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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #19 (May 6, 2008), page 17 & 19.
Art consoles the spirit
Peaceful Painter: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist
By Hisako Hibi
Heyday Books, 2004
Paperback, 75 pages, $20.00
By Josephine Bridges
Hisako Hibi painted a wealth of images during the three and a half years she was incarcerated at Tanforan Assembly Center and Topaz Relocation Center. Some are monochromatic and bleak, others a riot of joyful color. Her memoirs too are a bittersweet testimony to what is described in the foreword to Peaceful Painter as "the triumph of art over adversity." It is our good fortune that Hisako Hibi both painted and wrote, and this collection of her words and pictures both evokes and honors an indomitable spirit.
"Perhaps what distinguishes Hibi most significantly from other Japanese-American artists of the camps is that she was a woman and a mother," writes Kristine Kim in her introduction to Peaceful Painter. "By far the majority of painters were men, and none of the other woman painters that we know of had children." This distinguishes Hisako Hibiís work as well; she might never have painted the remarkable "Homage to Mary Cassatt" if she hadnít been sensitive to the particular difficulties faced by women with children in the camps.
Hisako Hibi was born in 1907 and moved to Seattle at the age of 14, when her father became aware that an immigration exclusion law would soon be passed, preventing immigration from Japan to the United States. Four years later, when her parents returned to Japan, Hisako Hibi chose to stay on in San Francisco, where she met Matsusaburo Hibi, an artist whom she would later marry.
The artists lived happily and began raising a family, but in December 1941 their son came home from school and told his parents that some of his classmates had said, "No Japanese can be trusted." It wasnít long before "Japanese Americans were forbidden to own shortwave radios, firearms, swords, or cameras." Next a curfew was introduced, and finally, in the early spring of 1942, Executive Order 9066 stated that, "For reasons of internal security and military necessity, all persons of Japanese ancestry must evacuate the area of the Pacific Coast."
Citizens of the United States can never be reminded too many times of this tragic and shameful period in our countryís history. Hisako Hibi shows us the upheaval her family endured through the eyes of her daughter Ibuki, who kept asking when they were going to go home. Included in Peaceful Painter is a wonderful and heartbreaking Dorothea Lange photograph of Hisako and Ibuki Hibi on evacuation day.
Hisako Hibi has a serious story to tell, but she doesnít shy away from comic relief. "Twice a day," she writes, "each morning and evening, there was a roll call, barrack by barrack. Minť Okubo, a woman artist friend, was so annoyed that she nailed a sign to her door which read QUARANTINE." She also reminds us of the support she and other internees received from "many Caucasian friends" who sent "letters, gifts of fresh fruits, canned goods, seeds, candies, and toys for the children," and "came to the center to comfort the evacuees."
Not even two years after the camps were closed and the family set free, Hisako Hibiís husband died of cancer. A Caucasian doctor had not taken note of his jaundice "because he said that he thought Asians naturally have yellowish skin." Travelling in the south a few years later, Hisako Hibi and her daughter "felt the racial discrimination against the black race," and were reminded of the discrimination they themselves faced prior to their evacuation.
Twenty-three pages of Peaceful Painter are dedicated to color reproductions of paintings, most of them the authorís. Itís a lovely collection accompanied by the artistís notes. "I do not know exactly when or how, but perhaps around 1964 or 1965 the colors in my paintings became brighter and much freer in the expression of objects. My paintings became less representational." These later works, many of which were painted when the artist was in her 70s and 80s, give emphasis to the authorís last sentence in Peaceful Painter: "Art consoles the spirit, and it continues on in timeless time."