On healing the ache of the familiar

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There is a particular ache that many Japanese Americans feel when we see images of our World War II mass incarceration, or “camp.” It’s a bittersweet struggle with recognition and connection across barriers of time and space. If the faces and settings are not our relatives, the chilling fact remains that they might be, or might as well be. The word “familiar” comes from “family.”

Judy Shintani’s “Dream Refuge for imprisoned children” photo courtesy of Triton Museum of Art

There is a poignant ache that Na Omi Judy Shintani’s work makes us feel.

An American flag of barrack wood, reclaimed from Tule Lake concentration camp in California, where her father was imprisoned, in “Pledge Allegiance.” Now, in “Dream Refuge for imprisoned children,” on view through at the Triton Museum of Art in Santa Clara, Calif., Shintani offers us life-size line drawings of sleeping children arranged in a circle. Shintani has sewn protective items into her portraits of the children: semamori (amulets) on the Japanese American children, stitched using red to indicate bloodlines; medicinal herb packets created in consultation with a Native American elder as a blessing; protective objects for the Central American refugee children.

Shintani’s work, she says, is “to create spaces for inquiry.” In this exhibit she asks, what are the connections we can make across time, culture, space? Native American “boarding schools” with thousands of children over decades intended to “kill the Indian, save the man”; Japanese American wartime incarceration, where close to 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated; and the estimated 20,000 children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2019. Portraying the soft curves of sleeping children, Shintani’s work cuts deeply to the soft underbelly of painful histories. Their trauma is intergenerational. Only in dreams, the exhibit suggests, can these children meet and find refuge.

There is a particular ache in 2019 when we see the faces of migrant children at the U.S./Mexico border, detained indefinitely in appalling conditions. The parallels have prompted many Japanese Americans to tell their stories. This emergence gave Shintani strength to come “out of the studio” and into spaces with her artist group, Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey. “When we unite,” she says, “we can protest these atrocities together for the ‘other.’ As (Tsuru for Solidarity co-founder) Mike Ishii says, ‘we have a moral obligation to speak up.’” She also joined the most recent pilgrimage to the Crystal City detention site at the invitation of co-leader Satsuki Ina.

There are poignant, particular aches that echo across time and space. The challenge of our historical moment is to feel the ache of the familiar and all its layers. To honor these children across time and space, we need to take action — through offering our own words at the altar in the center of the exhibit, through contributing to causes and organizations. “Dream Refuge” holds space for us to begin, to feel that these children belong to all of us. Familiar, family. This is what art can do: to help us heal the ache of the familiar with resonance and resilience.

Na Omi Judy Shintani’s exhibit is on view through Jan. 26, 2020 at the Triton Museum of Art (tritonmuseum.org), 1505 Warburton Ave., Santa Clara, Calif. Hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission and parking. This essay is abridged and altered from the exhibition catalog, “Na Omi Judy Shintani Dream Refuge for imprisoned children,” published by the Triton Museum of Art.

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The 2024 Films of Remembrance sheds light on the forced removal and incarceration of the Japanese American community into American concentration camps during World War II.