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Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Good Humor, Bitter Irony: Reviewing “Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece” exhibit at JANM

Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece: The Art of Citizen 13660. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, August 28, 2021 - February 20, 2022. <> 

reviewed by Tony Wei Ling

The museum’s path is a loop, and so a visit to JANM’s Citizen 13660 exhibit either begins or ends with a view into the same shambly wooden structure: an original barracks removed and rebuilt from the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Part of JANM’s ongoing exhibit on Japanese American history, Common Ground, this building-inside-a-building bookends the celebration of “Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece.” Visitors first travel through Common Ground’s rooms, which span the earliest waves of immigration through to WWII incarceration and its aftermaths; the final room, situated just before the entrance to the Okubo exhibit, covers the 1970s/80s political struggle for redress that followed internment. Along with the architectural bookend of the barracks, this history of the Redress Movement physically frames the museum’s 75th anniversary exhibit of Citizen 13660.

    The JANM exhibit is structured into a narrative of the book’s production, displaying the variety of materials (varied camp sketches, original Citizen 13660 drawings, and page mockups combining drawing, typed caption, and marginal edits) in a compositional/editorial process of negotiated meaning. Miné Okubo’s iconic 1946 book pairs observational cartoons with terse first-person captions and follows Okubo through multiple relocations and incarcerations between 1939 and 1944: Berne to Berkeley, Tanforan to Topaz. By laying out the Citizen 13660 exhibit, room by room, into stages of drafting, design, and correction, the exhibit opens up for interrogation the multiple actors and influences that brought it into publication.              

Mine sleeping on a cot in her barrack

            Such an interrogation is important because Citizen 13660’s rendering of camp life’s “humor and pathos” has often been preemptively read as a political act in itself, one that critiques the events it charts and anticipates the organized call for reparations. No doubt much of this reputation comes from the book’s use as testimony in the 1980s, during which Okubo submitted her book to the Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians as evidence of government wrongdoing. However, scholars like Christine Hong warn against subsuming the book within this “retroactive interpretive lens,” since doing so “arguably obscures more than it illuminates Okubo’s legacy as a wartime artist.” Indeed, as Hong reminds us, Citizen 13660 could only have been published immediately following the war (and during the cross-country dispersal of former incarcerees) with the support of the WRA officials who ran the camps, some of whom endorsed the book. The book became, perversely, “an affirmation of the democratic potential of the American concentration camp,” Hong writes. This affirmation required fitting Okubo into the exemplar of an “entirely American” Nisei character (to quote Pearl Buck), such that reviews of her book sounded almost identical to the artist’s truly wild character references, such as the one from her teacher Glenn Wessels describing her as “un-Japanese in sympathies and in manner of thought.”

            Citizen 13660’s legacy has continued to work through this exemplar form, making Okubo into an ethnic representative whose witnessing and recording of the camps always already testifies to one political end or another: either a distinctly American story that mines the everyday adjustments and discomforts of camp life for common ground with white readers, or a sharply critical, irony-laden statement of racial protest. Debates about how best to interpret “Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece” as a politically potent (though not obvious) artistic work are not about pinning down the precise political character of a single cultural figure: they are about dislodging both the book and the artist from the position of exemplar. Hong’s caution not to read Citizen 13660 through a single lens clarifies the pressures of exemplarity as a representational mode, which can attempt to redeem ambiguous or close-mouthed texts by forcing them to speak.

            Although the museum’s physical layout leads the visitor straight from redress to Okubo, JANM seems to follow Hong’s caution not to enclose the artist within the political lens of redress. The curatorial writings about the exhibit are relatively circumspect on Okubo’s politics; they describe the book as “groundbreaking” for being “the first book-length account on America’s concentration camp from the perspective of a former incarceree” and “an early example of a graphic memoir,” not for being a self-evident critique of the state.

Memorial service for James Wakasa
            Perhaps more importantly, the exhibit’s design draws the visitor’s attention to edits made to both Okubo’s text and drawings, asking the visitor to compare versions of the same page. One key moment in the exhibit places a page from the final book next to its draft page mockup: it’s the page in which Okubo addresses a guard’s fatal shooting of an “elderly resident.” The final version’s caption consists of a single paragraph, from which much of the draft page’s typewritten details have been cut. Ironically, one of the remaining lines in the published version reads: “Particulars and facts of the matter were never satisfactorily disclosed to the residents.”  

