Desert Canvas: Art as Commentary at the Tanforan and Topaz Art Schools of the Japanese American Internment, 1942-45
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The Japanese American Internment occurred in the United States from 1942-45, after Japan's First Air Fleet's bombing of Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans to be evicted from their homes and relocated to the desert for purposes of national security. While there is much documented research on the historical event, there is little on the visual art that Japanese Americans produced during their confinement. This art, when previously looked at, was used to supplement documentation on the internment, and not appreciated in its own right. This paper looks t this art from an art historical perspective, ascribing equal importance to the art, the artists, and the social/historical context. The art shows a process of shaping a new identity, as Japanese Americans were caught between two cultures in a time of war. Some of the art is characterized by the use of traditional Japanese techniques, and other pieces incorporate more contemporary American styles. The art was also used as a vehicle for social commentary and personal; expression during this confusing, lonely, and isolating time period. However, the art from the camps was produced by many professional and established artists of the Japanese American community, and can stand on its own as fine art. This paper looks at the work of four of these artists: Chiura Obata, Masusaboro and Hisako Hibi, Mine Okubo. Each of these artists were teachers and leaders at art schools in the camps, and had different approaches to their own art, and how art should be taught. Their personal visions are discussed, and their art further examined in this paper.