The Japanese American National Museum will open two new exhibitions in July — one showcasing the photographs of a Japanese American World War II veteran and the other an exploration of Okinawan and Hawaiian identity through paintings and photographs.
Both will be included with general admission to the museum and will be on view through Sept. 6.
Opening to the public on Tuesday, July 14, “Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images” is the inaugural exhibition in “Sharing Our Stories,” a new series of exhibitions drawn from JANM’s extensive permanent collection. A celebration of the donation by Susumu “Sus” Ito of his vast archive of photographs and negatives taken while on duty during World War II, “Before They Were Heroes” gives the public a rare and breathtaking look at the daily lives of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion of the celebrated all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
Born in California in 1919 to a family of immigrant tenant farmers, Ito was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1940. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was switched to civilian duty while his family was sent to live at the Rohwer concentration camp in Arkansas. In the spring of 1943, Ito was selected to join the 442nd’s 522nd Field Artillery Battalion.
He went on to serve in all of the 442nd’s campaigns in Italy, France, and Germany, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant. His tour of duty included such high-profile historic events as the rescue of the Lost Battalion and the liberation of a subcamp of Dachau.
During his time in Europe, Ito kept three things with him: a small Bible, a senninbari (Japanese thousand-stitch cloth belt traditionally given to soldiers who are going to war, made for Ito by his mother and the other women at Rohwer), and a 35mm Agfa camera. With the camera, he took thousands of photographs documenting his life on the road; the young soldiers are seen posing next to their jeeps, walking in the snow, swimming in a river, playing chess, and even visiting tourist destinations while on leave.
Unseen for decades, these images are remarkable for their detail and their humble, day-to-day quality, providing a fascinating contrast to the heroic images typically found in history books. Ito went to great lengths to preserve the negatives, even having some of them developed at villages along the way.
“Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai’i — The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara” opens to the public on Saturday, July 11. This exhibition is a unique examination of worker migration and settlement from the islands of Okinawa to the islands of Hawaii, prompted by opportunities afforded by the latter’s sugar plantations and pineapple farms during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Laura Kina’s “Sugar” and Emily Hanako Momohara’s “Islands” series are individual bodies of work grounded in each artist’s own journey to uncover her family history; both examine the complex ways that the past is present in our collective and individual identities.
Kina and Momohara are both fourth-generation, mixed-heritage women with familial roots in Okinawa and Hawaii; as artists, they employ strategies that blend fiction and reality, drawing heavily from obake (ghost) stories, material culture, and oral history to question the stability of memory and identity. Although the artists grew up independent of one another, their parallel histories create uncanny moments in which their fragmentary narratives collide.
The exhibition, curated by Krystal Hauseur, Ph.D., offers alternatives to standard narratives of Asian American history, paying particular attention to the contributions of women laborers.
Kina’s “Sugar” paintings utilize a striking indigo palette inspired by the color of the kasuri (fabric woven with dyed fibers) kimonos worn by female Okinawan immigrant workers to protect their bodies from the harsh sun. Fueled by stories told to her by family elders during visits to Hawaii, Kina’s paintings present abstracted images of Okinawan tattoos and Japanese and Hawaiian textiles as well as scenes of field labor and American cultural assimilation.
Inspired by inconsistencies uncovered during her own exploration of her family history, Momohara’s “Islands” photographs employ traditional and manipulated techniques to investigate the iconography and psychology of islands.
“Island 2” is an unretouched photograph looking out a window of the ruins of the Royal Hotel in Okinawa, a building located near Nakagusuku Castle and a U.S. Army base that was never completed due to the mysterious deaths of construction workers. The image captures the decay of a site loaded with Okinawa’s complex colonial and war-torn history and evokes an interplay among fact, myth, and memory.
By contrast, the studio-manipulated “Island 3” presents an island and coral reef surrounded by impossibly black water, conjuring a subjective emotional state that is both idyllic and harrowing.
The opening of “Sugar/Islands” on July 11 coincides with a Free Family Day at JANM. Admission to the exhibition, as well as the museum’s ongoing “Common Ground: The Heart of Community” and special Family Day crafts and activities, is free from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Additional public programs and special JANM Members Only events will be presented in conjunction with both “Before They Were Heroes” and “Sugar/Islands” over the course of their runs.
JANM is located at 100 N. Central Ave. (at First Street) in Little Tokyo. General admission is $9 for adults, $5 for youth ages 6 to 17 and seniors age 62 and over. Admission is free for children age 5 and under and JANM members. Hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday from 12 to 8 p.m. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.