This time, it’s personal. For four decades, Roger Shimomura has made art that exposed and examined the stereotypes and prejudices he’s lived with as a Japanese American. “An American Knockoff: Paintings,” his current show at Greg Kucera Gallery is a series of self-portraits in which he confronts those nemeses in person, head-on.
Shimomura has experienced the hostility of a White-majority America. He spent his earliest years in a World War II concentration camp for Japanese Americans and grew up in Seattle, where anti-Japanese sentiment still ran strong. As a university professor in Kansas, he found himself in an environment where Asian faces were so rare that people refused to believe he was American, despite his U.S. college degrees and military service.
These experiences fueled his work as an artist. He has approached the subject of stereotypes obliquely, as a westerner appropriating imagery from Japanese art. He illustrated the injustices suffered by Japanese Americans as recounted in his grandmother’s diaries. He tweaked the conscience of a post-war generation of Japanese Americans with symbols of assimilation and materialism.
In “American Knockoff,” Shimomura assumes the role of protagonist, battling the demons of stereotype and prejudice, misplaced ideals and mistaken identity.
In Shimomura’s art, Japanese and Jap are distinct ethnicities. Japanese are iconic traditional figures: samurai, geishas, people in kimonos, geta sandals and ornate wigs. Japs are the derogatory caricatures of Japanese and Japanese Americans (many Americans saw no difference) from World War II propaganda: the sinister yellow-skinned, slant-eyed, buck-toothed enemy.
In some of the self-portraits, he assumes these identities, seeing himself as non-Asians may see him. In others, he appears as his contemporary Japanese-American self, doing battle with these stereotypes, sometimes the victor, sometimes the vanquished.
In “American vs. Japs #3” a contemporary Shimomura dispatches the Japs with an appropriately stereotypical karate kick. However as a child, Shimomura internalized those same prejudices.
“When we got back from camp, we played a game called ‘Kill the Jap,’” he recalls, “We always argued over who would be the Jap. You hated to be that Jap ‘cause you’d always lose.”
That memory inspired the painting “Halloween” in which a gang of Caucasian children wear costumes and masks. The group’s hostility is focused on the blond boy in the Jap mask.
Shimomura grew up steeped in American culture. His love of comic books is evident in the colorful, flat, pop art style of his own work; cartoon characters appear in his paintings.
In “American Beats American,” Mickey Mouse in boxing gloves knocks down an adult Shimomura while other Disney characters cheer him on. This painting and another in his earlier “Yellow Terror” series express his feeling of betrayal by his childhood heroes. As an adult, he became aware that “the [American] ideal is less than ideal for people of color. …You have to be a minority to see that.”
In “General Shimomura,” he assumes the identity of that iconic American hero, George Washington, posing the question, “What would it have taken for a Japanese American to be in Washington’s position? How would the course of history be changed?”
Shimomura explains the show’s title: “Since living in Kansas, I have found it to be routine to be asked what part of Japan I am from. … American-born citizens of Asian descent continue to be accepted as only ‘American knockoffs.’ [These] paintings … attempt to ameliorate the outrage of these misconceptions by depicting myself battling those stereotypes or, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, becoming those very same stereotypes.”
These misconceptions motivated his study of Japanese art and his ironic use of Japanese imagery in paintings like “American vs. Japanese #3” in which he literally attacks the stereotypical samurai with their own sword, and “American Imposter” in which he becomes the stereotypical sumo wrestler.
Another common frustration is non-Asians’ inability to distinguish among the different Asian ethnic groups. Shimomura makes fun of this in the “Chinese Imposter” paintings, slyly embedding his image in scenes that parody Chinese political propaganda posters.
Painted this summer in Seattle, “American Lovers” forms a sort of coda to “American Knockoffs.” A group of 21 small paintings all on one wall, they depict Japanese, Japanese Americans and Caucasians paired up in couples of every possible race and gender combination.
Shimomura will soon begin work on a mural for the Hirabayashi Place development at Fifth Avenue South and South Main Street in the Chinatown-International District, to be completed in 2015.
After its current Seattle run, “American Knockoff” will tour west coast museums as an expanded retrospective exhibition with additional new works, plus work from past exhibitions.
“American Knockoff” continues at Greg Kucera Gallery, 212 Third Avenue South in Seattle through Sept. 28. More information at www.gregkucera.com.