Hisako Hibi

An interview with curator Melissa Ho

Half-profile color drawing of Hisako Hibi, a Japanese woman wearing a black fedora and a 1940's style gray coat.
Hisako Hibi and her young daughter stand in front of a pile of luggage, with other people in the background. Hisako is holding her daughter's doll and speaking with a young man. She is in color for emphasis, but the rest of the image is black and white.

Part One

Hisako Hibi is a Japanese American artist who had a vibrant career in California, and yet her work is virtually unknown outside of the San Francisco Bay area.

She has a complicated biography because she was impacted by the Second World War and the incarceration of Japanese Americans after 1942. She and her family were incarcerated for about three and a half years, and many of these camps were located in very desolate areas. In this case, in the high desert of Utah.

Black and white aerial image of low structures in the Topaz, Utah relocation camp.
A tattered peace of paper with an image of a spiderweb and the text "Art Exhibition: Topaz Art School, June 14th-19th, 1945"

Part Two

For Hisako, ironically, her time in the camp was pretty productive as a painter. She made dozens of paintings.

So the first time that I saw Floating Clouds was actually at the apartment of Ibuki Hibi Lee, who is the daughter of Hisako and Matsusaburo Hibi; both of them were painters.

Part Three

And it’s just a remarkable piece of testimony, and also just a lyrical and astonishingly luminous work of oil painting. It’s a painting that she made while incarcerated at the Topaz camp in Utah.

And in fact, what really astonished me about this painting was when we took it off the wall, and I could see the inscription on the back that said: “Free, free, I want to be free; free as the clouds I see up above Topaz.”

…free as the clouds I see up above Topaz.

Part Four

This metaphor of disappearing ink I think is really apt and it resonates for me, because I’ve seen it so often. I’ve been struck over and over again by how vulnerable this history is.

So, for example, with Hisako, after the executive order that made it possible to forcibly remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast, they were given about a week’s notice.

She and her husband had left a lot of paintings with a friend who was going to try to place it in places like libraries and schools. By the time Hisako comes back to California, it can’t be found, and the friend had passed away.

You see how, how fragile it is. It’s really very easy for somebody’s life’s work to sort of escape.

Melissa Ho is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s curator of 20th-century art; she joined the museum’s staff in September 2016. Ho is responsible for research, acquisitions and exhibitions related to the museum’s collections focusing on art since 1945. She currently is leading an initiative to expand and enrich the representation of Asian American experiences, perspectives and artistic accomplishment in the museum’s collection and public displays.