Mar 8, 2024 - News

New touring art exhibit showcases the view from a Japanese-American detention camp

A painting showing three people surrounded by swirling dust in a desert internment camp.

"Wind and Dust," an opaque watercolor painted on paperboard by artist Miné Okubo in 1943. Image courtesy of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts

A new art exhibit provides a unique glimpse of the hurt and healing experienced by Japanese Americans sent to the Topaz detention center in Delta, Utah.

The big picture: The Tanforan/Topaz Art School became an improbable salon for some of America's most acclaimed mid-century artists.

Driving the news: The Utah Museum of Fine Art is the first stop for "Pictures of Belonging," a national tour of paintings by Hisako Hibi, Miné Okubo and Miki Hayakawa.

  • Hibi and Okubo were teachers at Topaz, where Hayakawa's parents were also incarcerated.

Catch up fast: With President Franklin Roosevelt's infamous Executive Order 9066, about 112,000 people of Japanese descent were banned from the West Coast.

  • Those who didn't move inland were swept into confinement centers like Topaz, which was on the edge of Utah's desolate West Desert.

Zoom in: The school originated in San Francisco's Tanforan Assembly Center, a racetrack where about 8,000 people were held before being moved to Topaz.

  • Hibi, Okubo, Obata and other teachers received $16 a month — worth about $280 in 2024 — from student tuition, which was 50 cents for kids and $1 for adults.

What they found: Detainees arrived in Topaz in fall 1942 to find barracks lined up in a flat, treeless valley that was frequently consumed by dust storms, and a monthslong coal shortage as winter set in.

Flashback: UMFA acquired 35 of Obata's pieces in 2021, and some are on display in the museum's permanent collection.

What they said: "If I hadn't gone to that kind of place, I wouldn't have realized the beauty that exists in that enormous bleakness," Obata said in 1965.

The latest: UMFA will host "Pictures of Belonging" until June 30. Then it will move to:

  • the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.,
  • the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,
  • the Monterey Museum of Art,
  • and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, which organized the exhibit, curated by ShiPu Wang, an art historian at the University of California, Merced

What's next: The Topaz Art Pilgrimage includes presentations on Topaz art and Utah's Japanese-American history on May 2-3 in Salt Lake City.

  • A bus will take guests to Delta to visit the Topaz Museum and camp site on May 4.
  • Tickets cost $80.
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