Chiura Obata: American Modern” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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  • SHIPU WANG: Obata, while being a very prolific artist, there has been very little studied about him. For us to have an exhibition in which we have representative works from every decade of his seven-decade career is quite amazing. Luckily, he preserved his childhood work from his grade school, so we have his grade-school sketchbooks as well as sketchbooks from the last decade of his life. So, in this exhibition, you see from the 1890s through 1970s, and that’s really the full scope of his creativity.

    ALEX MANN: Obata is an immigrant who comes with a set of experiences and stories, and yet at the same time, he embraces his new homeland. He loves California. He loves the landscapes of Yosemite and of the Sierra Nevada. One thing interesting about his landscapes is sometimes he will use water from the site [to mix his paints.]

    SW: So, as we look at the landscapes in the exhibition, we are also physically encountering that element of nature through his paintings.

    It is very important for me to include the presence of Obata’s wife in this retrospective. In most retrospectives of especially male artists, we tend not to see the wives or any presence of other women. It’s especially important for this retrospective because Obata’s wife, Haruko, was an artist of her own right. She was an ikebana, or flower arrangement artist.

    AM: You will see and you will feel Haruko’s presence in the section of floral still-life paintings because some of these are arrangements that she created and then allowed him to use as the subjects for his work, creating works of art that ultimately are collaborations between husband and wife.

    After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the United States government mandated in early 1942 that all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast leave their homes and go live in incarceration centers. And so, by that spring, the Obatas had to pack their bags, either sell or give away everything, and completely relocate for the next several years.

    SW: Throughout this process [of being incarcerated] Obata really used his brush, his painting, to document the process. I always feel like he was recognizing that this is an unprecedented situation, and he, in the first person, so to speak, is eyewitness to this trauma. He’s not being sentimental or melancholic about it. He’s almost like a reporter.

    AM: As soon as Japanese Americans are allowed in 1945 to move back to the West Coast, he’s reinstated as a professor at [University of California] Berkley, where he goes and teaches for almost another decade. In 1952, Japanese Americans were able to petition to become U.S. citizens. And so, both Chiura and Haruko Obata take citizenship classes, receive their citizenship in 1954.

    This exhibition is a beautiful fit for the Smithsonian American Art Museum because it reflects our mission to bring a sense of the diversity of our nation. And Obata fits beautifully within this national picture of who we are as a people.

    Chiura Obata ranks among the most significant California-based artists and Japanese American cultural leaders of the last century. Born in Okayama, Japan, Obata immigrated to San Francisco as a teenager in 1903. By then, he was integrating Western practices into his art-making, and continued experimenting with new styles and methods throughout his seven-decade career. As a professor at University of California, Berkeley, and a founder of the East West Art Society, a Bay Area artists’ collective, he facilitated cross-cultural dialogue, despite widespread prejudice against Asian Americans. In 1942, when World War II fears and Executive Order 9066 forced Obata and more than one hundred thousand West Coast Japanese Americans into incarceration camps scattered across the western United States, he created art schools in the camps to help fellow prisoners cope with their displacement and loss. After the war, Obata returned to his callings as a painter, teacher, and cultural ambassador with scars that brought new emotional force to his work. The exhibition Chiura Obata: American Modern is on view at SAAM from November 27, 2019, until May 25, 2020.

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