Detention room filled with departing residents

           What did it mean to excise those slight elaborations on “the Wakasa case” from the final publication? And what can readers today make of such an elision, in this already famously elliptical work? Against the backdrop of its various political mobilizations (re-domesticating alienized incarcerees, testifying towards redress), Citizen 13660 might be best characterized by its oscillations and reticence––qualities that JANM’s exhibit faithfully reflects and interrogates through its attention to revision and editorial process. JANM’s Education Unit has designed a wonderful activity guide that asks visitors to participate in slow examination of Okubo’s drawings through activities in “close looking,” comparison between early sketches and final versions, and even invitations to draw one’s own illustrations from Okubo’s captions.

            Over the decades, Citizen 13660 has been made a representative of multiple political/racial narratives––narratives not obviously cosigned or directly produced by the work itself. These interpretive frames are partly external impositions on the book, but they are also generated in large part by the work’s odd combination of documentation and reticence. A strategy of “documentation through reticence,” in fact, might be fitting to stress the scientist’s objectivity in Okubo’s textual voice. Or maybe “reticence through documentation”: the book rattles off a steady rhythm of particulars to fill incarceration’s empty time. “You had to work hard to keep yourself going, and to keep from thinking,” Okubo said in a post-publication interview. And as Greg Robinson observes, “Okubo may not have been referring simply to her camp experience,” but to the stifling representational burden of Americanizing/humanizing incarcerees.

Landscaping with trees

            Another way of looking at Okubo's reticence is as a strategy of abstraction––as a stylistic register that responds to the pressures of racial exemplarity. Talking about Citizen 13660 in terms of abstraction may seem odd, given the work’s obvious claims to figurative representation (as documentary) and its obsessive interest in particulars: barrack and room numbers, curfew times, toilet arrangements, wages. Its text and image move at different paces, though, and rather than elaborating or contextualizing the moments depicted in each drawing, Okubo’s captions often direct the reader and characters onward, onward, onward, at a brusque pace something like a punchline.

“Everyone was building furniture and fixing up barracks and stalls. Many of the discomforts of the camp were forgotten in this activity.”

“Letters from my European friends told me how lucky I was to be free and safe at home.”

“The incomplete partitions in the stalls and the barracks made a single symphony of yours and your neighbors’ loves, hates, and joys. One had to get used to snores, baby-crying, family troubles, and even to the jitterbugs.”

Her drawings, by contrast, loop the eye into compositions that Hong describes as “[w]himsically Matryoshka-like in visual architecture,” with figures whose gaze and movement rarely advance in a single direction––and which almost never resolve into any legible kind of effect. Okubo threads her readers between progressive and melancholic time: we neither move briskly into the future (as the book’s final caption seems to promise), nor do we stay endlessly in some fractured, traumatic moment.

            In his essay on abstract comics, Jan Baetens introduces the idea of abstraction at the level of sequence rather than just the individual image. Abstraction as a sequential strategy can serve narrative ends by “foreground[ing] an enigma” and by withholding connections between image-moments, although in Baeten’s model, abstraction and narrative are always in “active conflict.” Abstraction in Okubo’s proto-”graphic memoir” doesn’t mean a total absence of either figuration or narrative; I mean something like a looseness between forms and what those forms legibly, identifiably signify. Not a lack (of particulars, of lines, of images), but a loose connection: resemblance under reconstruction; narrative in double vision.

Sewage system repairs

            At the level of image, Okubo works out a visual shorthand for Japanese faces that refuses the specificity of portraiture, favoring instead a semi-opaque, semi-abstracted cartoon style that consciously both resembles and revises the racial caricature Okubo saw in comics. At the level of narrative, Okubo’s temporal “mixed messages” loosen the hold of progressive time, which preferred to frame internment as a momentary lapse, and which hoped to smoothly re-domesticate its internal aliens through their post-camp dispersal. Her layered and contradictory sense of time rehearses internment’s own absurd and distorted relationship to linear temporality; the minor but multiple incongruities between captions and drawings eat away at the narrative sense a reader attempts to make out of panels, pages, incidents, particulars. For both the singular and sequential registers of representation, abstraction emerges as a way of managing expectations: meeting the narrative demands of reinstated citizenship and yet clearing room for alternate narrative connections.

