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Exploring Minidoka's Dark Past

'Knowing how history played out scares me for the future sometimes.'

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Nearly seventy-five years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the incarceration of Japanese-Americans following the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. An estimated 120,000 people were forced from their homes on the West Coast and into 10 incarceration camps across the country.

One of those camps, the Minidoka War Relocation Center, was located about 20 miles northeast of Twin Falls. Between 1942 and 1945, 13,000 Japanese-American citizens and legal residents were incarcerated there. A new exhibition at the Boise Art Museum pays testament to their experience.

Minidoka: Artist as Witness brings together reflections on the camps from five Japanese-American artists, three who were incarcerated there.

"We decided that this story needed to be told," said BAM Executive Director Melanie Fales. "It's so important on a local level—but also on a national level—when we're talking about the domination of one group of people over another. We've all heard that so many times you want to make sure history doesn't repeat itself, and you can only do that if you know what the history was."

The exhibition is not outwardly emotional. There are no overt tears or cries of outrage. Rather, the emotions spurred by the incarceration program are cued by intricacies in the artwork.

A paper sculpture installation titled "The Tag Project," by artist Wendy Maruyama, forces visitors to confront the scale of the mass internment. Ten paper pillars, each made up of masses of paper identification tags corresponding to individuals confined in the camps, hang ghostlike from the ceiling. There are 120,000 tags in all. (Maruyama will present a guest lecture Wednesday, Nov. 9, 6 p.m., at the Boise State University Special Events Center. Tickets are $15 or $10 for BAM members and students.)

The photographs by Teresa Tamura explore the identities of the inmates. A third-generation Japanese-American citizen raised in Nampa, Tamura didn't have any family directly affected by the forced relocations, as Idaho residents weren't mandated into the camps by the presidential order. However, after being introduced to the history of Minidoka as an adult, she set out to tell the stories of some of those who were.

Among the histories Tamura gathered is the experience of Fumiye (Betty) Ito, whose husband, a Seattle-born attorney, was charged with "acting as an agent for Japan" and acquitted just before their family was sent to a camp.

Tamura's work, which has spanned more than a decade of research and interviewing, is compiled into the book Minidoka: An American Concentration Camp.

"People told me they grew up in Idaho and never knew Minidoka existed. We need a way to remember this history and the people who lived through it—their dignity and resilience," Tamura wrote in an email. "I appreciate that BAM was willing to present this exhibition to open more dialogue."

Three other artists featured in the show are painters who lived through the incarceration experience. Roger Shimomura, a professor emeritus at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Kansas, was a toddler in the camp. His acrylic paintings and prints are bold and bright, focused on people and accompanied by a personal memory or snippet of relevant history. One of Shimomura's paintings, Furlough No. 2, recounts the history of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team—a unit of Japanese-American soldiers who joined the military while family and friends were interned. The group became the most decorated for its size and duration of service. In the painting, Shimomura presents a man in uniform staring from behind barbed wire—a soldier imprisoned on his home soil.

Artwork from inside the camps is more muted. The paintings of Takuichi Fujii and Kenjiro Nomura are rendered in subtle blue, green and brown hues, drawing on the high desert where the Minidoka camp once stood along Clover Creek.

Nomura's paintings of the camps and barracks frequent clouds that cast heavy shadows on the scene. One of Fujii's paintings, titled Minidoka Montage with Fence and Landmarks, contrasts the camp landscape with inner turmoil: barracks, guard towers, barbed wire and trees tumble into one another as if dislodged by an earthquake.

The exhibition also includes various wooden sculptures and paper flowers crafted by other inhabitants of the camps, and invites visitors to put their own perspectives about civil rights and moving from home on display. The responses, hung on the walls, make it clear the point of the show is getting across.

"Knowing how history played out scares me for the future sometimes. The discrimination that occurred was horrendous, but that discrimination still exists," one visitor wrote.

"It worries me that it could possibly occur again for other groups. Groups who are surrounded by hatred, just like the Japanese once were."