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New Exhibition: "A Process of Reflection: Paintings by Hisako Hibi" Opens July 27

A Process of Reflection: Paintings by Hisako Hibi, a new exhibition organized by the Japanese American National Museum devoted to the art and life of issei (first generation Japanese American) woman artist Hisako Hibi (1907–1991) opens Tuesday, July 27 in the Museum’s new Pavilion. This new exhibition features paintings never before exhibited in Los Angeles and includes many of Hibi’s oil-on-canvas paintings made while she was unconstitutionally incarcerated in an American concentration camp during World War II. Also shown are selections of her paintings made before and after the war.

“Hibi’s story parallels the history of many immigrants to the United States,” says Kristine Kim, curator of A Process of Reflection. “But, what makes her truly remarkable is her enduring artistic vision. For 60 years she used painting as a vehicle to express her feelings, opinions, and experiences, resulting in a body of work that is both historical in scope and personal in execution.” In 1985, Hibi was honored as Artist of the Year by the San Francisco Arts Commission for her lifelong contribution to the San Francisco art scene. She was also a member of the influential Asian American Women Artists Association.

Several of Hibi’s paintings were featured in the Japanese American National Museum’s first art exhibition, The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942–1945, organized in collaboration with the UCLA Wight Art Gallery and UCLA Asian American Studies Center in 1992. Following that exhibition, Hibi’s daughter, Ibuki Hibi Lee, selected the Japanese American National Museum as the home for her mother’s collection of World War II paintings. In 1996, she donated 55 of her mother’s paintings to the Museum’s permanent collection.

Hibi’s World War II paintings represent life behind barbed wire. She is known to have done at least 70 paintings between 1942 and 1945 while at Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz concentration camp in Utah.

Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in ten concentration camps during World War II, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens. “Inmates in these camps were denied many rights, perhaps most significant of which was the freedom of expression,” says Kim. “They were constantly monitored by the War Relocation Authority and living in an atmosphere of intimidation. Letters coming in or going out of the camps were screened and cameras were not allowed into the camps.” Hibi’s insistence on maintaining her artistic freedom is a powerful act considering the circumstances under which she endured.

Hibi’s first-person representation of the experience of incarceration communicates what factual information does not convey. As a mother of two young children, her art was also influenced by the social conditions in which she lived. Hibi, for example, took note of the daily tribulations of raising children in camp. She documented this experience in her painting, Laundry Room (1944). Since bathing facilities were totally inadequate for the inmates, mothers improvised by bathing young children in the laundry room. At first glance this depiction of a mundane, daily activity is straightforward. But the context of the image reveals the artist’s extreme circumstances.

Over the years, Hibi’s art transitioned from the representational style of the 1930s and 1940s to a much freer abstract one. Abandoning sketching in her method altogether, Hibi began to apply paint directly onto the canvas. One such example is Autumn (1970), one of six post-war paintings featured in A Process of Reflection that shows the range and depth of Hibi’s artistic growth.

A Process of Reflection is curated by Kristine Kim, assistant curator at the Japanese American National Museum. Kim was project manager for the exhibition, Bruce and Norman Yonemoto: Memory, Matter and Modern Romance, the Museum’s inaugural contemporary art exhibition. She is currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of California, Los Angeles in Art History.