A Challenge to Democracy explores legacy of Japanese internment camps

Sons of Ansel Adams and Chiura Obata to discuss impact on their respective families Oct. 2

In the 1930s, the photographer Ansel Adams struck up a friendship with California painter Chiura Obata. Yet the arrival of World War II would set these two celebrated artists on radically divergent paths — paths that would, in very different ways, lead both to the now-infamous “war relocation centers” at which the U.S. government forcibly interred approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans.

Next month their sons — Michael Adams and Gyo Obata — will explore the impact of internment on their respective families in a public dialog at Washington University in St. Louis.

Ansel Adams, “Smiling Girl (Oriental Type),” 1943. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

The talk, which begins at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2, in Steinberg Hall Auditorium, is held in conjunction with the exhibition A Challenge to Democracy: Ethnic Profiling of Japanese Americans During World War II, on view in the Teaching Gallery of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. An exhibition reception will immediately follow the talk, from 7 to 9 p.m.

“The first-person accounts of Michael and Gyo — along with those Japanese-Americans who were interned in the camps that we will hear from later in the semester — bring to life this tumultuous period in American history,” says Ira J. Kodner, M.D., director of the university’s Center for the Study of Ethics & Human Values, which organized both events as part of the semester-long series “Ethnic Profiling: A Challenge to Democracy.”

“Events from this past summer — when grade school children were ejected from a swimming pool in Philadelphia and Harvard professor [Henry Louis] Gates was arrested at his home — demonstrate the need for continued vigilance against ethnic and racial profiling in our own time,” Kodner adds. “We are honored by the participation of so many people from around the community who have come together to make this series possible.”

Michael Adams, an alumnus of the Washington University School of Medicine, was born and raised in the Yosemite Valley, site and subject of many of his father’s most famous photographs. There, his parents ran a small gallery, Best’s Studio, which also showed paintings and prints of the park by Chiura Obata. In addition, both Ansel and Chiura taught summer classes through the gallery and they often spent evenings together, sitting and talking over drinks.

“The Obata and Adams families were good friends long before the war,” Adams remembers. “The Obatas camped in Yosemite Valley each year and we stored their camping equipment for them in our garage over the winter.” Though just a child at the time, he remembers summer visits by the teenage Gyo and his sister. “I am sure we all had meals together,” Adams adds.

At the start of the war, Gyo had just begun classes at the University of California, Berkeley, where his father taught painting. However, to avoid internment he transferred to Washington University’s School of Architecture, which, as an inland institution, was allowed to accept Japanese-American students.

“I left Berkeley the night before my whole family was interred,” Obata remembers. “Washington University was one of the few colleges that accepted Japanese-Americans.” He adds that, had the telegram announcing his acceptance arrived one day later, “I’d have been sent to the camps too.”

Instead, Obata finished his education in St. Louis. In 1955, he joined with fellow architecture alumni George Hellmuth and George Kassabaum to form Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum. The firm, which remains based in St. Louis, is among the largest in the world today.

Chiura Obata, “Silent Moonlight at Tanforan Relocation Center,” 1942. Private collection.

Yet the rest of the Obata family, unable to avoid internment, was sent first to the Tanforan detention center and then to the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah. There, Chiura made the best of a bad situation by establishing an art school. Meanwhile, Ansel Adams departed from his characteristic landscapes to document life in another of the camps — images he then collected in the book Born Free and Equal: Photographs of the Loyal Japanese-Americans at Manzanar Relocation Center in Inyo County, California (1944).

“We, as citizens, can agitate for tolerance and fair play, but our agitation must be dynamic and persistent,” Adams wrote in his accompanying essay. “It is easy for a ‘fair-weather lover of the Constitution’ to ‘favor’ tolerance, and mouth the principles of democracy, but it is quite another thing to stand up against opposition and fight for principles.”

Several of Adams’ Manzanar photographs, along with paintings by Chiura Obata, will be featured in the A Challenge to Democracy exhibition, which opens immediately after the talk. Jointly curated by Angela Miller, professor of Art History & Archaeology in Arts & Sciences, and doctoral students Elissa Weichbrodt and Anna Warbelow, the exhibit will explore the pervasive nature of ethnic profiling through a variety of visual records and materials.

The exhibition’s first section, “Profile of the Enemy,” consists of popular materials, including political cartoons, magazine covers and a government-issued handbook, that depict ethnically Japanese people as villainous. By contrast, the second section, “Profile of the Patriot,” features images by Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers and others who portrayed Japanese-Americans as loyal citizens. The final section, “Resisting Profiles,” examines how Japanese-American artists, including Obata, Toyo Miyatake, Mine Okubo and Gene Sogioka, responded to their own internment — responses that ranged from subtle forms of resistance to outright protest.

Other events will include a lecture and slideshow by Michael Adams, titled “Ansel Adams: Photographs of Manzanar and the West,” which takes place at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 3, in the Kemper Art Museum.

Two performances of Rick Foster’s one-man-play Dust Storm: Art and Survival in a Time of Paranoia, which uses the art of Chiura Obata as background, will star actor Zachary Drake. The shows will begin at 8 p.m. Oct. 3 and at 4 p.m. Oct. 4, in Steinberg Hall.

Finally, Kimi Kodani Hill, Chiura’s granddaughter, will lecture on “The Art and Life of Chiura Obata” at 2 p.m. Oct. 4 in the Kemper Art Museum. Hill is the author of Topaz Moon: Chiura Obata’s Art of the Internment (2000). Copies will be available for sale in the museum bookshop, with a book-signing to follow.

All events are free and open to the public. Steinberg Hall and the Kemper Art Museum are located adjacent to one another near the intersection of Forsyth and Skinker boulevards. Regular museum hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The museum is closed Tuesdays.

For more information about the Ethnic Profiling Series, call (314) 935-9358 or visit humanvalues.wustl.edu.

For directions to the events and parking, please see the campus map.


6 p.m. October 2 Discussion Michael Adams and Gyo Obata “Remembering the Internment: A Conversation by the Son’s of Chiura Obata and Ansel Adams” Steinberg Auditorium

7 to 9 p.m. October 2 Exhibition reception A Challenge to Democracy: Ethnic Profiling of Japanese Americans During World War II Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

2 p.m. October 3 Lecture Michael Adams “Ansel Adams: Photographs of Manzanar and the West” Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

8 p.m. October 3 4 p.m. October 4 Performance Dust Storm: Art and Survival in a Time of Paranoia Steinberg Auditorium

2 p.m. October 4 Lecture “The Art and Life of Chiura Obata” Kimi Kodani Hill Steinberg Auditorium

Editor’s Note: High-resolution images are available upon request.