Exploring Isamu Noguchi’s Time in an Internment Camp
Isamu Noguchi's gesture against bigotry rings through the present.
In May 1942, Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi made a brave decision, choosing to enter the Poston War Relocation Camp in the Arizona desert. The artist was among the people of Japanese descent interned in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (there were over 100,000). Just over two months later, on February 19, 1942, the government passed Executive Order 9066, allowing the War Department to enact martial law.
Noguchi was already well aware that this was part of a plan to intern the Japanese population from the West Coast. A New York resident, he was exempt from these regulations. Nevertheless, with the assistance of John Collier of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (which was responsible for the management of the camps), Noguchi arranged to enter Poston with the aim of working with the government to improve camp conditions. His time there is the subject of “Self-Interned,” a new exhibition at the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City.
“Thus, I willfully became part of humanity uprooted,” wrote Noguchi of arriving at Poston on May 12, 1942 in his 1968 book Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World.
“Self-Interned” was meant to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the executive order, but the exhibition is all the more timely given the designs of our country’s new administration. “We didn’t plan this show in November,” said museum director Jenny Dixon at a press preview just days before the January 20 inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has proposed creating a registry of Muslims as a means of combating Islamic terrorism. “All of a sudden it has all this resonance that we didn’t anticipate.”
Included in the show are Noguchi’s ambitious blueprints for a Poston that could function as a vibrant community, one with a mini golf course, a botanical garden, and a zoo. Though the artist recognized the evils of interning an entire nationality, he also saw the camps, explained senior curator Dakin Hart, as an opportunity to create a “laboratory of American democracy.”
Noguchi hoped, according to the museum wall text, to “make the camp a hotbed of proactive, Japanese-American patriotism in the cause against fascism.”
Instead, Poston remained an internment camp, and the internees were treated as prisoners. “Our food at 37 cents a day was no better than what inexperienced cooks could make it,” write Noguchi in an unpublished piece for Reader’s Digest in 1942. “And most of us became sick.”
To make matters worse, the government immediately realized that running the camps was a massive expense, and that internees were desperately needed as workers in the war effort. Noguchi’s ambitious ideas, which included plans to hold classes in traditional Japanese arts such as ceramics and woodworking, received no official support, and internees were instead encouraged to seek employment in the Midwest, away from the coasts.
Discouraged by his lack of success, Noguchi tried to leave after just two months, a process that proved much more complicated than he expected—it took another seven months before he was allowed to go home to his studio in New York.
Once he was free, Noguchi continued to have difficulty recovering his possessions and traveling throughout the country, due to being registered as a former internee. The camps and the damage they wrought had long-term repercussions, both for Noguchi personally and for the entire Japanese-American community.
The museum is quick to stress that Noguchi’s experience in the camps was privileged compared to that of those sent there against their will, but the exhibition still offers a fascinating snapshot of a dark chapter in our nation’s history, as well as a demonstration of the impact internment had on the artist’s work.
During his internment, Noguchi made due with the few materials that were available, such as wood, given that metal was needed for the war effort. In putting together the show, Hart was able to determine that many small pieces of ironwood were branches collected during Noguchi’s time in Arizona—raw materials intended to be made into artworks. “They were total mysteries until a few months ago,” he said.
The exhibition also features a bust titled Lily Zietz, carved by the artist while he was at Poston from a block of marble he had shipped there. Later works, created after his return, reflect the desert landscape. Many recall doorways or portals, which Hart suggested were manifestations of Noguchi’s desire to escape the camps: “He was trapped and he had lost agency.”
Also on view are documents, drawn from the artist’s 600,000-piece archive, from Noguchi’s 1942 exhibition at what is now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “The Armageddon he feared is now here. The world is split between the forces of reaction and progress—so he hopes,” wrote museum director Grace McCann Morley in an internal staff memo ahead of the show. “For us to fall into the fascist line of racial bigotry would be for him a very personal defeat.”
Despite the city’s modern-day reputation for liberalism, said Hart, San Francisco at the onset of the Second World War “was an epicenter of yellow peril and hatred.” Still later, the day after Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, a deadly riot left 11 dead in the city. The museum’s decision to follow through with its Noguchi exhibition, bearing in mind the city’s history, was a courageous one.
Although Noguchi’s time during internment was not the productive experience he had hoped for, his proactive approach to the inhumanity of the camps was a powerful gesture, said Hart, by a “truly brilliant spokesperson for a deeply multi-cultural America.”
In his piece for Reader’s Digest, Noguchi affirmed Hart’s sentiment, offering a message that should be heard in this country now more than ever: “For us to fall into the Fascist line of race bigotry is to defeat our unique personality and strength.”
“Self-Interned” is on view at the Noguchi Museum, 9-01 33rd Road (at Vernon Boulevard), Long Island City, January 18, 2017–January 7, 2018.
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