Shadows from the Past: Sansei Artists and the American Concentration Camps

September 9, 2021 – January 9, 2022

My curatorial focus for the past several years has been Sansei artists—third-generation Japanese American artists—whose art works confront the displacement and injustice of US Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the forced relocation and incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. These artists represent the last generation with a direct connection to those unlawfully imprisoned in American concentration camps, and their art sheds light on a painful chapter of American history.

While survivors from previous generations demonstrated silence and gaman (enduring the unbearable with patience and dignity), significant emotional trauma was passed down to subsequent generations none-the-less. For those of the Sansei generation to speak openly about this inherited trauma is courageous. To create art to be shared in a public setting is powerful and transformative. 

As a curator, my role is to create a frame of reference for audiences to contemplate these works. The works in Shadows from the Past not only express courage and vulnerability, but also remind viewers of the important role that the arts play in shifting our perspectives about our shared American culture and history.

I would like to acknowledge those who have contributed their time, energy, and expertise to this exhibition. These include Larry Oda for his encouragement and assistance providing access to the collection at the Monterey JACL archives, and Jan Marlese, director of the L.H. Horton Jr. Gallery at San Joaquin Delta College, who developed the online exhibition when the Covid-19 pandemic postponed the exhibition at the Monterey Museum of Art. I also extend my gratitude to Corey Madden, John Rexine, and the staff of the Monterey Museum of Art for lending support and providing the resources for the exhibition to be remounted at the Monterey Museum of Art after its reopening. Finally, I would like to thank the artists for their creative and personal contributions. The success of this project was due to all of these individuals’ generosity.

Monterey was one of the few communities in California that welcomed Japanese Americans back after World War II. More than 400 residents including John Steinbeck, Ed Ricketts, and Edward Weston signed a petition proclaiming Monterey a Sanctuary City for families returning from the camps. During a period when our nation once again confronts hate, racism, and xenophobia, their allyship is a potent reminder of our community’s commitment to justice and unity.

Gail Enns, Curator


JERRY TAKIGAWA, EO 9066, print on paper, 17 X 22 inches.

Jerry Takigawa, a photographer, designer and writer from Monterey, CA, has begun an exploration into his family’s undisclosed past, piecing together a historical puzzle of photographs, memories, and artifacts. “Looking through old family photographs, I found new meaning and appreciation for the struggles my family endured to create a home in this country. ‘Balancing Cultures’ is the most personal project I’ve undertaken.” says Takigawa. He continues, “Originally an identity project—a way to understand my history and how it manifested in my view of the world—it has unexpectedly grown to inspire broader conversations about racism, hysteria and economic exploitation.”

Masako Takahashi is the only artist in the exhibition who was born in an American concentration camp. She uses her hair to create a single Japanese Zen circle or to stitch long sequences of script on Japanese clothing, silk panels and long rolls of silk fabric. The script is unreadable and undecipherable. Yet, its repetition of form and structure gives the allusion that it may be an actual language. It also may be her way of masking her feelings about the incarceration. She leaves it up to the viewer to decide.

Masako Takahashi, Journal-Diario 2014-15, human hair embroidery on silk kimono roll

Reiko Fujii has been able to give form and definition to this difficult history through performance art and conceptual installations involving story telling and the use of a variety of mediums such as kiln-formed glass, photography and video.

Another answer is found in a series of altered photographs and a book by Jerry Takigawa, “Balancing Cultures.” In these, he examines America’s past involvement with policies to incarcerate citizens–-not for crimes they have committed—but simply because of their racial identity.

Wendy Maruyama addresses the forced evacuation and incarceration through the use of social commentary, humor, and sculptural forms. In her E.O. 9066 series, she combines photo images by Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake with objects such as a broken tea cup and expressions like “No! No!” and “Yes! Yes!” which refer to the so-called “loyalty questionnaire” given to incarcerated Japanese Americans. Those who answered “No” to questions 27 and 28, or who were deemed disloyal, were segregated from other detainees and moved to the Tule Lake Relocation Camp in California.

Tom Nakashima, CAGE, 1990, oil on canvas, 87” X 97”

Tom Nakashima’s iconic images have metaphorically evolved as the history of world events change. One of his images is that of tree emerging through the roof of a wigwam. The wigwam could be interpreted as shelter, but also as a kind of cage. The tree, usually used as a symbol of natural life form; is not a free tree but a captive one–a bonsai. 

Lydia Nakashima Degarrod creates installations which express feelings of displacement using the cotton boll as a symbol for the Japanese presence in Peru, and for the first wave of Japanese immigrants who came to work on the cotton plantations. Each boll contains mulberry fiber and photo etchings of her father and other Japanese Peruvians affected by the actions of the governments of Peru and United States during World War II.

Lucien Kubo uses her artwork to express her views on social change, environmental action and the struggle for social justice, juxtaposing photographs of her family in the American Concentration camp with images of current political concerns.

Na Omi Judy Shintani, Ancestor Chimes, 2012. Oyster shells, paint, branch, 24h x 18w x 12d inches.

Na Omi Judy Shintani brings to light injustice and invigorate compassion and connections between many different communities that have been labeled ‘the other’ whenever someone has to be scapegoated during times of economic stress and chaos.

Together, at a critical moment in time, these artists bring a dark corner of our country’s collective past to light and show how the power of art can transform even painful personal experience into an expression of the sublime.