            As some early book reviews, displayed in the exhibit’s final room, were keen to observe, Okubo skirts obvious caricature or anguish in favor of “tolerance and restraint.” Her few moments of straightforward outrage are all that keeps the book from being “inhumanly quiet,” one reader said. These reviews seem to sense irony where they expected feeling (ironized state critique would later become the conventional reading), but they largely emphasized––and admired––the book’s apparent lack of bitterness. Of the reviews on display at JANM, one even offers Citizen 13660’s “touches of humor” as proof that Okubo “rises above resentment and rancor.” The relief is palpable amid the slight confusion.

Bathing in tubs

            Not on display (but relevant here) is a 1947 review by Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, a sociologist who was incarcerated at Santa Anita during the war. Nishi also notes the book’s “commendable objectivity,” but she complains that among these precisely observed discomforts of the camps, what “is not evident to most readers is the disillusioning torment that evacuation meant to them.” Nishi, of course, was right: Citizen 13660 refrains from foregrounding tragedy. And perhaps most readers were happy to read the book as a funny and humanizing, if oddly reserved, account of a nation’s embarrassing lapse. Citizen 13660 did on one hand facilitate the human empathy and “common ground” upon which a progressive American time could be plotted. Yet it also dealt closely and actively with the very logic of racial identification and exemplarity that has followed the book through its initial period of publication and its Redress-era resurgence. In its very title, Citizen 13660’s abstracted identification with/of Okubo brings some irony to the close association reviewers made between the artist and her representational strategies of restraint, humor, and (apparently) forgiveness. Citizenship, already an abstract form of legal personhood, becomes one half of an oxymoronic identification.

One of Nishi’s more disparaging remarks describes “the very facile nature of the book” as being in conflict with the “deep subjective meaning” of the art. “If the reader were to verbalize the significance of some of the illustrations,” she writes, “he might be surprised at the bitter irony.” What these drawings signify––what they are pictures of, exactly––is not immediately clear or stable. There’s no way to resolve its rhetorical shape into either a 1980s voice of oppositional critique or the 1940s one of redemptive propaganda. What looks from one angle like redacted/repressed tragedy looks from another like “good humor” (a particularly oblique and unfixed mode of historical relation) and from yet another like “bitter irony,” to use Nishi’s phrase. Okubo’s reworking of figuration and narrative sequence, which I’ve identified as a semi-abstracted style, disorient and disperse anything more than a bare sense of narrative facts and feeling. Katherine Stanutz describes this effect as an inscrutability open to future reinscription––“what is ungrievable in 1946 gradually becomes grievable in the 1970s and 1980s”––but to me, the lightness of Okubo’s text reads not as a deferral of grief, but as grief’s less hallowed (and less legible) form.

            Near the entrance to the exhibit, three expressive charcoal drawings from Okubo’s camp era-corpus hang on display––all of them done at a much higher and more recognizably “fine arts” register of abstraction. In one, a gaunt, childlike figure presses its face and hands against the picture plane; in another, an adult and a child peer crookedly out through barbed wire that divides the picture into multiple, pronged horizons. The crosses used to denote the barbs are integrated into the figures’ furrowed brows. These emotive drawings are especially instructive context for the cartoon style she chose for Citizen 13660, which is stiffer, cooler, and more line-driven in its mark-making. Like the charcoal drawings, Citizen 13660’s illustrations still flatten the depth of field, emphasizing the compressed dimensions of the page over that of three-dimensional space, but its characters rarely bear the same expressions of outright anguish, nor do they look directly out at the reader. Instead, the figures of Citizen 13660 are almost always engaged in a gesture of work, of adjustment. Even rest becomes just another task that passes time.

            You can’t, as of this writing, visit the Okubo exhibit in person––JANM is temporarily closed due to the rise in COVID-19 cases here in the US.* But JANM’s digital collections host a rich archive to explore, including Okubo’s drawings as well as many other collections, and the museum is hosting a series of online events/workshops related to the Citizen 13660 exhibit. I’m grateful to their work in putting together all of these routes into Miné Okubo’s work, which still has so much to teach us.

A version of this review will appear in the print edition of IJOCA. 

*The museum will reopen on February 1, according to a staff member.


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