Wendy Maruyama: Executive Order 9066, on display in Tempe’s ASU Art Museum through January 4, is stunning on so many levels. It’s visually beautiful. It’s also a moving and powerful statement about the experiences of Japanese-Americans who were rounded up and forced to live in internment centers during World War II. This mass internment came about when, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing internment of 120,000 American citizens and resident aliens from Japan during World War II.
The artist, Wendy Maruyama, is a third generation Japanese-American, San Diego-based artist who was deeply affected by this history. She is a studio furniture maker and head of the studio furniture program at San Diego State University.
Maruyama combines multiple bodies of work in Executive Order 9066 to tell the complex story of the Japanese-American internment camps. When you first enter the gallery you see ten large columns that are suspended from the ceiling. The columns hang floor to ceiling and are constructed of thousands of rectangular tags that are replicas of those given to each internee. Each tag contains the name, number and other information used to regulate the large scale forced migration. Nearly 120,000 Japanese-American internee identification tags were recreated by hundreds of volunteers.The columns represent ten relocation centers or camps where Japanese-Americans, during one of the most shameful periods in this country’s history, were forced to live, ostensibly out of military necessity, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The centers were located in California, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas.
Another aspect of the exhibition is the small cabinets that contain references to the camps, photographs and other personal belongings. Each cabinet is dedicated to a particular camp. Maruyama’s exquisite, impeccably wrought wood cabinets contain tar paper, pottery shards and photographs of buildings and families. One box contains a photo of a watch tower, a reminder that these camps were indeed prisons. All of the boxes eloquently capture the austere, barren environment of the internment centers.
Stacked in one corner of the gallery are suit cases, foot lockers and trunks that once held the few hastily gathered personal items taken on the forced journey from comfortable homes to the harsh conditions of the camps.
A beautiful catalog accompanies this exhibition. It provides additional information about the exhibition and the experience of the Japanese Americans in the centers. Beautifully written and containing many historical photographs, the catalog provides additional insight into both the exhibition and the collective experience of the Japanese American internees. It also has a broader purpose: to educate to insure that this type of injustice will never be repeated. As stated in the catalog: “The internment camp photos by Dorothea Lange and Toyo Miyatake embedded in the Executive Order 9066 series (as well as the series itself) make us witnesses to this chapter of American history and compel us to contemplate its implications for a ‘then’ and a ‘now.’ As many internment camp survivors and their descendants are well aware, lost or under-acknowledged histories come back to haunt us.”
There is so much more to this exhibit than what initially meets the eye upon first entering the gallery. It is a powerful, moving and deeply personal account of an unthinkable event that was directed at an entire group of Americans who were considered a threat to national security simply because they looked like the enemy.
Wendy Maruyama: Executive Order 9066 is on display at the ASU Art Museum through January 4. Museum hours are Tuesday: 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Wednesday–Saturday: 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Admission is free.