Shekinah Glory

Divine Shards
May 6, 2010, 1:27 am
Filed under: Art, God, Uncategorized

There is an extraordinary exhibition at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian called “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese Internment Camps 1942-1946”. This powerful group of art and crafts was both filled with professional, but mostly untrained artists. There were homemade chairs, hand crafted canes, flowers made from tiny seashells, paintings, woodcarvings and many carved little birds. The variety of items is somewhat mind-boggling upon realization that they are created by prisoners sent to internment camps after Pearl Harbor. 110,000 individuals were taken from their farms, stores and jobs because they were deemed too dangerous and their loyalty was in question. Roughly 2/3 of those interned were full American citizens.

Some pieces in this exhibit are very rudimentary, but made with care and patience. There was an obvious determination to focus on the moment, keeping busy in what must have been an extremely boring incarceration. They show the human spirit in the midst of the most trying circumstances. Gaman is a Japanese word that means to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and patience.

One of the most amazing aspects of craft and folk art are their ability to connect with the temporality of the human experience. Their creator’s works of art are not anticipated to out live their creator. The transcendent nature of finitude is exposed for all to see in its naïve and extraordinary simplicity.

The witness that many of the Japanese American Gaman artists display is that it gave them dignity in passing time during an unthinkable situation of isolation from the rest of society. That a people who craved freedom, were denied freedom in internment camps and created items to be free is an amazing testament to the human spirit. I believe it is what the Hasidic would call finding the shards of God embedded in the everyday. They picked up rocks, wood, trash, shells and pipe cleaners to create images that transcended their limited localities. They painted, carved, weaved and created so that they could be free even in their unjust bondage by their own government.

One of the most amazing aspects of the divine spark’s creativity in captivity is the notion that mostly untrained farmers, store owners and workers produced these amazingly expressive pieces of outsider art. Then upon returning to their shops, farms and jobs never created another piece of artwork.

Each existing piece cries out beyond the walls of unfair incarceration and screams its witness to a dark time in our nation’s history. Let us hope that we are not relearning the lessons of unfair incarceration, denial of civil rights and the xenophobic fear of the person who merely looks like an enemy.

If it is true that Christ’s ministry here was to set the captive free we must observe closely these artifacts from the prisoner. See that the one we assumed to look like the enemy is filled with dignity and contain sparks of divine revelation. We would do well to be careful at discarding anyone for danger of throwing away something that might reveal God. We must be at least as careful as these craft makers and artisans were at collecting what they had at their disposal to create something beautiful and unique.


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