 1964.
Throughout the entire experience, Fujii kept a visual record of what he saw. He kept a diary of 400 pages filled with ink drawings. The WSHM exhibit includes the diary itself and a digital screen at which visitors are able to look through its pages. There are dozens and dozens of drawings and paintings that Fujii made during and after the internment experience.
The show occupies two gallery spaces in the museum. The walls are densely hung with Fujii’s artwork, most done in somber colors.
Even in his Seattle days, Fujii was interested in paintings of places. During the internment years, he painted scenes of the interiors and exteriors of the utilitarian buildings and the desert landscape beyond. There are vignettes of camp life: boys playing marbles, people raising hogs, camp residents caught in a sand storm, the artist himself bitten by a rattlesnake or having a tick removed. One ink painting of the mess hall is reminiscent of the work of Jacob Lawrence, the great painter of the African American experience. While many of the paintings show the ubiquitous presence of the barbed wire that surrounded the camp or the ominous presence of guard towers, others have a poetic, painterly charm. There are, for example, a couple of enchanting, snowy landscapes. A painting of a flock of magpies fluttering over scrub brush where a rattlesnake hides is possessed of visual splendor, like a scene from some scriptural parable.
What comes through more than anything else in the show is a sense of dogged if not joyful resilience. Fujii refused to surrender to the tragic circumstances in which he found himself ensnared. He continued to do his work of observing and making art from the world around him. As an artist, he was unstoppable. Seeing with the eyes of an artist, he transformed incarceration in a dreary encampment, set in a barren landscape, into what is now one of the most important documents of the American experience, an archive of images that gives the viewer a glimpse into the day to day existence of a group of people caught in one of the more regrettable episodes of American history.
The extent of Fujii’s wartime paintings only recently came to light thanks to the efforts of show curator and art historian Barbara Johns and Sandy Kita, Fujii’s grandson. In addition to the diary, Fujii made 250 ink drawings, paintings and three-dimensional works linked to the internment. October of this year will mark the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the mass internment at Minidoka. This body of work, which will move on to other venues after its run at WSHM, is one of the most fully fleshed-out depictions of a tragedy that could all too easily be swept under the rug were it not for the stories collected from internees and the work of artists like Fujii.
Falling at the current moment in our own political lives, this show serves as something of a cautionary tale. The internment of Japanese Americans is now regarded as an episode of injustice. Yet, in the Trumpian era, there is another threat of mass roundups of some of our fellows in the name of economic nationalism and for purposes of political expediency. They say that those that forget history art doomed to repeat it. Have enough of us stopped to consider the plight of people like Fujii who were stripped of their homes and livelihood and shipped away? Or are we going to stand by and let history repeat itself so that future generations will look upon us with a sense of shame in the same way in which we regard the authorities responsible for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans? Do we exercise the wisdom of kindness or small-minded meanness? That choice seems ever-present before each individual.
“Witness to Wartime” runs through Jan. 1, 2018. For more information call (888) 238-4373 or visit washingtonhistory.org.
This exhibition is organized and traveled by Curatorial Assistance Traveling Exhibitions. www.curatorial.org/takuichi-fujii