Gaman and the Story of Isamu Noguchi
June 22, 2010
Of all the stories of internees in the relocation camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, Isamu Noguchi's was the most unusual. He lived in New York City, and could have avoided internment, which affected only Japanese Americans living on the West Coast. When the war broke out, Noguchi, whose mother was an Irish-American writer, and whose father was a well-known Japanese poet, formed the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, to speak out against the forced evacuation. His efforts took him to Washington, D.C., where John Collier, the commissioner for Indian Affairs, recommended that he organize a guild for Asian crafts at Poston, the site of an internment camp on an Indian reservation in Arizona. Noguchi voluntarily entered Poston on May 8, 1942, with the agreement that he could leave at any time. Almost immediately, he found conditions in the camp unbearable. The temperatures rose to well over one hundred degrees, and many in the camps—unsophisticated farmers and fishermen—were suspicious of him. Many thought that he was sent in by the authorities. Within a month, he wanted out, but was unable to leave for seven months. As guest curator Delphine Hirasuna has written, "he was viewed as just another prisoner."
Most of what was made in the camps was assembled from scrap and found materials, such as a cigarette case made of fibers from unraveled onion sacks. Noguchi, however, was able to bring tools and materials into camp. When his seven months were over, he went back to being an artist in New York. After the war, most others put their arts and crafts from the camp behind them and returned to their professions, be it dentist or farmer. Many discarded their creations and refused to discuss their time in the camps.
During his time at Poston, Noguchi worked on this bust of Ginger Rogers in pink Georgia marble. He was friends with Rogers and started on the bust before he entered camp and had the half-finished work sent to him in Poston so he could complete it. For a depiction of a woman who floated across the big screen, this sculpture is quite solid and seems rooted to the earth. The head held high above an elongated neck gives her a classical, almost queenly, bearing.
If you know Noguchi's work from this time period, you'll be familiar with his collaborations with a different dancer: dancer and choreographer Martha Graham. In 1935 he created the simple stage set for Frontier, her ballet of crossing boundaries as early settlers traveled the length of America. In 1944, he and Graham (and composer Aaron Copland) collaborated on Appalachian Spring, Graham's best-known work, which premiered in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress. This was Graham's tribute to the pioneer spirit of America, as was Frontier. I wonder if Noguchi saw life in America differently when creating the set for Appalachian Spring as opposed to how he was life when he worked on Frontier, nearly a decade earlier, with his time at Poston, separating the two projects.
For an additional look at Isamu Noguchi read a transcript from a 1973 oral history interview with the artist from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. The exhibition, The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946 continues through January 30, 2011. On June 24, 2010 guest curator Delphine Hirusana will be leading a gallery tour and sharing her stories at the Renwick Gallery.
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