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Shirley Ann Higuchi: Stopping the cruel practice of profiting from human suffering

Art created by Japanese Americans while they were unjustly imprisoned should not be up for sale.

(Brian Melley | AP file photo) This Oct. 22, 2019, photo photo shows a gravestone in Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, Calif., that commemorates the death of Giichi Matsumura, who died in the Sierra Nevada while he was at the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar. A skeleton found by hikers this fall near California's second-highest peak was identified Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, as Matsumura, a Japanese American artist who had left the Manzanar internment camp to paint in the mountains in the waning days of World War II.

When Japanese American groups rallied together to stop an ongoing auction of art created by an imprisoned member of our community on eBay, I had an unsettling sense of deja vu.

Five years earlier, I organized the board of directors of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, which I chair, to hire a law firm to stop another auction that would have sold dozens of pieces of art created by Japanese Americans unjustly imprisoned by their own government during World War II.

At the time, I hoped we wouldn’t have to do that again, but history, as it is with the recent spate of anti-Asian hate crimes, unfortunately repeats itself too often.

Some of us still haven’t learned that it’s wrong to profit from the pain of others.

Last week, the unnamed seller on eBay was trying to auction off drawings made by Masaru Matsumura, which may have been created while the artist was imprisoned at the Japanese American concentration camp at Manzanar, Calif., during World War II.

A few weeks earlier, the bones of Giichi Matsumura, Masaru’s father, had finally been laid to rest in Santa Monica more than 75 years after Matsumura had died in the mountains above Manzanar in 1945. It is believed that Matsumura had climbed into the Eastern Sierras to paint, fell accidentally and died.

The death of Giichi Matsumura, forced from his home in California for the crime of looking like the enemy, was a tragedy. His family spent decades not knowing where his remains were in the rugged mountains above his last home, and his son’s art for sale online was a travesty.

The sale, which eBay stopped almost immediately after our protest, was just another recent example of the exploitation of the pain of Asians for profit.

Last week, the online news site VICE published the work of Irish artist Matt Loughrey, who had taken the photographs of Cambodian prisoners during the 1970s genocide led by Khmer Rouge dictator Pol Pot, colorized them and then altered the photographs to make their subjects, often just moments away from being brutally murdered, smiling.

Cambodian groups understandably protested that Loughrey’s work capitalized on their community’s unspeakable tragedy for profit. He had told VICE that he had sought to humanize the more than 14,000 people killed at the infamous Tuol Sleng torture prison.

Within hours, the VICE story had been wiped clean from its website and the organization issued an apology saying the article and photos didn’t adhere to its standards. It should have never gotten that far.

Everyone has a different opinion about what constitutes art. Some people like landscape paintings, while others adore abstract expressionism. That’s individual taste. We’re all different.

But there must be a different standard when that art is created under duress and derived from the suffering of others. It should not be sold, such as with the eBay auction, or, like Loughrey, be created to profit from that suffering.

The artists held in the Japanese American camps created their work often as therapy to cope with their imprisonment, which was the only act for which the U.S. government has made an official apology. The auctions our community stopped in 2015 and this year were selling work that was never meant for the people who now possessed the art to sell.

The photographs of Cambodians looking into the cameras at their impending deaths were not taken for Loughrey’s amusement. The Khmer Rouge intended for them to catalog the destruction of a swath of the Cambodian people.

I am not naive enough to believe we will not see another attempt to sell the creativity of former prisoners for the personal gain of someone who didn’t experience the anguish tied to the art’s creation.

It is my hope, however, that the forums through which that art is either sold or displayed adopt policies that prevent the continued exploitation of human suffering. So far, eBay is meeting that challenge.

(Photo by Brian Smyer) |Shirley Ann Higuchi

Shirley Ann Higuchi is a Washington, D.C., attorney and past president of the District of Columbia Bar. She chairs the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation (www.heartmountain.org), which runs an interpretive center at the site of the camp where her parents were imprisoned. She is the author of “Setsuko’s Secret: Heart Mountain and the Legacy of the Japanese American Incarceration,” released last fall by the University of Wisconsin Press. Find out more at: Setsukossecret.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HiguchiJD.

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