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UMFA acquires works by major Japanese American artist

Thirty-five works by Chiura Obata are now in the are now in the permanent collection.

Thirty-five works by Chiura Obata, one of the most significant Japanese American artists of the twentieth century, are now in the permanent collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) at the University of Utah—thanks to a generous gift from the Obata estate.

“We’re very grateful to the Obata family for recognizing Utahns’ deep feelings for this incredible artist and for entrusting these wonderful objects to the UMFA,” said Gretchen Dietrich, UMFA executive director. “We’re honored to be able to care for them so that Utahns can enjoy them for generations to come.”

“We are thrilled that art lovers will have the opportunity to appreciate and study these works by our grandfather,” said Kimi Hill of the Obata family. “Because many of these artworks were created in Utah, we hope people will be inspired to learn the history of wartime incarceration and go visit the actual camp site in Delta as well as the Topaz Museum. Obata never wavered from the inspiration he found in nature and his faith in the power of creativity. The solace that Obata found in the beauty of the Utah desert landscape was profound. We appreciate UMFA for wanting to share his vision with the people of Utah.”

Obata was an influential artist and teacher notable not only for the beauty, variety, and quality of his work but also for his compelling life story as an immigrant American. He was an esteemed professor of art at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading figure in the California art scene, when World War II and a shameful chapter of American xenophobia interrupted. In 1942 Obata and his family were unjustly incarcerated, with thousands of other Americans of Japanese ancestry, at the Topaz Relocation Center in Delta, Utah. He continued to produce creative work throughout his eight months in the Utah desert and even administered an art school, where he and fellow artists provided art education.

The gift to the UMFA collection consists of drawings and watercolors Obata created from 1934 to 1943, including many he made to record his incarceration at Topaz. Obata’s depictions of life as an internee in Utah, as well as watercolors, drawings, and prints of flowers, animals, and iconic California landscapes, resonated deeply with local audiences in 2018, when a major retrospective, Chiura Obata: An American Modern, traveled to the UMFA. His work was also featured prominently in When Words Weren’t Enough: Works on Paper from Topaz, 1942–1945, the 2015 inaugural exhibition for the Topaz Museum in Delta.

Luke Kelly, UMFA associate curator of collections, pointed to the artist’s deft interplay of Japanese and European-American traditions and aesthetics.

“His brush makes the quietest—the bleakest—places the most alluring,” he said.

Dietrich and senior curator Whitney Tassie have been working with the Obata family since the 2017 exhibition to bring Obata’s work into the collection.

Along with the thirty-five works gifted by the estate, the Museum also purchased three additional artworks. These join two drawings of the U campus that the Obata estate gifted in 2018—drawings that Obata made after delivering a talk at the U, on a rare occasion when he and his wife were allowed to briefly leave Topaz.

UMFA visitors can look forward to seeing Obata’s work in the American and regional art galleries in fall 2022, after a brief period of assessment. Alongside the works of J. T. Harwood, Edmonia Lewis, Maria Martinez, and Thomas Moran, Obata’s works will contribute to a more accurate understanding of the breadth of American art history.

Obata’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Smithsonian, and other institutions.

Photo: Chiura Obata, “Topaz War Relocation Center by Moonlight,” 1943, watercolor, gift of the Estate of Chiura Obata, from the Permanent Collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.