Roger Shimomura: An American Knockoff

The Scene: Kansas City

Monday, February 27, 2012 - 06:00 AM

From the KCUR's Arts & Culture desk, a service of Kansas City Public Media

Seventy years ago, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This action, just a few months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, forced an estimated 120,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps.

Kansas-based artist Roger Shimomura was one of them. A young child at the time, the memories of barbed wire and guard towers have influenced his artwork ever since.

Shimomura's paintings are featured as part of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery exhibition Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter (in Washington DC through October 14).  Roger Shimomura: An American Knockoff, a solo show, is on view online via Kansas City's Byron Cohen Gallery through the end of this month.

It's an early afternoon in January. Roger Shimomura, with spiky white hair, a goatee, and round glasses stands near a long table at Lawrence Lithography Workshop on Kansas City’s east side. Spread out before him on creamy sheets of paper are two brightly colored prints. "The two prints that (master printer) Mike Sims has just completed, one is of me, my face as Superman. Another print (is) of myself in a Kimono," he says. For decades, in his prints, paintings, and performances, Roger Shimomura has explored Asian-American stereotypes and issues of ethnic identity with pop culture in the mix.

Shimomura's grandparents were from Japan, but he was born in Seattle, Wash. When he was a toddler, he and his family were sent to Camp Minidoka, an internment camp in Idaho. It was one of ten camps where Japanese Americans were relocated during World War II. "It was 1998, I think, when my New York dealer asked everyone in her gallery to try to recall their first 10 memories of life," says Shimomura. "And mine were all in the camp."

Images in his work are also drawn from family photos and his grandmother Toku Shimomura’s diary. She kept a daily record for nearly six decades, including the years in the camp.

October 16, 1942:

"How monotonous life is here. Again, another day passed wastefully doing laundry and miscellaneous things. 

I wondered how anyone in this camp could live here without a deep sense of boredom."

This was a shared history that was not discussed. Shimomura says an entire generation, like his parents, second-generation Japanese Americans known as the Nisei  二世, probably suffered the most. "They were the ones who really took the brunt of the trauma," he says. "For years and years, they collectively never spoke about it."

After graduate school in Syracuse, N.Y., Shimomura moved to Lawrence in 1969 to teach at the University of Kansas. "I’ve always said that had I not come to Kansas my artwork would probably be something entirely different than what it turned out to be," he says. Shimomura recalls he was one of only a handful of Asian-Americans on the KU campus then. He was often asked, as he still is sometimes today, how he speaks English as well as he does. "They're looking, but they're not listening. And they see an Asian face, and there's something about an Asian face that always reads as foreign," says Shimomura. "And it was in really some ways a matter of survival that I ended up doing the kind of art that I was doing, to sort of mediate my ethnic presence in the Midwest."

United States Artists recently awarded Roger Shimomura a $50,000 USA Ford Fellowship; it honors artists for a lifetime of work. And three separate exhibitions of Shimomura's work are traveling the United States right now. His series An American Knockoff includes self-portraits, like “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware.” He says he’s learned the importance of humor. "You could laugh at every one of these paintings, and there’s an element of humor and lightheartedness," says Shimomura. "I think that if you’re a thinking person and take a half step in my direction, there’s also a lot of pain and agony embedded in the work."

Every summer, Shimomura drives from Lawrence, Kansas to Seattle, Washington. He tries to time the trip with the annual Minidoka Pilgrimage, when other camp internees return with their families. He says more stories are being told. To hear the older generation speak vividly — after years of saying nothing — is something he looks forward to each year.

 

Slideshow: Roger Shimomura

Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942, paved for the way for the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. Signs, like this one in San Jose, were
Courtesy of History San Jose Research Library

Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in February 1942, paved for the way for the relocation of Japanese Americans to internment camps. Signs, like this one in San Jose, were posted along the West Coast.

Winter time panorama view, Minidoka Relocation Camp, December 9, 1942.
Francis Stewart, courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries/Special Collections Division

Winter time panorama view, Minidoka Relocation Camp, December 9, 1942. 

