The Art of Survival: Enduring the Turmoil of Tule Lake is a traveling exhibition probing the complexity of the Japanese American confinement site in Newell, California. Tule Lake became the only officially designated segregation center during WWII. Ruled under martial law, it was the most controversial of all the Camps.
Through haunting images of artifacts by fine art photographer Hiroshi Watanabe we glimpse into the lives of those who were held at Tule Lake and are encouraged to consider both the orchestration of daily life behind barbed wire and what it might have been like to live with constant turmoil and uncertainty. Oral histories allow us to hear varying views on some of the complex issues of Tule Lake in the voices of those held captive. And the art created both then and now, made from seemingly insignificant objects, beckons humility and connection.
Promoting education and increased awareness of what can happen when a nation loses reason to fear, this exhibition is designed to inspire critical thinking and action in regards to injustice. It also highlights the power of creativity to maintain dignity and well-being in times of harsh circumstance.
As well as looking at daily life, the exhibition explores the following topics: the power of propaganda; up-to-date terminology relating to the confinement experience; the history behind the incarceration; the difference between a Segregation Center and a Confinement Site; who were the people deemed “disloyal”, were they disloyal?; what happened when the Camp closed?
Of note is the photographer whose work is featured in this exhibition. Hiroshi Watanabe is an artist whose powerful black and white images are featured in fine art galleries world wide, including Zurich, Munich, New York, Santa Fe, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Tokyo, and Kobe. In regard to his work with Japanese American Confinement site objects, JoAnne Northrup who originally commissioned him for this work (and is now the director of contemporary art initiatives at the Nevada Museum of Art), believes “Watanabe has succeeded in bearing witness to a chapter in U.S. history that Americans must not forget.”
This exhibit has been made in cooperation with the Tule Lake Unit of WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and is funded by a Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant administered by the National Park Service.
In 2009, Hiroshi Watanabe, who was born in Sapporo, Japan, started work on a commission from the San Jose Museum of Art to photograph San Jose California’s Japantown. He was told that he had the freedom to photograph anything as long as it related to the topic. Upon discovering a cache of dusty cardboard boxes filled with objects that Japanese Incarcerees had made or used while in exile, Mr. Watanabe thought “things inside these boxes could be the essence of Japantown”, and his work photographing artifacts from the Camps began.
Told about a dump site where Japanese Americans leaving Tule Lake had disposed of belongings they were unable to carry on their journeys home, Mr. Watanabe decided to go beyond the scope of the original project. On a trip to Newell, the small town in northern California where Tule Lake is located, he furthered his explorations, photographing buried items that he himself dug up. Broken bowls, an old canteen, even glass melted in the fires lit to burn the refuse. Mr. Watanabe’s vision allows us a haunting glimpse into the daily life of a community of over 18,000 people coping with confinement.
In the words of JoAnne Northrup, who originally commissioned him for this work (and is now the director of contemporary art initiatives at the Nevada Museum of Art), “Hiroshi Watanabe has succeeded in bearing witness to a chapter in U.S. history that Americans must not forget.”
This exhibition is comprised of 40 images of artifacts from the dump as well as from private and public collections.