The Wing Luke Asian Museum offers us a rare firsthand look into the mind of an artist with “Yellow Terror: The Collections and Paintings of Roger Shimomura.” A Seattle native, Shimomura is an internationally acclaimed artist who challenges racial stereotypes through his work in painting, printmaking, installation and performance. He has dedicated his 40-year career as an artist and educator to questioning public perceptions and increasing understanding of what it means to be Asian American. While his paintings and prints are exhibited internationally and collected by major art museums, Shimomura’s personal archive of objects and documents depicting Asian American stereotypes has never been shown.
“Yellow Terror” presents 34 of Shimomura’s paintings alongside hundreds of the artifacts that inspired and informed their creation: a cautionary selection of Asian caricatures in the form of toys, household objects, posters, comics, and souvenirs that were once, and in some cases still are, an everyday part of American life.
The exhibit fills two large galleries on the museum’s ground floor. The west gallery includes the earliest pieces in the collection dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: postcards, greeting cards, and dozens of salt and pepper shakers exemplifying the western view of Asians as exotics. The accompanying paintings juxtapose Asian stereotypes with symbols of western popular culture. Joe Jitsu, a character in the Dick Tracy detective comic of the1960’s was a martial arts master with thick glasses, buck teeth, and slanting eyes. Original comic strips appear alongside Shimomura’s paintings of Joe Jitsu with incongruous cartoon characters and western stereotypes from that period. “Frat Rat” interjects him into an archetypal college fraternity scene, included yet incongruous with his exaggerated features and bright yellow skin.
From World War II onward, Asian stereotypes became more sinister and derogatory. The east gallery houses examples of anti-Japanese propaganda, a collection of masks from the 1930’s to the present, and several of Shimomura’s self-portraits. The “Stereotypes and Admonitions” series of paintings illustrates some of his personal experiences being stereotyped as a Chinese warlord, a martial artist, and a manga comic book character. The “American Portrait” series presents him in three different World War II contexts: as himself being rejected by his childhood comic-book heroes (shown above); as a samurai surrounded by bombs and tourists; and as a demonic caricature of a Japanese soldier.
“I can practically measure my life according to what I was collecting at the time,” Shimomura recalls in the preface to the exhibit catalog. But even as a child, he collected with intention and an eye for relationships. “My earliest collecting memory was saving soda pop bottle caps…Because the bottles came in different flavors and colors. I had to have all of them.”
He collected comic books, but unlike most children, was more absorbed in the drawings than the stories. When he attended graduate school in the late 1960’s, the Pop Art of that period gave a new impetus to his collecting.
“I was suddenly among graduate art students, all of whom collected things which fueled their art making processes. Competition was keen for…anything related to popular culture.” The flat, colorful, graphic style of comic books and references to 20th century cultural icons remain hallmarks of his art.
In 1969, Shimomura took a teaching position at the University of Kansas. A chance meeting with a farmer at an estate sale introduced a new motive to his collecting. The man’s insistence on treating the American-born Shimomura as a foreigner moved him to examine his own relationship with his Japanese heritage. He began collecting ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock) prints and incorporating images from them into his work, creating sometimes jarring, sometimes humorous cultural contradictions. But he has never stooped to propaganda; his highly intellectual work draws on many sources, Japanese and American, modern and historical, to force viewers to question their own attitudes toward those perceived as ‘different.’ Shimomura strives to be subversive rather than judgmental, and collects primarily to serve his art. All of the stereotypical Asians depicted in the paintings in this exhibit are based on images from his collection. “Yellow Terror,” the large painting at the entrance to the gallery is a “where’s Waldo”-like collage of dozens of slant-eyed, buck-toothed caricatures, many drawn from the World War II vintage postcards that fill the adjoining wall.
In the 1990’s, the rise of the Internet and sites like eBay allowed Shimomura to extend the geographic reach of his collection. It now numbers in the thousands, including two distinct categories of Japanese American objects: examples of racial stereotypes, and artifacts from World War II internment camps. These collections are historically significant in their scope and subject matter, aside from their importance as source material for Shimomura’s artistic production. The “Yellow Terror” exhibit includes about 25 percent of the ‘stereotypes’ collection, totaling some 2,000 objects that Shimomura is donating to the Wing Luke Asian Museum. This is a rare opportunity to see an artist’s work in the context of his primary source material. While most Americans have encountered examples of racial stereotyping, Shimomura’s collection gives a sense of the volume and pervasiveness of Asian stereotypes in western culture.
“People today don’t realize the quantity and diversity of images,” says exhibit curator Stacey Uradomo-Barre. “That alone is a learning experience that makes it real for our generation.”
Some viewers may be disturbed by the racially charged images in Shimomura’s paintings. Others may be offended by the hostility inherent in some of the objects in the collection. Uradomo-Barre feels that the bright colors and pop art style of Shimomura’s paintings can disarm viewers, opening them up to his more serious subtexts. An art historian and curator for the Hawaii State Art Museum, she has found that Asian Americans’ experience with and reaction to cultural stereotypes varies widely by generation, region, and national affiliation. With this exhibit, she sought to strike a balance between Shimomura’s collection and his art so that one doesn’t visually overpower the other, allowing the dialogue between objects and paintings to draw the viewer in. Shimomura feels that the need for conversations about race and stereotypes is as urgent as ever.
“Skeptics who wonder about the advisability of bringing these images back, all they need to do is to look at the International Examiner or the North American Post or Asian Reporter or any community newspaper and to pay attention to the number of articles that relate to stereotyping,” said Shimomura. “I hope that the exhibition will challenge the viewers to…become aware of it and speak out against it. Because I think that it’s very real and continues to be very harmful.”