A celebration of the 75th anniversary of Miné Obubo’s iconic graphic novel “Citizen 13660” at the Japanese American National Museum
In 1946, just one year after the end of World War II and while some Japanese Americans were still being detained, the American public first heard of the forced deportation and incarceration of Americans from Japanese origin through the eyes of an independent woman who lived it. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles celebrates the 75th anniversary of MinÃ© Obubo’s iconic graphic novel Citizen 13660 with Masterpiece of MinÃ© Okubo: The art of the citizen 13660, which features original unpublished works of art, drafts of this book and a myriad of other artifacts by this remarkable, visionary and determined artist.
This exhibition should not be confused with the exhibition with an unfortunately similar title Citizen 13660: The Art of Okubo Mine which was presented at the Skirball Cultural Center in 2015-2016. This gem of an exhibition brought together sources from several institutions, the most important of which Mine Okubo Collection for Social Justice and Civil Liberties at Riverside City College and focused more on Okubo’s depth as an artist and the visionary that she truly was. The number of artifacts was lighter, but the selections and their presentation made the show competitive above its weight class.
In contrast, JANM’s current exhibition is several times the size and builds on its own impressive collection of Okubo’s works and appropriately focuses attention on the 75th anniversary of the publication of Citizen 13660. The lens and purpose are quite different from this previous exhibit and therefore are worth seeing even for those who have seen the Skirball exhibit.
The heart of this celebration is in the main gallery where 28 of the 198 original works of art for Citizen 13660 are shown, while only two were on display at the Skirball. These carefully curated works not only demonstrate Okubo’s power of observation, but also tell the story of the incarceration experience to viewers who may know little about it.
In keeping with the museum’s educational mission, there are elements to help young audiences connect with the history and content of the exhibit, such as an oversized interactive wall map based on Okubo’s original graphic map of the camp of Topaz for Trek magazine and a take-home gallery guide for young people.
Most viewers will find the viewing experience of walking through the Main Gallery quite enjoyable and informative. Considering the quality of these originals, immaculate condition, careful preservation, and larger than publication size, the gallery appears more spacious and the selections more plentiful than they actually are.
The other small exhibition spaces give a glimpse of the very complex artist Okubo was and the birth of the book. Citizen 13660. Among these are exhibits of early sketches and scale models, as well as samples of edits from his original text that accompanied each drawing, some by his hand and others by unknowns. There are some changes that effectively streamline the messages, but in at least one case (the shooting death of an internee), they change the tone altogether.
As spontaneous as the line sketches appear in the published folio, comparisons of a few examples of the early sketches with the finished pieces show thoughtful and deliberate changes for artistic and editorial reasons. While the published versions always have a sense of spontaneity, and sometimes even fancy, some elements in reality are not. These meticulous changes show a level of artistry that is not immediately apparent and rightly elevate this artist’s status.
Some of the quick studies of variations of a single subject or subject show Okubo’s keen eye for observation and a flexible mind that could create in the simplest of lines an almost endless permutation of poses and possibilities. For example, a single sheet of paper contains dozens of depictions of people struggling to awkwardly transport their hay-filled mattresses to their new barracks. A reproduction of the final version and an actual publication mockup show the refined distillation in the Okubo process.
There is little text to inform visitors of what they see in the exhibit, except for introductions to the effective anteroom, including the dramatic color, graphics, lighting and its premier central box. editing Citizen 13660 the folios irresistibly attract visitors to enter. The underestimation was a deliberate choice by curators to allow works of art to carry the message on their own, without overt editorial commentary. In most cases, it works well, but not so well in others.
It may be too easy to miss the extraordinary revelations that are present here, most certainly for those who casually stroll through the galleries. The presentation of the aforementioned editorial changes and artistic polish, as well as the pieces that demonstrate the significant effort in the birth of the book, could have been refined and cast for the curious and inclined artists.
The accessory pieces and artifacts that are scattered throughout the galleries are notable, including Okubo’s work for Trek, a literary magazine published by internees then detained in Topaz, reviews of books contemporary with the initial publication of Citizen 13660, and his work for national magazines in New York in 1944. While these are rich treasures of information, the traditional way of presenting them, enclosed in a glass cage, makes them difficult to read. Some museum exhibits now use touch screens to display text and make it easier to read, and this kind of additional device would have improved the presentation, as well as a way to make all 198 illustrations accessible.
There is no doubt that MinÃ© Okubo was a far more complex artist and person than her book and this exhibition might initially suggest that. She has been an aberration several times, although her experience of deprivation and imprisonment during World War II was somewhat similar to that of other Americans of Japanese descent. Okubo was 30 at the start of the war, a decade older than his US-born Nisei peers, determined to be single, obsessed with art to the point of becoming compulsive, and only her and her brother were together in Topaz. , with the rest of his family scattered across the country in other confined settlements. Forced to live in the Singles Barracks with her brother, her experience was torturous.
His art apart from Citizen 13660 is distinctly different, having the stylized influence of early 20th century Modernists. Bold in color, brushstrokes and emotion, this art is a world apart and only hints of this Okubo are present in this show. It is unfortunate that Okubo is largely remembered only for his line art work in Citizen 13660, and this exhibition only offers a glimpse into this other world with just three of his independent paintings from the book.
The very thing that makes JANM Masterpiece of MinÃ© Okubo: The art of the citizen 13660 so wonderful is also the thing that creates an unfulfilled appetite for more. The tantalizing allusions of an extraordinary artist are certainly present here along with the revelations of the evolution of Citizen 13660. However, given the wealth of other works by MinÃ© Okubo already in JANM’s possession but not on display, satisfaction may be within reach and hope for an upcoming follow-up exhibition is alive.
The masterpiece of MinÃ© Okubo: the art of the citizen 13660 is on display until February 20, 2022. Visitors before January 9, 2022 will also be entitled to A Life in Pieces: The Diary and Letters of Stanley Hayami whose gifts as a talented young writer and sketch the artist complement the Okubo exhibition well.