Reflections on Hisako Hibi
By Kristine Kim.
I first learned about Hisako Hibi’s art over ten years ago when some of her work was on display as part of the traveling exhibition, The View From Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942–1945 organized by the National Museum. I was an undergraduate student at the time and could not imagine how I would someday have the opportunity to curate an exhibition entirely of her work and to write the introduction to her memoirs, Peaceful Painter, Hisako Hibi: Memoirs of an Issei Woman Artist published by Ibuki Hibi Lee and Heyday Books.
A year after graduating from college I found myself living in Los Angeles. At about the same time, Hisako Hibi’s family made a donation of 55 paintings to the National Museum. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to assist with the research on this significant collection.
I learned that Hibi was not only an important painter who spent the war years incarcerated at Topaz concentration camp, but that she used her skills as an artist to depict her life behind barbed wire. Perhaps because she was the mother of two, her most poignant scenes involve children in the camps.
I also came to know Hibi as an incredibly prolific artist who experimented a great deal while at Topaz. She was unafraid to take risks with her art. The collection became one of the National Museum’s first to be made accessible through the world wide web (janm.org/collections/hisako-hibi-collection).
In 1999, then a full-time staff person, I worked with a team to organize the first exhibition dedicated to highlighting the Hisako Hibi collection. Through the process, I came to know members of her family, in particular her daughter Ibuki Hibi Lee. Through them, I learned how dedicated Hibi was to her art and how she believed in the importance of educating others about the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. While I had spent much time previously studying the artwork, through Hibi’s family, I learned even more about this remarkable artist.
Finally, two years ago, Ibuki told me about her effort to get her mother’s memoirs published. The resulting book, Peaceful Painter is a moving account of an issei woman’s life. What astonishes me even now is just how much I continue to learn from reading her words and looking at her paintings. It’s been ten years since I first encountered Hisako Hibi’s paintings and I still believe there’s much, much more to learn. Peaceful Painter provides unprecedented insight into a significant artist and goes a long way towards informing the rest of the world of the power and meaning of Hisako Hibi’s life and art.
Kristine Kim organized several past exhibitions at the National Museum including Crafting History: Arts and Crafts from America’s Concentration Camps, A Process of Reflection: Paintings by Hisako Hibi, Flo Oy Wong: Angel Island, Immigration and Family Stories, and Henry Sugimoto: Painting an American Experience, for which she authored the companion book.