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Chicago gallery exhibit explores WWII Japanese internment camps in US

Dorothea Lange, "San Francisco, California, April 11, 1942." | National Archives

A little more than two months after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that plunged the United States into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of 110,000 to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry – legal residents and American citizens alike.

‘Then They Came for Me’
When: Through Nov. 19
Where: Alphawood Gallery, 2401 N. Halsted
Admission: Free
Info: alphawoodgallery.org

“Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII and the Demise of Civil Liberties,” a newly opened exhibition that runs through Nov. 19 at the Alphawood Gallery, chronicles this dark chapter in American history and its little-known impact on Chicago.

Anthony Hirschel, Alphawood’s director of exhibitions, said the show is timed to mark the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order 9066. “But we also felt that the subject of the exhibition is entirely relevant in the context of the current political discussions about what to do with people who are here who don’t all look like what people imagine Americans look like,” he said.  Asked if the offering was more an art or history exhibition, Hirschel made clear its mission: “It’s an activist exhibition.”

Clem Albers, “Arcadia, California, April 5, 1942.” | National Archives.

The Alphawood Gallery came into existence last year. When none of the mainstream art institutions in Chicago could or would present a nationally touring exhibition titled “Art AIDS America,” the Alphawood Foundation agreed to take on the task.  To house that show, the charitable foundation, which works for what it calls an “equitable, just and humane society,” renovated a nearly 15,000-square-foot space in a former bank building at 2401 N. Halsted, where the foundation has its offices. “Then They Came for Me,” conceived in March while “Art AIDS America” was still on view, is the second presentation in the gallery.

According to Hirschel, it is the first major exhibition in Chicago to address the Japanese incarceration and one of the first anywhere to spotlight the struggles and triumphs of the more than 20,000 ex-residents of the internment camps who settled in the city.

Opening with the famous poem by Martin Niemöller that gives the show is name and proceeding in chronological fashion, this straightforward, photo-driven exhibition tells its multifaceted story in a methodical and quietly moving way.

Dorothea Lange, “Oakland, California, March 13, 1942.” | National Archives

The show’s 100 or so enlarged photos by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and others are drawn largely from those selected from the more than 7,000 in government archives by Chicago-based historians Richard Cahan and Michael Williams for their 2016 book, “Un-American.”  Those images are supplemented with artworks and scores of newspapers, letters and other artifacts, many from the extensive archives of Chicago’s Japanese American Service Committee, which was a co-organizer of the show. These range from the original 1942 posters announcing the impending Japanese internment to advertisements for some of the shops founded in Chicago by former camp residents.

“We wanted to show these other materials that were not part of the official story but help round out the story of what really happened to people,” Hirschel said.

Several members of Chicago’s Japanese-American community helped with the show, including Roy Wesley (né Uyesugi), who was born in Portland, Ore., on the very day that his family was supposed to report to an assembly center for eventual transportation to an internment camp. He has no direct memories of his time there, but he has learned of the experience from his family and his own extensive research.

Because of political connections, his father was allowed to go back to college and avoid relocation to the camp in Minidoka, Idaho, where Wesley lived with his mother and brother for two years.

Wesley long ago gave up any anger he might have felt about his incarceration, and he has looked forward to this exhibition with interest. “We are far enough removed from the time period that there is no anger to be had,” he said. “Besides, what use would anger be? It doesn’t serve any purpose.”

He hopes that this show can be instructive, and that lessons from this historical episode can be applied to issues swirling around immigration and terrorism today. In World War II, he said, it was understandably difficult for some Americans to separate their resentment for the Japanese invaders from Japanese-Americans with whom they lived side by side.

Dorothea Lange, “San Francisco, California, April 20, 1942.” | National Archives

“That’s a very hard distinction to make,” Wesley said. “It’s just as hard to make that distinction as it is for people to say that Muslims are not all terrorists.”

“Then They Came for Me” runs through Nov. 19. Hirschel does not know if there will be any subsequent exhibitions in the Alphawood Gallery, in part because it is unclear if the space, which has been lent to the foundation, will continue to be available.

“Will the foundation keep doing projects that speak to larger issues?” he said. “I think that is certain. Whether it will be exactly in this form, that I don’t know.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.