Treasures from the Vault: Roger Shimomura

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

I wanted to write about Roger Shimomura because I have always felt a deeply personal connection with him.  Shimomura was born in 1939 in Seattle and, like me, is a third-generation Japanese American.  His childhood was impacted, along with 110,000 other west coast Japanese American residents, when they were uprooted from their homes and relocated to internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  In 1942, at age three, Shimomura and his family were sent to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. 

Similar to many first and second-generation internees, Shimomura’s parents were encouraged to assimilate after the war and didn’t openly reflect upon their time in the internment camps.  I can attest to this because my mother was interned at Jerome in Arkansas as a teenager.  She would vaguely refer to her time there as “camp.”  As a young child, it was easy to misunderstand and think she was talking about summer camp.  There are two Japanese phrases used to help describe the mindset of adult internees during this time period: gaman, or perseverance, and shikita ga nai, meaning “it cannot be helped.”    

The 1970s brought more open discussions, pressure for redress, and a formal apology from the government in 1988.  Recently, actor George Takei brought the complexity of the Japanese-American experience during WWII to a wider audience in the Broadway musical Allegiance, inspired by Takei’s time at Rohwer in Arkansas.  In the same way, Shimomura has gradually delved into this part of history in his art.  Since he was a young child of the camps he was unable to draw from personal memories.  Instead, he turned to his grandmother’s diaries to, at first, create narrations for his performances art pieces and later for his paintings. 

Shimomura's style is comic book-like. In the foreground is half of an Asian man's head, his hands up on top of his head. Right above him a sword descends, as if his hands are blocking the blow. Behind him is an Asian woman in traditional dress and a white woman with yellow hair. In the very back, Donald Duck offers the woman a white pill as a bullet or rocket goes off behind him.
Roger Shimomura, American, b. 1939. Kabuki Play. Lithograph, 1985. Museum purchase with funds provided by the American Art Initiative Capital Campaign, 201340. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Shimomura’s bright, flat areas of color, strong black outlines, and images sourced from the mass media all point to his childhood love of comics and his admiration for Andy Warhol.  Pop art and 18th-19th century Japanese woodblock prints—the popular art of its time—share stylistic similarities in their clarity in graphic design.  Kabuki Play (1985) is an early example in which Shimomura embraced this similarity as a means to refer to the duality of his Japanese and American background.  This mash-up of cultural references include Cinderella, Donald Duck, a Japanese woman in a kimono, and a Japanese man disguised by a Superman mask.  At first the composition appears chaotic and lighthearted.  At closer inspection, however, a Japanese fighter plane flies in the background and Donald Duck holds a pearl, probably a reference to Pearl Harbor.  

A samurai holds a sword in his hand. Behind him are gestural figures, Donald Duck, and Goofy.
Roger Shimomura, American, b. 1939. Kansas Samurai. Lithograph, 2014. Museum purchase with funds provided by the American Art Initiative Capital Campaign, 2013.37. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Although completed upon his retirement from teaching at University of Kansas in 2004, Kansas Samurai looks back to when Shimomura first moved to the Midwest in 1969.  Shimomura’s figure recalls Kabuki actor prints by Natori Shunsen.  He even simulated a wood grain in the blue background to reinforce the connection with ukiyo-e prints.  The round eyeglasses and goatee seem to resemble Shimomura, himself.  The artist has turned his back—literally and metaphorically—to a cast of characters, including Dick Tracy, Dagwood, Pluto, and Superman, who were likely mainstays in his earlier art. 

Shimomura began to increasingly make more overt references to racial stereotypes and the Japanese-American internment.  In a lithograph from Minidoka Snapshots, a silhouetted young girl jumps rope, yet the piece is ironically called The Enemy.  The vertical lines of the tar paper barracks, resembling prison bars, reminds us that she lives in a camp. 

The silhouette of a girl jumps rope in front of a fence with a window in it, meant to show a Japanese internment camp.
Roger Shimomura, American, b. 1939. The Enemy, from the series Minidoka Snapshots. Lithograph, 2010. Museum purchase with funds provided by the American Art Initiative Capital Campaign, 2013.38.2. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In the related painting, The Shadow of the Enemy, a shadowy, young girl is also at play and her hair is pulled back in two pigtails that flip up like horns—perhaps like a demon.  In kage-e, Japanese shadow prints, two woodblock prints use the same composition.  One simply shows an ambiguous form in silhouette, sometimes suggesting something unfamiliar and menacing, like a demon in disguise.  The second print reveals its true identity.  Japanese Americans, even children, were viewed as enemies of the State brought on by fear and racial prejudice. 

The year 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 authorizing the incarceration of Japanese Americans.  Shimomura’s work is a reminder for us not to forget the past, but also encourages us to carefully consider our response to perceived threats to this country in the present and future.

Interested to see what other prints FWMoA has in their collection? Come talk to Sachi in the Print & Drawing Study Center Tuesday-Friday 11am-4pm or by appointment.

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