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Everyone in Chicago should see ‘Then They Came for Me’

A powerful art exhibit about Japanese-Americans and internment camps is also deeply relevant in the current historical moment.

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Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans During WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties" is the second exhibition hosted by Alphawood Gallery, which occupies a former MB Financial Bank on the corner of Fullerton and Halsted in Lincoln Park. The first, "Art AIDS America Chicago," was a spectacular and affecting collection of works about AIDS. "Then They Came for Me" isn't quite as vast or impressive as "Art AIDS America," but the former is equally urgent and moving—a necessary visit for anyone in Chicago during the next few months. Though the internment of Japanese-Americans in the mid-1940s isn't entirely ignored in studies of American history, the period is often overshadowed by the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Especially at the current moment, when discussions of domestic civil liberties and immigration are at a boiling point, it's critical to take a close look at the U.S.'s past behavior, in a tumultuous time when people in power made rash, racist decisions that reflected the worst facets of the American experiment.

In just two exhibits, Alphawood Gallery has proved to be one of the most significant art venues in the city. As with "Art AIDS America," for "Then They Came for Me," Alphawood, in partnership with the Japanese American Service Committee, has amassed a wide range of artistic, historical, and anthropological material surrounding a single subject, one that reflects a group of people maligned by both the American government and American society. But an equally striking aspect of "Then They Came for Me" is the artists it includes—there are a considerable number of photographs by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, more than I've seen outside of a major museum.

It should be mentioned that Alphawood Gallery has greater financial backing than most nonmuseum art venues in Chicago—the president of the Alphawood Foundation, the grant-giving private institution responsible for the gallery, is Fred Eychaner, the chairman of Newsweb and a noted philanthropist who donates heavily to the Democratic Party and the arts. Hopefully, he intends Alphawood to be more than a temporary enterprise. The gallery is an invaluable educational resource, one that respectfully and thoroughly highlights important and overlooked chapters in American life.

The gallery is also a worthwhile outlet for local art and history. One of the most instructive sections of "Then They Came for Me" is about Japanese-Americans who resettled in Chicago. From the exhibit one learns that before the war there were only roughly 400 Japanese-Americans in Chicago, but afterward that figure rose to 20,000. Japanese-Americans worked in manufacturing and were often employed at such institutions as McClurg Publishing and the Edgewater Beach Hotel. By the 1950s many Japanese-Americans were entrepreneurs, running businesses all across the city. Hikaru Carl Iwasaki's photograph Chicago, Illinois shows three Japanese-American employees at a local grocery store, wearing white smocks. Other images display Japanese-American Chicagoans in small factories trying to make baby chickens mate.

What stands out most of all about "Then They Came for Me" is its thoroughness. The exhibit begins with Japanese immigration to America in the 19th century and examines virtually every aspect of Japanese life in the States until just after World War II. In the process one can learn about how Japanese immigrants collaborated with Mexican-Americans to create the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association, which protected the rights of immigrant farmers in California, even though several states passed alien land laws that tried to block Japanese-American citizens from gaining long-term leases on land. There are numerous artifacts of wartime paranoia, such as a Life magazine article titled "How to Tell Japs From the Chinese." One of the great constants in the exhibit is a series of panels from Citizen 13660, a graphic nonfiction book by Miné Okubo, placed at different points in the exhibit. The illustrated memoir recounts Okubo's experiences in the internment camps, and through clever turns of phrase she describes her temporary home's terrible conditions: "We had to make friends with the wild creatures in the camp," she writes, underneath a black-and-white drawing of her trying to get comfortable under a blanket, "especially the spiders, mice, and rats, because we were outnumbered."

The photographs by Lange and Adams might be the central draw for casual art lovers; yet while Adams is most famous for his expansive landscape photography, what's notable about the works of his featured in "Then They Came for Me" are their intimacy. One photo from a series taken in Owens Valley, California, is a still-life image that focuses on pictures and letters from a soldier named Robert Yonemitsu, sent to his father at the Manzanar relocation center. The jaw drops not at the natural world, but the sheer hypocrisy of the American government, which sent young Japanese men to fight for the United States while their families were locked up in internment camps.

A quote from the writer James M. Omura is painted on a wall in the main hall of the gallery. "Has the Gestapo come to America?" he asks. "Have we not risen in righteous anger at Hitler's mistreatment of Jews? Then, is it not incongruous that citizen Americans of Japanese descent should be similarly mistreated and persecuted?" The irony of that statement could not be more fitting for the present moment, when the Supreme Court could potentially uphold Trump's travel ban this fall. In a sly touch, one of the artworks featured in "Then They Came for Me" is a fake sign by the LA-based street artist Plastic Jesus, heralding the future site of an internment camp, signed by President Donald J. Trump. It's bitterly funny, but surrounded by all the evidence of the U.S. government's transgressions against Japanese-Americans, it's a painful reminder that this country rarely learns from its mistakes.  v

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