The Noguchi Museum and The Brother in Elysium announce new publication I Become a Nisei
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The Noguchi Museum and The Brother in Elysium announce new publication I Become a Nisei
Arnold Newman, Portrait of Isamu Noguchi, July 4, 1947, in New York. © Arnold Newman Collection / Getty. Publication © 2020 The Brother In Elysium / The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY / ARS.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Noguchi Museum and The Brother In Elysium, a publishing imprint and studio run by artist Jon Beacham, announce a new limited-edition artist’s book, I Become a Nisei. This handmade publication collects an essay by Isamu Noguchi written from a prison camp for Japanese Americans in 1942, along with eight color plates featuring related artworks and documents from The Noguchi Museum Archives. Brian Niiya, Content Director at Densho, contributed a foreword.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Isamu Noguchi advocated in various ways on behalf of the patriotism and civil rights of Japanese Americans, a community with which he had previously had little contact, but “of whom because of war I had suddenly become a part.” (I Become a Nisei). In early 1942, with Larry Tajiri of the Pacific Citizen, Shuji Fujii of Doho, and others, he co-founded the Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy and attended hearings on the removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast led by California Representative John Tolan of the House Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration.

In April 1942, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 made the forced relocation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast a shocking reality. Noguchi traveled to Washington D.C. and met with officials in an attempt to use his position as a well-known artist to draw attention to the relocation policies. In an extraordinarily idealistic scheme conceived with John Collier, Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Noguchi voluntarily entered the Colorado River Relocation Center in Poston, Arizona, in May 1942, with plans to design the camp as a model community with parks, exemplary facilities, and arts and crafts programs, where a self-determined Japanese American cultural expression might flourish in a new context.

What he encountered was, of course, quite a different scenario. Not only were the conditions extremely harsh, with intense heat, sandstorms, and unfinished barracks with few available resources, but none of his plans for facilities or programming were supported. To the camp leadership he was a prisoner like any other, and to most of the other prisoners, he was highly suspect due to his celebrity status.

From this place of alienation, he responded to a request from DeWitt Wallace of Reader’s Digest for an article on the situation with a complex and moving piece which went unpublished at the time. The text intertwines observations on the daily realities of the camps with personal reflections on cultural identity and community, and with formative articulations of visions and conflicts that would resonate in his later work.

At the heart of the essay, Noguchi questions what the democracy of the American government stands for, and if it will come out on the other side of the War to meet Japanese Americans as its rhetoric preached. The piece offers an intimate portrait of an artist’s complex awakening and shines some light on an underrepresented narrative of the fight against fascism during the War, and American fascism on its own land.

The text in this edition of I Become a Nisei is derived from one of two extant typescripts which can be found online in The Noguchi Museum Archives along with many other documents related to Noguchi’s activism and time in Poston. The manuscript was also highlighted in The Noguchi Museum’s 2017 exhibition Self-Interned: Noguchi in Poston War Relocation Center, and was included as an appendix in Amy Lyford’s Isamu Noguchi’s Modernism (UC Press, 2013). This is the first book with the essay as its centerpiece.

The publication is printed letterpress from hand-set type, and was bound by hand in an edition of 300 copies. It is available from and

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