An exhibition featuring artwork inspired by the experiences of atomic bomb survivors, or “hibakusha,” was on display at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The show, which ran through mid-January, featured the works of Hiroshima City high school students.
The exhibit was to coincide with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, scheduled to start Jan. 11, but it was postponed because of the pandemic. Still, those involved hope the exhibit allowed people to “know how atomic bomb survivors feel, and encourage the world to steadily pursue a path toward nuclear disarmament.”
The art show showcased pieces created by students and alums from Hiroshima Municipal Motomachi High School, which lost 369 students and teachers when the atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. Fifteen years ago, the school began an annual project in which art students spend almost an entire year creating pieces that depict the devastation described by hibakusha.
Since the project began, 148 students have created 171 pieces of art using oils, pastels and other media, fueled by the experiences of 46 survivors.
Many students are challenged by experiences they can’t imagine, such as “severely burned skin” or “wounds infested with maggots.” Some students speak to survivors more than 20 times to arrive at a better understanding of the horrors they faced.
Many pieces have depicted gruesome scenes, and the school has received some backlash for exposing the young artists to such dark experiences.
But Kazunuki Hashimoto, an art teacher at the school, believes there is value in the project.
“It is meaningful for the students to have to earnestly face hibakusha and think about peace and war,” he said.
This year’s exhibit of nine works at the United Nations was a first for the high school. Among the pieces was “Senko” (“Flash”), a painting by Hiroshima City high alumna Minami Ogawa, 23, who now works as a curator at Himeji City Museum of Art in Hyogo prefecture.
Ogawa depicted a scene of the moment the atomic bomb exploded, based on the experiences of Sadae Kasaoka, 89. Kasaoka was 12 years old when she witnessed the explosion from her home, which was about 2 miles away from the epicenter.
Ogawa used bright orange to convey the heat of the blast and worked hard to depict shattered glass. She even asked her teacher to smash a sheet of glass and took note of how the pieces scattered. With Kasaoka beside her, Ogawa reworked her painting many times to re- create the scene.
“Even using words to describe the scene is so difficult,” Kasaoka said to Ogawa. “Despite that, you managed to re-create it, and I’m so grateful.”
Ogawa recalled what she took away from the project.
“As I listened to hibakusha talk about their life and experiences, I felt the deep psychological scars left behind by the ravages of war,” she said. “That was when I realized that I knew nothing.”