Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps

Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps

Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps

Artifacts of Loss: Crafting Survival in Japanese American Concentration Camps


From 1942 to 1946, as America prepared for war, 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly interned in harsh desert camps across the American west.

In Artifacts of Loss, Jane E. Dusselier looks at the lives of these internees through the lens of their art. These camp-made creations included flowers made with tissue paper and shells, wood carvings of pets left behind, furniture made from discarded apple crates, gardens grown next to their housing- anything to help alleviate the visual deprivation and isolation caused by their circumstances. Their crafts were also central in sustaining, re-forming, and inspiring new relationships. Creating, exhibiting, consuming, living with, and thinking about art became embedded in the everyday patterns of camp life and helped provide internees with sustenance for mental, emotional, and psychic survival.

Dusselier urges her readers to consider these often overlooked folk crafts as meaningful political statements which are significant as material forms of protest and as representations of loss. She concludes briefly with a discussion of other displaced people around the globe today and the ways in which personal and group identity is reflected in similar creative ways.


Testifying before the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians on August 4, 1981, U.S. senator Sam Hayakawa described life in World War II Japanese American concentrations camps as “troublefree and relatively happy.” Established by the U.S. Congress, the commission had been charged with examining the application of Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, and recommending “appropriate remedies.” Hayakawa’s cheery characterization of camp life was immediately met with audible jeers from an audience of former internees and their descendants, to whom the Republican senator from California responded by asking: “How else can one account for the tremendous output of these amateur artists who, having time on their hands, turned out little masterpieces of sculpture, ceramics, painting, and flower arrangement?” Artifacts of Loss takes up this question, but argues that camp-made art, broadly defined, aided internees in repositioning themselves in hostile environments. By creating art, imprisoned Japanese Americans attained visibilities and voices that incorporated heterogeneity and challenged exploitive racialization.

Rather than understanding camp-made art as evidence of humane treatment, I suggest that these material cultures comprised diverse visual accounts of loss, and physical as well as mental landscapes of survival. This thesis offers two parallel yet distinguishable forms of analysis, one . . .

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