The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946 (exhibition)

Traveling exhibition highlighting art and craft objects made by incarcerated Japanese Americans in wartime concentration camps. Curated by Delphine Hirasuna and based on the 2005 book of the same name, The Art of Gaman exhibition has traveled to fourteen venues since its debut in 2006.

A writer/editor and design consultant, Hirasuna's interest in the topic was piqued by finding a bird pin among her deceased mother's possessions. Her Nisei parents had been forcibly removed from their Fresno, California home and had been incarcerated at the Jerome , Arkansas camp, where the pin had presumably been made. She began wearing the pin, leading designer Kit Hinrichs—with whom she had just collaborated on a book—to inquire about possibly doing a book on camp arts and crafts. Through research in the Japanese American community, she discovered many such objects, leading to the book The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 , published by Ten Speed Press in 2005.

Shortly after the book was published, Hirasuna was contacted by the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Folk Art (MoCFA) about the possibility of doing an exhibition. She assented, though she had to borrow the objects again from the original donors. The exhibition opened on November 2, 2006, and ran through February 25, 2007. It featured many of the 120 objects included in the book. While some were by well known artists such as Chiura Obata , Charles Erabu Mikami , and Isamu Noguchi , most were by ordinary people, "largely shopkeepers and farmers and gardeners and fishermen and so they didn't have any trained artistic skills, but they made amazing things from a variety of material." The objects ran from such functional items as furniture, walking sticks, and geta (wooden slippers) to purely ornamental pieces made from objects found at the camp. The original exhibition was augmented by a short film titled Voices Long Silent by Bob Matsumoto, made during the Redress Movement over twenty years before, but updated more recently. The film would accompany the exhibition throughout its travels.

After its successful run at the (MoCFA), Hirasuna heard from museums in Connecticut and Portland, Oregon, about bringing the show to their venues. With the assistance of MoCFA register Karin Nelson, the show traveled to the Oregon Historical Society in Portland and the William Benton Museum of Art at the University of Connecticut in 2007–08. In the meantime, the Smithsonian American Art Museum inquired about the show, leading to a historic eleven month run at the Renwick Gallery in 2010–11. A new twenty minute video was produced by Rick Quan for the Smithsonian engagement titled The Art of Gaman: The Story Behind the Objects , featuring interviews with Hirasuna and four of the object lenders. A DVD featuring both videos was sold to help defray the costs of the exhibition.

During the Smithsonian run, a production team from Japan's national television network, NHK, visited to film a segment for their popular program "Close Up Genai." The broadcast in Japan led to demands to bring the show to Japan. As a result, the NHK sponsored a year long Japan tour to venues in Tokyo, Fukushima, Sendai, Okinawa, and Hiroshima in 2012–13. After its return, the shows went to three final venues in Sacramento, California; Bellevue, Washington; and Houston, Texas in 2014–15.

Over the course of its travels, the exact contents of the exhibition changed, as some lenders wanted objects returned, while others learned about the show during its travels and came forward with other objects. As is often the case with traveling exhibitions, local venues added relevant objects from the local community.

Though not the first exhibition on camp arts and crafts—the Japanese American National Museum's Crafting History: Arts and Crafts from America's Concentration Camps in 2002 was likely the first to focus on craft objects— The Art of Gaman has traveled more widely and has been viewed by more people than any of the others, having reached over half a million viewers by the end of its travels.


Museum of Craft and Folk Art, San Francisco: November 2, 2006 to February 25, 2007

Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon: October 19, 2007 to January 4, 2008

The William Benton Museum, Storrs, Connecticut: January 22 to March 20, 2008

Smithsonian American Art Museum, Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C.: March 5, 2010 to January 30, 2011

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Skokie, Illinois: September 25, 2011 to January 15, 2012

Bremen Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum, Atlanta, Georgia: March 1 to May 31, 2012

Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico: July 8 to October 7, 2012

University Art Museum, Tokyo University of the Arts, Tokyo, Japan: November 3 to December 9, 2012

Komu-komu, Fukushima, Japan: February 9 to March 11, 2013

Sendai Mediatheque, Sendai, Japan: May 5 to 18, 2013

The Urasoe Art Museum, Okinawa: June 1 to 30, 2013

Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum, Hiroshima, Japan: July 20 to September 1, 2013

The California Museum, Sacramento, California: January 19 to May 11, 2014

Bellevue Arts Museum, Bellevue, Washington: July 3 to October 14, 2014

Houston Holocaust Museum, Houston, Texas: January 29 to September 20, 2015

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

For More Information

The Art of Gaman at the Smithsonian website: .

Demange, Dana, et al. "Art by Japanese-American Detainees During World War Two Shows Their Struggle and Humanity." Voice of American Learning English website, May 18, 2010.

Hirasuna, Delphine. The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 . Designed by Kit Hinrichs, Pentagram. Photography by Terry Heffernan. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.

———. "The Art of Gaman." National Parks Conservation Association website, Fall 2011.

Kennicott, Philip. "'The Art of Gaman': Life Behind Walls We Were Too Scared to Live Without." The Washington Post , March 28, 2010.

Knight, Amelia. "Gaman at the Renwick: The Art and Craft of Dignity,", March 12, 2010.

Stamberg, Susan. "The Creative Art of Coping in Japanese Internment." National Public Radio website, May 12, 2012.

Last updated April 30, 2024, 5:43 p.m..