Utah Museum of Fine Arts Acquires Works by Chiura Obata

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.

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.

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.

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts is located on the University of Utah campus in the Marcia and John Price Museum Building at 410 Campus Center Drive. The UMFA’s mission is to inspire critical dialogue and illuminate the role of art in our lives. For more information call (801) 581-7332 or visit www.umfa.utah.edu

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.

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