Finding Something From Nothing: Art Created Inside Japanese Internment Camps

Walking through the newest exhibit in the Thacher Gallery, titled “Something from Nothing: Art and Handcrafted Objects from America’s Concentration Camps,” you can hear faint whisperings coming from beneath a table.


“George Takei. Fred Korematsu. Miné Okubo…”


The names are whispered in a hauntingly solemn voice, said with as much purpose and intent as a prayer. Upon the table sits a small, rusted filing cabinet, containing files with the names of just a fraction of the Japanese Americans who were taken from their homes. Each file tells the story behind the human who was forced to live in horrible conditions in internment camps across the nation.

This contemporary installation by the San Jose artist Barbara Horiuchi is one of many pieces in the exhibit, which memorializes the the Japanese-American internment experience following the Executive Order 9055. The World War II Order, now 75 years old, led to the mass internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry.

The exhibit presented the historical circumstances that surrounded this event through artifacts and a detailed explanation of the executive order. Copies of the executive order sit on the table at the entrance of the exhibit. To the left of the table, you can view the pages of a survivor’s scrapbook on display via an iPad. The left and right ends of the gallery feature objects from the daily lives of those interned in the camps, from baseball jerseys to family name wood carvings, board games and small baskets, all made from materials found in the camps.


“We really focused on the art and craft of making something beautiful from a dire situation. This exhibition really brings the objects to light,” said USF alumna Elizabeth Kalt, who worked in the production of the exhibit during the summer. The exhibit features ornate, detailed corsages, wall hangings and bird carvings, all created from found materials such as shells, string and small pieces of wood.


Monika Mandreza, a junior design student and artist who viewed the exhibit, was amazed by the resilience displayed in the works. “Art is something that sustains the self — this is what sustained them to keep going, giving them hope, something they had total control over,” said Mandreza. “The situations they were in, they had no control over what was happening. However, they could create this art and have agency.”

The exhibit held personal meaning to senior Wesley Yee, vice president of USF’s Japan Club. “I like seeing these artifacts because my grandma didn’t like to talk about it much. These artifacts remind me of where I came from,” he said. “It reminds me of all the hardship both financially, because they lost a lot of money for having to go to camp, and mentally because of the discrimination those who came before me had to go through.”


For further exploration of the stories that this exhibit brings to light, the Thacher Gallery will be hosting three events on topics related to Japanese-American internment. The first of these events is tonight, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the Berman Room in Fromm Hall. Consider attending “Crafting Something From Nothing: Voices from the Camps” to listen to poetry, memoir and performance from survivors.

Featured Photo: Handmade Origami Boxes rest on a table in Thacher Gallery. Amie Lu/Foghorn. Pins made from found materials are pictured below. Caitlin Mayo/Foghorn.


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