art history, history

Women’s History Month: Miné Okubo

I came to the realization recently that all of my historical profiles have been of white women, so for the month of March, in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll be profiling women of diverse backgrounds. Obviously, I can’t touch on every possible nationality or marginalization in the time I have, but I will be working in the future to add more profiles of Arab, disabled, Indian, African, and LGBTQIA+ women throughout history.

WWII contains a dark period of American history many would like to forget, though we are repeating it now: The internment of immigrants.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it triggered a racist backlash across the country, though it was strongest on the west coast.

Asian residents–regardless of citizenship status–were rounded up and placed in internment camps away from important coastal cities. Entire families were housed in overcrowded shacks in the desert.

The Okubo family immigrated from Japan for the 1904 World Exposition of Arts and Crafts in St. Louis. Her father was a highly educated scholar and her mother an artist–a caligrapher. Though both were intellectual, creative, and had college degrees, they struggled to find work. Eventually they settled in Riverside, California, where Mine was born in June of 1912. Though they struggled with racism and lack of work, her parents were loving and encouraged her to pursue her love of art. By 1936 Mine had a Masters degree in art and anthropology. It wasn’t enough to get her a good job, however, as race proved a solid barrier. She worked as a farmhand, tutor, maid, and seamstress before receiving a fellowship in 1938, allowing her to travel to Europe to continue her studies. She was in Switzerland when war broke out in France in 1939, leaving her stranded. Finally, after cutting through a lot of red tape, she managed to get on the last boat out of Bordeaux and to safety, but it meant abandoning the last six months of her fellowship.

Returning to the Bay area, she took up work with the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, producing several murals in the Oakland area and curating exhibits for museums while her work from Europe was displayed a the MoMA in San Francisco.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, however, changed everything. Within a month, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 into law, banning anyone of Japanese descent from living on the West Coast, though there was no evidence any of them and loyalties to any country but America.

The Okubos were forced from their home and separated. Mine and her brother were sent to Tanforan relocation center in San Bruno, CA. The center was a former racetrack, and the two of them had to share a 20×9 stall that stank of manure. They were not provided with bedding, and slept on bags stuffed with hay. Eventually, they were transfered to an internment center in Utah, Topaz Internment Camp.

Text and image relations in Miné Okubo's Citizen 13660 | Discover Nikkei
Artwork by Mine Okubo depicting hospital conditions at the internment camp.

Though things were hard in both locations, life moves on and the residents had to find a way to survive mentally and emotionally as well as physically. Mine established art schools at both camps where she taught students of all ages, and also worked for the camp newsletter, illustrating covers and taking charge of all artistic content. In additional, she continued to draw on her own, eventually compiling her most famous work, a collection of 2,000 drawings depicting camp life that were later known as Citizen 13660, after the number assigned to her family. The drawings show open toilets were women cover their faces in an attempt to gain some privacy, and people die in the overcrowded hospital.

While in Topaz, she also worked on the magazine Trek. Her drawings garnered interest in New York City, and she was able to leave the camp in 1944 to take up work at Fortune magazine. In 1946 Citizen 13660 was published as a book, the first published record of life in the camps.

Though she was able to get out early, the final internment camp wasn’t closed until March 20, 1946.

Okubo continued to work as a freelance artist until 1951 when she became a full time painter until her death in 2001. She also testified before congress on the treatment of prisoners in the camps, influencing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which recognized the illegal and harmful nature of the camps and awarded survivors and their families compensation.

Today we incarcerate Latinx immigrants and have only recently lifted a travel ban affecting Muslim Americans and their families, and Asian Americans are once again under attack as they are blamed for Covid-19. It seems that little has changed in 80 years, despite all the work of Okubo and the men and women like her.

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