Friday, August 22, 2014

Colors of Confinement closing August 31st at the Japanese American National Museum

As a quick reminder: August 31st is the last day of the Colors of Confinement exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. The museum is located at 100 North Central Avenue.

Colors of Confinement "presents 18 rare Kodachrome photographs taken by Bill Manbo during his incarceration at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming in 1943 and 1944. It shatters preconceptions about this episode of injustice by showing it to us in vivid and beautiful color."

Kodachrome, which Manbo shot in, had only been on the market 7 years. Most of the images we see connected to the camps were taken in black and white.

It's a modest exhibit, presented in the library of the museum, but the images speak volumes.

Colors of Confinement made me consider a number of issues about how the Lao community thinks about our time as refugees in the camps and in the early resettlement years in the United States. The exhibit asked questions about Manbo's photos, noting that he preferred to take photos of wide landscape surrounding the camp, but he occasionally took pictures exploring their internment.

The curators noted that at the time many of the children didn't really understand why they were in the camp, but saw it as a place of adventures and making new friends. However, it was also a space where rifts developed between the generations, particularly the elders. It's a question I think Lao may need to examine about our time in the refugee camps. Was this where it started? How were we processing it?

Initially, cameras weren't allowed in the camps, but as time went on, the Japanese interned in them were permitted access to record their experience. What might have happened if they had not been given this opportunity? How might they have remembered or made efforts to document this time?

If you go, I particularly encourage you to look for the image of the bon odori dancers. The curators themselves are uncertain as we look at the fanciful costume constructed from discarded cereal boxes. Was it meant to be a dragon or a bird? Does it reflect "a tradition from a specific region of Japan, the look of a Native American kachina dancer, or just a flight of the dancer's imagination?"  It's a striking picture, and one I'm sad we seem to have lost the answer to.

The exhibit also has a daring image of the camp internees holding a sumo match, and it's one of the rare times we've ever seen ways the community attempted to entertain itself and even dare to have fun during such an uncertain time. Is it an image of their irrepressible spirit and their effort to engage with a wholly Japanese tradition even when their confinement was centered on the US government's fear of the Japanese love for their former homeland's traditions and loyalty? Today we might see it as only a sumo match, but how daring this must have been, to opt for this, rather than say, taking up baseball or baking apple pies,

I hope the exhibit eventually comes to other communities across the US. It's well worth seeing.

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