Roger Shimomura and his grandmother, Toku Shimomura. A Japanese immigrant, she kept a diary for 56 years; the entries provided inspiration for some of Shimomura's artwork.
Courtesy of the artist

Roger Shimomura and his grandmother, Toku Shimomura. A Japanese immigrant, she kept a diary for 56 years; the entries provided inspiration for some of Shimomura's artwork.

Courtesy of Greg Kucera Gallery, Inc.

"Exploration" (2010), part of the Mindoka Snapshots. Shimomura says the prints attempt "to capture some essential visual features of the interior camp environment."

Roger Shimomura as a toddler with his mother and father.
Courtesy of the artist

Roger Shimomura as a toddler with his mother and father.

Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum

"Diary: December 12, 1941," 1980, Roger Shimomura.

Shimomura moved to Lawrence in 1969 to teach at the University of Kansas. Here, he is pictured with colleague Michael Ott in a calendar included in a 1971 exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art ...
Courtesy of Spencer Museum of Art

Shimomura moved to Lawrence in 1969 to teach at the University of Kansas. Here, he is pictured with colleague Michael Ott in a calendar included in a 1971 exhibition at the Spencer Museum of Art poking fun of the Midwest.

Courtesy of Lawrence Lithography Workshop

"Kansas Samurai," 2004. This print was released the same year Shimomura retired from teaching at the University of Kansas after more than 35 years.

Shimomura with two new prints at Lawrence Lithography Studio in Kansas City, Missouri.
Laura Spencer/KCUR

Shimomura with two new prints at Lawrence Lithography Studio in Kansas City, Missouri.

Lawrence Lithography Studio.
Laura Spencer/KCUR

Lawrence Lithography Studio.

Shimomura stands next to his color lithograph,
Laura Spencer/KCUR

Shimomura stands next to his color lithograph, "American Guardian," 2008, at Lawrence Lithography Workshop.

Courtesy of the artist

"Shimomura Crossing the Delaware," 2011. The painting is part of Shimomura's series American Knockoffs.

Courtesy Greg Kucera Gallery, Inc.

"May 16, 1942, 1997," from the series An American Diary.
Diary translation, Camp Harmony: "Fine weather today, although it showered in the evening. In the afternoon Kazuo carried Roger in. I was able to enjoy him for only for a few minutes. Today the process of accommodating the 8,000 Japanese from the Seattle area finished. The camp became very lively."

Shimomura says of the series,
Courtesy of Byron Cohen Gallery

Shimomura says of the series, "Far too many American-born citizens of Asian descent continue to be thought of as only 'American knockoffs.'" "American vs. American," 2010, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54 in.

According to Flomenhaft Gallery, the work
Courtesy of Byron Cohen Gallery

 

According to Flomenhaft Gallery, the work "represents the conundrum in Shimomura's life...It shows him acting the part of a Japanese American, making a distinction between himself and the Japanese enemy during WWII."

According to Flomenhaft Gallery, the work "represents the conundrum in Shimomura's life...It shows him acting the part of a Japanese American, making a distinction between himself and the Japanese enemy during WWII." "American vs. Japanese," 2010, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54 in.

 

Courtesy of Byron Cohen Gallery

 

The works reference pop art, including cartoon images like Mickey Mouse. 

The works reference pop art, including cartoon images like Mickey Mouse. "American Mouse," 2011, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24 in.

 

Courtesy of Byron Cohen Gallery

The title of the "American Knockoff" series refers to Shimomura's experience as a third generation American, who's often asked what part of Japan he's from. "Chinese Imposter and Mao," 2011, acrylic on canvas, 34 x 34 in.

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Comments [1]

Dana Cox from Ballard, Seattle, WA

Roger's work immediately spoke to me when i started looking at images online in preparation for seeing a show at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle a couple years ago. It brought back memories of my childhood in Eastern Washington interacting with neighbors who had, unbeknownst to my sheltered white 10 year old self, been living 20 years prior in a prison camp in the next state.

I bought one of his paintings of a young woman smiling for a portrait in front of barbed wire who looks only just slightly different from my black haired Norwegian-German-American mother's 1944 high school portrait.

For me Roger's work points out absurdities and mundanities of our similarity.

d cox

Mar. 04 2012 11:57 PM

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