Seeing shadows of history

I stand still, counting footprints. I’m staring at a black and white photograph, footprints planted in concrete, some firm, others faded to scant shadows.

The footprints and photograph are from Manzanar, one of ten remote western U.S. sites where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II. Under Franklin Roosevelt, our government forcibly removed some 120,000 Americans because of their heritage, not their actions.

Maker:L,Date:2017-8-27,Ver:5,Lens:Kan03,Act:Kan02,E-veIn 2014, Minneapolis artist John Matsunaga went to Manzanar to see where his grandfather had been locked up. Everyone in Matsunaga’s family– his mother, father, aunts and uncles– had been incarcerated. For years afterwards, the family didn’t talk about what happened. Within two years, Matsunaga visited all ten incarceration camps. “It started out as personal, and then expanded out,” he said. The 46-year-old artist began thinking about “What do people know and what do they not know about what was happening.” The trips became a kind of pilgrimage, allowing him to absorb history not just through books, but by breathing in dust in arid desert camps, bakingly hot in summer, bitingly cold in winter.

It was often a solitary exercise, “ kind of meditative, kind of sad.”  Although all the incarceration sites have some kind of federal recognition, Matsunaga said he was often the only person at a camp. “I’d think, how many people really come to see this?” Matsunaga shifted from reflecting on the past to thinking about what’s happening in the U.S. now, with government efforts to ban Muslims and other people based on their nationality. “I don’t think it’s my place to speak for Muslim Americans,” Matsunaga said, “but the restriction of civil rights has parallels in the past.”

At East Side Freedom Library, where Matsunaga’s photo exhibit is on display through February 24, he points to the footprints photograph and says, “For me, it’s about this trace, I’m showing you a presence, but it’s really showing what’s not there.”

What’s also not there are labels. Matsunaga admits he wants to frustrate viewers by not explaining his artwork with easy-to-digest labels by each photo so viewers can scan the caption and walk on. Matsunaga points out that the photos are a fine art project, his thesis at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, not a public history class. His stark photographs don’t tell any one person’s story, instead, they’re designed make people feel something– dissatisfaction, anxiety, the loss of not knowing.

The photos challenge visitors to think about what’s seen and unseen, what they know or have forgotten about a shameful period of American history. What had once made a deep impression, a solid footprint in history is worn smooth with time.

One photo shows a dilapidated wordless sign strewn on the hard-baked dirt, no clues about what the sign was meant. Another photo focuses on  the hollow shell of a collapsed baseball, stitching frayed, curled into itself, holding nothing more substantial than crumbles of dirt and gravel. The ball’s shadow is bigger than the physical object. Many of Matsunaga’s black and white images include shadows, the remains of what had been.

Matsunaga knows that in time, no one will remain who had lived in these camps. The first-hand knowledge of what happened in the incarceration will be gone, just as his grandfather, and more recently an aunt and uncle, have died. What remains will be physical remnants, shreds of signs signifying little– and our knowledge, our memories of seeing, reading, hearing, knowing how our government locked up more than 110,000 Americans not because they had committed any crime, but because of who they were.

In 1988, Congress formally acknowledged  that the incarceration was “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Given today’s political leadership, decades of wars, and ongoing racial prejudice, this sobering exhibit and three upcoming programs are  necessary viewing. The exhibit’s title bears remembering as well: Nidoto Nai Yoni, Let It Not Happen Again.

Nidoto Nai Yoni: Forgetting and Remembering the Wartime Incarceration of Japanese Americans, on display through February 24 at the East Side Freedom Library, 1105 Greenbrier Street, Saint Paul.

All are welcome to these upcoming East Side Freedom Library events about this exhibit:

Saturday, February 10, 1 – 3 pm, Discussion Panel, Experiences of Wartime Displacement, Dispossession, and Confinement: The Japanese American Incarceration and Beyond

Saturday, February 17, 1 – 3 pm, Artists Panel, Representing and Resisting Historical Injustices through Art

Monday, February 19, 7 – 9 pm, Film Screening and Discussion, And Then They Came for Us (2017), a film by Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider