I learned about nineteenth century American history through the graphic images in Harper's Weekly magazine. I was fascinated by the images documenting slavery, the presidential election of 1860, the battles of the Civil War, the implementation of Reconstruction, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Indian wars in the West. It was a revelation for me that art could be a powerful force for justice, as artist Thomas Nast demonstrated with his destruction of William "Boss" Tweed. I later learned, while studying the rise of the Third Reich, that graphic art could also be a powerful force for injustice.
Since those days I haven't learned as much about American history from, and rarely been touched as deeply by, an artist's work than I was this morning when I stumbled upon Ben Sakoguchi's website. As a child Sakoguchi was imprisoned with his family in the Poston Arizona Japnese relocation camp during World War II. After the war he earned a masters degree in fine arts, teaching credentials and worked as a commercial artist before accepting a teaching position on the Art Department faculty at the Pasadena City College. Mr. Sakoguchi retired in 1997.
The colorful acrylic paintings are brilliantly conceived, beautifully rendered and contain profound satirical insight into the hypocrisy that pervades much of what is taught as American history in our nation's schools. Sakoguchi explained his influences on a now defunct website belonging to the recently renamed Flintridge Center: "I've been informed by the complex politics of race and cultural identity, the scope and reach of belief systems, the ways we disseminate, receive and interpret information, and the dynamics of fame and notoriety." I am reluctant to label Sakoguchi's style as "pop-art," although the style he chooses for his thematic works is the culturally familiar milieu of trading cards, postcards, comic book style-graphics and commercial advertising.
The use of the culturally familiar to convey harsh realities about American history is brought off with devastating effect in his eight part series POSTCARDS FROM CAMP. "Postcards from Camp" documents Japanese American life in the U.S. before World War II, the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the contributions of Japanese American combat soldiers during World War II and the post-war experiences of Asian American victims of hate crimes. The last section, which documents contemporary hate crimes against Asian Americans, brings into stark focus a realization that the earlier images of the Japanese relocation camps do not represent a dark and distant past, but remain relevant as a warning of what happens when we tolerate racism.
The images in the sections on the relocation camps are based on actual photographs. Quotations and information has been added that forces the viewer to immediately revaluate the image in a jarring ironic dichotomy between what the image seems to reflect and the harsh historical reality of what it actually represents. In other works it is the image that forces a reassessment of the attached informational content.
A familiar and traditional photograph of a class of smiling school children with their teacher is starkly contrasted with information that these children were denied school books by the President of the University of Arizona who huffed that the children "are our enemies." It would be difficult to create such a sophisticated historical learning experience through photographs alone. Another image of camp life depicts what appears to be a traditional Independence Day celebration with participants holding up a huge American Flag while dressed in costume as colonial founding fathers and mothers. The image is punctuated by the incorporated caption from an editorial that appeared on May 10, 1943 in the Los Angeles Examiner: "Treachery, loyalty to emperor are inherent Japanese traits."
THE DISASTERS OF WAR series - which was inspired by Goya's series of prints of the Napoleonic wars - conveys a powerful anti-war message at the same time as it celebrates the heroism, sacrifice and courage of American war veterans. The ORANGE CRATE LABEL SERIES is a take-off on familiar late nineteenth and early twentieth century commercial produce labels in the form of interpretive representations of events and people in American History. THE UNAUTHORIZED HISTORY OF BASEBALL provides a perspective on America and it's pastime you are unlikely to find at Cooperstown, but that did make it into Sports Illustrated's online gallery. A BRIEF HISTORY OF SLAVERY, 59 paintings in 5 groups that were completed in 2008, are among Sakoguchi's best works to date.
I have asked for permission to reproduce some the works directly in the blog. I also need time to review the art on Sakoguchi's website more carefully. Look for updates of this post in the near future.