Artful Identifications: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps

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"Artful Identifications" offers three meanings of internment art. First, internees remade locations of imprisonment into livable places of survival. Inside places were remade as internees responded to degraded living conditions by creating furniture with discarded apple crates, cardboard, tree branches and stumps, scrap pieces of wood left behind by government carpenters, and wood lifted from guarded lumber piles. Having addressed the material conditions of their living units, internees turned their attention to aesthetic matters by creating needle crafts, wood carvings, ikebana, paintings, shell art, and kobu. Dramatic changes to outside spaces of "assembly centers" and concentration camps were also critical to altering hostile settings into survivable landscapes.

My second meaning positions art as a means of making connections, a framework offered with the hope of escaping utopian models of community building which overemphasize the development of common beliefs, ideas, and practices that unify people into easily surveilled groups. "Making Connections" situates the process of individuals identifying with larger collectivities in the details of everyday life, a complicated and layered process that often remains invisible to us. By sewing clothes for each other, creating artificial flowers and lapel pins as gifts, and participating in classes and exhibits, internees addressed their needs for maintaining and developing connections. "Making Connections" advances perhaps the broadest possible understanding of identity formation based on the idea of employing diverse art forms to sustain already developed relationships and creating new attachments in the context of displacement.

The third meaning offered by this project is art as a mental space of survival. In the process of crafting, internees pieced together mental landscapes that allowed them to generate new ideas and alternative discourses. As recent psychoanalytic scholarship suggests, these artful identifications with loss encompassed radical political possibilities because they keep melancholic struggles alive and relevant to the present. Regardless of whether we understand these crafting examples as tools for remaking inside places, re-territorializing outside spaces, making connections, or artifacts of loss, it is clear that for Japanese Americans incarcerated in complex places of oppression, art evolved into portables spaces of resistance.