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Women Who Made Art in Japanese Internment Camps Are Getting Their Due

Women Who Made Art in Japanese Internment Camps Are Getting Their Due

Ibuki Hibi Lee remembers waking up to the sounds of her mother’s paintbrush hitting the canvas in their small New York City apartment.

After World War II, during which their family was incarcerated at an internment camp in Utah, they moved to New York City in 1945 so that Hibi Lee’s parents, Hisako and “George” Matsusaburo Hibi, could pursue art. Hisako Hibi would always find time to paint, often early in the mornings before she had to start work as a dressmaker, her daughter said.

The family struggled, Hibi Lee recalled. They lived in a modest apartment for $20 a month and struggled to pay bills. Her mother received some recognition throughout her career but never at the level of her male peers. Now, 32 years after Hibi’s death, her work is part of “Pictures of Belonging,” a traveling exhibition that features the artwork of three Japanese American women of the pre-World War II generation at some of the nation’s most well-known museums, including the Smithsonian.

“My mother was just a very humble farmer’s daughter, she would say,” Hibi Lee said. “She would be very surprised and flabbergasted by all the attention to her.”

The exhibition debuted in February at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City, where it will remain through June. The exhibition will then travel to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia; the Monterey Museum of Art in Monterey, Calif.; and finally the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles in 2026.

Besides Hibi, the exhibition will feature Miki Hayakawa and Miné Okubo, who also were incarcerated or had family incarcerated with other Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II.

Hibi and Okubo were interned at Topaz Relocation Center near Delta, Utah, from 1942 until 1944 and 1945. While Hayakawa herself was not detained, her parents were interned at the Tanforan center in San Bruno, Calif., and later at Topaz as well. Hayakawa relocated to Santa Fe, N.M., to avoid internment.

An estimated 120,000 people of Japanese descent were ordered to leave their homes and jobs on the West Coast in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and were sent to internment camps, where they were held without due process. At Tanforan, many lived in converted horse stalls, and many were later sent to Topaz.

Most were U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, and most of the camps were remote and in the West. In the camps, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, some Japanese Americans died because of inadequate medical care, and some were killed by military guards for allegedly resisting orders.

During these dark times, many people turned to art, and the Topaz Art School was born, where hundreds took classes in still-life and architectural drawing within the internment camp at Tanforan. The teachers were interned, too. Both Hibi and Okubo taught classes there.

Those classes provided a source of comfort, said Kimi Hill, granddaughter of Chiura Obata, a renowned artist who co-founded the school, and family historian.

“They established the arts schools as a way to ground themselves, find a purpose but ultimately just find their humanity in this situation,” Hill said.

About halfway through the exhibit, visitors will see the work made by the artists while they were at the internment camps. ShiPu Wang, the curator of the exhibit, said he didn’t want their experience then to overpower the exhibit.

“My approach is that these artists — because of their very long careers — should not be defined by that one period,” Dr. Wang said. “In fact, that injustice and trauma did not stop them from making art. So to stop there at that period is not really seeing the full picture and also misses the point about resilience and perseverance.”

It also isn’t always obvious which paintings were made in the internment camps, he said, noting that most of Hibi’s paintings were landscapes.

“If you did not know the context you would just think, Oh, that’s just beautiful nature,” Dr. Wang said. “But artists under incarceration weren’t just reacting to nature. Painting was a way of making sense of what was happening.”

For Dr. Wang, the exhibit is about “artists that were very active and productive, that we know very little about,” he said.

There are several explanations as to why prolific artists fall out of the public eye, Dr. Wang said. If they don’t have a gallery representing them or a museum collecting their work, becoming well known could be challenging, he said.

In the case of Hayakawa, who died at age 53, a gallery had owned her work, which was sold off to various private collectors, posing a challenge to curators who might want to showcase her work in museums. Dr. Wang spent about seven years searching for some of her work.

When Dr. Wang was selecting pieces, he tried to pick representative works from each period of the artists’ lives. For instance, when Hibi moved from New York to San Francisco in 1954, her work became much more abstract. This change in style also came during a time of major upheaval in her personal life, when she lost her husband and had to raise their two young children on her own.

Okubo also moved toward abstract art as her career progressed. After she chose to leave her job as a commercial illustrator at Forbes and focus on fine arts, she went “back to basics,” Dr. Wang said. Museumgoers can observe her work progress throughout the years and see her art become simpler with consolidated shapes but stronger colors.

Dr. Wang said he hoped that people would leave the exhibit with a nuanced understanding of the artists’ lives and careers.

“It’s not just a greatest hits show,” he said. “It’s a whole journey.”

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