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Manzanar To Host Art Shows, Archaeological Dig To Commemorate Anniversaries

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Japanese American internees at Manzanar Relocation Center are shown on November 17, 1943, bidding good-bye to friends who have just signed their way out of confinement. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
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On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed off on an executive order that would lead to the incarceration of approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans. This action, coming after the attack on Pearl Harbor, allowed the Army to forcibly remove Japanese Americans from their homes and place them in 10 camps spread throughout Arkansas, Arizona, California, Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

Perhaps the most well-known of these camps was Manzanar, which resides in an arid patch of California between Death Valley and Sequoia National Park. Estimates say that more than 11,000 people (including men, women, and children) were displaced here, and that two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens. In 1992, Congress would deem the area an Historic Site, after activists had pushed for official recognition of the camp.

This weekend, about 75 years after Roosevelt had signed the executive order, and 25 years after the site was fully recognized as a part of history, Manzanar will be embarking on a journey into the past. It starts with a series of art shows that touch on a wide spectrum of mediums. There'll also be the camp's annual archaeological project, which invites visitors to participate in a real, hard-nosed examination of the site's grounds.

The art series kicks off this Saturday with an exhibition of Michi Takemoto's watercolors, which she'd painted using historic photos that go as far back as 75 years. Takemoto's connection with the camp is personal, if indirect; she was born in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah. Takemoto will be on hand to speak on her work and experiences on Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m, and her pieces will be on display until late March.

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From early April to mid-May, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Paul Kitagaki Jr. will exhibit his photo series on the incarcerated Japanese Americans of WWII. Kitagaki had worked to find and compile the photographs, which were taken by such luminaries as Dorothea Lange. And on May 27, artist Steve Cavallo will showcase a series of portraits he's painted of people who were held in Manzanar and other camps. His portraits often veer towards the light (literally), suggesting optimism in their outlook.

Alisa Lynch, who serves as chief of interpretation at the Manzanar National Historic Site, told LAist that art is an essential gene in the camp's history. For one thing, art was being done inside the interment camps; as such, you can say that the works of Takemoto and others are a continuation of tradition. What's also important is that art has a way of illuminating its own piece of the history. "I think it's a human emotional expression. We have documents and diaries and photographs, but art is another way of telling the story," said Lynch. "It's a totally different aesthetic. So many things are tangible. But there's so much that isn't, like love and hope. And I think the art touches on that."

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Japanese Americans departing from the old Santa Fe station. They were headed for Manzanar. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Aside from the art series, Manzanar will also be hosting its annual archeological project, which runs from March 24 to 29, and May 26 to 30. As Lynch informed us, this isn't just a whimsical jaunt, like "panning for gold" at Knott's Berry Farm. Rather, volunteers will be doing some actual archaeological work, in terms of rehabbing parts of the camp, and digging for possible artifacts. "You had decades and decades where the site was covered in brush, and still is. And there are a tremendous number of features out there, like Japanese rock gardens, which, in some cases, we didn't know were still there," said Lynch, speaking on some of the discoveries that researchers have uncovered at the site. Workers will also be educated on the differences in aesthetics between Japanese landscaping and Western landscaping.

The volunteer positions are open to people 15-years-old and over. A release from the site describes the work as "moderately strenuous," adding that volunteers "just need an interest in history and a willingness to get covered with dust and/or paint spatter." Work will be done daily (regardless of weather) from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Volunteers get to decide how many hours and days they'll participate, but they're encouraged to work full days and take part in multiple days.

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At an archaeological dig in 2016. (Via Manzanar National Historic Site /Facebook)
As with any site with a marred history,people will ask why, exactly, we should be preserving the memory of something so tragic. And, as always, the answer is that the past is nothing less than a fact—it happened, and we can't escape it. This goes without saying that Manzanar is a prime example of the resilience of human existence. Inside the camp, Japanese Americans worked to preserve a sense of continuity with regards to their (former) daily lives. The camp—built to isolate—engendered a new microcosm of society. A recent Newsweek piece on Manzanar stated that, "life inside Manzanar was shockingly ordinary. Children went to school and acted in cowboys-and-Indians plays; adults danced to the tunes of a jazz band named, cheekily, the Jive Bombers."Whatever the reasons for telling the story of Manzanar, it's evident that there are people willing to listen (refreshing, right?). As we'd reported before, the site has been surging in popularity. Last year, Manzanar broke its single-year attendance record with over 105,000 visitors (the previous record was set in 2015, when 95,000 people dropped in). Certainly, in a political climate where refugees are banned from entering the U.S., and where specific ethnic groups are targeted, Manzanar takes on an added relevance, and it's not far fetched to think that new records may be made. The site's handlers, however, focus more on the fact of the camp's existence, rather than the politics that hover over it today.

"There are people who come here because they have a personal connection, but this accounts for a small part. There's also been a lot of people who've come to simply learn and understand," said Lynch. "It's really amazing to think what the [the site] will expose to people who haven't seen the photographs, and who don't have a personal connection. It's a meaningful place to visitors."

Michi Takemoto's exhibit starts on February 18 at the Manzanar National Historic Site. Takemoto will be there on opening day in person to speak from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Paul Kitagaki Jr.'s exhibit will run from early April to mid-May. Steve Cavallo's exhibit will start on May 27. For updates on the dates of the exhibits, call 760-878-2194 ext. 3310, visit the Manzanar website or Facebook page.

The archaeological project will run from March 24 to 29, and May 26 to 30. To sign up, contact Manzanar’s Volunteer Ambassador Katie Busch at 760-878-2194 ext. 3312, or send an email to katherine_busch@partner.nps.gov.

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Manzanar National Historic Site is located at 5001 Hwy. 395, six miles south of Independence, California.