Roger Shimomura is a man on a mission. A third-generation Japanese American, he lived through the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and the racist attitudes that persisted in its aftermath. As a renowned artist and honored educator, he has made it his job to tell those stories and change those attitudes. Four decades of work from his continuing crusade are on view at the Tacoma Art Museum in Roger Shimomura: An American Knockoff.
As a very young child, Shimomura spent three years in the Minidoka internment camp, returning to a still-segregated Seattle after the war. At the University of Washington, he took the full four years of ROTC officer training, despite his total lack of interest in the military, to vindicate the sacrifices of his uncles who fought in World War II but were barred from becoming officers. Following his military service and a brief stint as a graphic designer, Shimomura left the Pacific Northwest to earn a Master’s degree in fine art and joined the faculty at the University of Kansas where he taught for 35 years. As an artist, he was influenced by Pop artists like Andy Warhol and the comic books that he loved as a child; developing the colorful, flat, graphic style that characterizes his work.
In Kansas, Shimomura found himself culturally isolated. Hardly a day passed without meeting someone who couldn’t believe that an American face could have Asian features. Shimomura has cited one encounter as pivotal: a farmer at an auction complimented his English and asked where he and his parents were born. Unconvinced by their U.S. birthplaces, the farmer continued to regard him as Japanese and, on hearing that he was an artist, asked if he painted “them gishy girls” in “kimonas.” In a 2013 interview for the Smithsonian Institution, Shimomura said, “I decided that I would go home and do a painting about this. I got a book called the Coloring Book of Japan, and it was about ukiyo-e woodblock prints.”
Three prints from that first series, Oriental Masterprint #2, #3, and #5 (1973–74) parody Japanese woodblock prints: traditional geishas rendered in Shimomura’s signature comic book style. In a quartet of prints from 1987-88, Pop Art icons Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor mingle with geishas, one in a kimono printed with smiley faces.
Shimomura’s exploration of Japanese themes led to a nexus of American history, personal history, and art. His grandmother had kept decades of diaries in Japanese. Around 1980, he began having the diaries translated into English, starting with December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day. “I knew right away that there was going to be a lot of information there that would lead to new work,” he recalled. Over the next 30 years, he produced four major bodies of work: paintings, prints, and performances based on his grandmother’s account of the Internment.
“We knew that we would have to prepare ourselves to talk about the Internment,” said Rock Hushka, Tacoma Art Museum’s Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art. “It’s hard, because of the subject matter. We were not under any illusions that this would be a fun, easy exhibition.” For Japanese immigrants and their American-born children, their incarceration was a source of shame. Shimomura’s generation proved more willing to confront the Internment. Viewing his grandmother’s account through his own lens, he has produced images of great beauty and irony.
The earliest of the Internment paintings continue in the ukiyo-e style. Diary, January 1, 1943 (1983) depicts a New Year’s Day celebration in camp, transformed into a fantasy of stereotypes: women in kimonos serving Japanese food. Minidoka No. 5 (442nd) (1979) appropriates the grid format that newspapers used to display photos of World War II dead, but these casualties from the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Team are portrayed as samurai. Later works are more literal depictions of camp life and the contradictions posed by the Internment. In Classmates (2007), two smiling schoolgirls eat apples, the Japanese girl behind barbed wire, the Caucasian girl outside the fence. A large triptych, American Infamy #5 (2010) is an aerial view of a concentration camp; dark figures of soldiers loom in the foreground, their guns pointed inward at the camp’s occupants. Halloween (2011) is an ironic coda to the Internment: a group of Caucasian children in masks gang up on one of their own in a yellow-faced slant-eyed mask. “When we got back from camp,” Shimomura recalled, “we played a game called ‘Kill the Jap.’ We always argued over who would be the Jap. You hated to be that Jap ‘cause you’d always lose.”
Many of the paintings in An American Knockoff are self-portraits. “Far too many American-born citizens of Asian descent continue to be thought of as only American knockoffs,” Shimomura explains. “This latest series of paintings is an 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.” Many of his opponents and alter egos are the beloved cartoon characters of his youth, cultural symbols he came to question as an adult. He takes on Mickey Mouse and Superman; he becomes Dick Tracy and Goofy. In the Chinese Imposter series, he tweaks non-Asians’ inability to distinguish between Japanese and Chinese. In General Shimomura #2 (2012) he asks, what if the ultimate American hero, George Washington had been Asian? (See Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of Washington in the museum’s Haub Family Gallery of Western Art.)
“Artists teach us, lead the way in many ways, and we trust them to take us to really difficult places. Roger has done that over and over again,“ Hushka says, when asked to reflect on Shimomura’s impact. “He’s been able to leave a body of work … that really speaks of the importance of memory and the importance of not letting something like [the Internment] happen again. He’s left us with this document that points us to a way of treating one another that I think is really important.”
Roger Shimomura: An American Knockoff is at the Tacoma Art Museum through September 13. Exhibition and catalog is produced by the Washington State University Museum of Art. Roger Shimomura will lecture on Sunday, July 19 at 3:00 p.m. as part of TAM’s American Matsuri Free Community Festival. For more information visit www.TacomaArtMuseum.org or call (253) 272-4258.