on Japanese art he was sure would be of interest to Shimomura. The incident led Shimomura to reexamine the relationship between his American identity and his Japanese heritage. The result was Oriental Masterpiece, the first in a series of many paintings and performance pieces that derive from Shimomura's ironic mix, or "layering," of Japanese imagery and American popular culture.
As Shimomura describes it, earlier "paintings and serigraphs . . . were directly inspired from all the toy stuff I was collecting. . . . They were large acrylic paintings that contained such things as Buck Rogers' space ship, the Big Bad Wolf, Dick Tracy, Minnie Mouse, et al. . . . At that point . . . I realized that the only difference between Minnie Mouse and one of Utamaro's beauties was race."2
In speaking of the shift in focus away from American Pop icons towards Japanese-inspired imagery, he says, "I didn't realize the gravity of that shift. It was a reintroduction to my own background."
Having survived and largely repressed the trauma of his family's internment during World War II and a childhood spent in the racially insensitive environment characteristic of the United States in the 1950s, Shimomura had learned to minimize his differences with mainstream white America. The "Oriental Masterpiece" series marked the beginning of the process that allowed Shimomura to reclaim the Japanese part of his heritage and to reconcile it with his upbringing and orientation as an American.
Shimomura's discovery of a rich collection of family documents and memorabilia after the death of his grandparents inspired the artist to examine their lives as immigrants to the United States and, most importantly, the part of their lives he shared most intimately with them -- the internment years at Camp Minidoka in Idaho's Snake River Valley.
Shimomura's discovery of a rich collection of family documents and memorabilia. . .
inspired the artist to examine. . .
the internment years at Camp Minidoka in Idaho's Snake River Valley.
In keeping with mid-century American attitudes, Shimomura did not pursue formal training in the language or culture of his forebears. When he began to examine his grandmother's extensive series of diaries -- there were more than fifty years of diaries beginning with her arrival from Japan in 1912 and continuing until her death in 1968 -- he required the services of a translator. The diaries from the war years proved to be especially evocative, reviving early memories for Mrs. Shimomura's grandson and inspiring in him both the desire to commemorate this reprehensible episode in our nation's history and to share its lessons with a new generation of Americans.
Between 1980 and 1983, Shimomura completed twenty-five paintings in the "Diary" series, each paired with a specific excerpt. Uniform in size and style, these paintings constitute a powerful collection of formally and emotionally compelling images.
The diaries from the war years proved to be especially evocative. . .
inspiring in him both the desire to commemorate this reprehensible episode in our nation's history and to share its lessons with a new generation of Americans.
The painting entitled Diary: December 12, 1941, based on an entry dated five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, is especially effective in suggesting the psychological dynamics of guilt, fear, and resignation involved in the Japanese-American dilemma created by that event.6 His grandmother's words express only sadness and gratitude towards the American authorities who have permitted members of the Japanese community to withdraw $100 in savings to sustain them during this period of uncertainty.
Shimomura uses the Japanese word giri, which means "hold it in and endure," to describe their way of coping.
Judged in purely formal terms, Shimomura has devised a lively composition of crisp, colorful forms functioning in a complex framework of angles and grids. The painting's attractiveness belies its serious content, which has the effect of sending a more palatable but no less disturbing message. In the 1985 catalogue for an exhibition of the "Diary" series, the author commented on their seemingly contradictory character, noting that the "dichotomy between craft and subject" is probably "appropriate, like memory brought back into focus."8
The "dichotomy between craft and subject" is probably "appropriate, like memory brought back into focus."
The late 1980s and 1990s have seen Shimomura apply his creative energies to experimental media such as performance art and installations, as well as to painting and printmaking. He has found the performance medium particularly suited to presentation of the documentary material concerning his family's history and all its political and social implications.
The Last Sansei Story (1993) is his most elaborate and fully realized theatrical piece to date. Utilizing actors, audio and video tapes, slides, and family oral history, as well as the diaries, he has organized the presentation into three parts corresponding to the three generations of his Japanese-American family: Issei, Nisei, and Sansei. A powerful mix of visual, aural, and live theater, it dramatizes the real-life story of the Shimomuras while touching on the universal themes of family pride, perseverance, and survival, and the difficulty of negotiating a path between racial stereotypes and a heritage-denying form of assimilation.
Such a project does not come easily. . .
because I still consider myself primarily a painter who has an adjunctive interest in performance art.
Shimomura has also expanded his repertoire to include site-specific installations. Perhaps the most spectacular to date has been Yellow Potluck (1994), created for a storefront space near New York's Times Square; it was part of the 42nd Street Artists' Project that featured an entire neighborhood of installations along this urban thoroughfare. Irony and comedy based on the complex juxtaposition of cultures in America and the resulting confusions and reversals provide the background for Shimomura's provocative piece. During the months the installation was on view, he used the space as the setting for another performance work entitled Yellow No Same.
An installation featured in his 1996-97 traveling retrospective exhibition, organized by the Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas, focuses on the by now familiar theme of the three generations of his Japanese-American family. It presents a series of triptych "walls" -- Issei, Nisei, Sansei -- "partially physical, partially illusionary, each serving as either an internal or external wall with clear references to that particular generation."11
These works represent Shimomura's response to the. . .
feared Japanization of America -- in other words, the yellow peril.
In a series of paintings exhibited in the early 1990s, titled "The Return of the Yellow Peril," Shimomura presented a group of full-length portraits of Kansas friends and acquaintances. These works represent Shimomura's response to the xenophobic outcries in the popular press denouncing the influx of Japanese products and investment, the feared Japanization of America -- in other words, the yellow peril.
The poses, props, and costumes Shimomura incorporated into these portraits cleverly mimic Japanese art while also functioning as clues to the identity and interests of his non-Japanese sitters. The Beat generation author William Burroughs is depicted in a samurai outfit with a variety of firearms, as befits this celebrity known for his extensive gun collection. Shimomura's friend of Iranian background, Farah Esrafily, appears in a Japanese version of a chador surrounded by her beloved fishing gear. "All of the people I know personally," he said, "and I try to link them up in some way to a multicultural connection."12
Most recently, Shimomura has again enlisted humor as the disarming factor in a group of paintings he calls "Great American Neighbors." Several of these works have been selected for "Kaleidoscope."
Beneath the humor, Shimomura's paintings allude to the serious issues of racism, assimilation, and the complex interface of cultures involved in being an American of non-European descent.
But beneath the humor, Shimomura's paintings allude to the serious issues of racism, assimilation, and the complex interface of cultures involved in being an American of non-European descent. The Princess Next Door and Beacon Hill Boy together make a poignant statement about acceptance and marginality.
Shimomura exhorts us to move beyond the barriers into a more promising, if no less confusing, space where cultures cross and we are all the better for it.
Jacquelyn Days Serwer
2. Shimomura, quoted in Joshua Kind, Roger Shimomura: Diary Series (De Kalb: Northern Illinois State University, 1983), 5.
3. Shimomura, quoted in Deloris Tarzan Ament, "Roger Shimomura's art speaks of painful history of racism," Seattle Times, 9 July 1992, C4.
4. See Memories of Childhood (New York: Steinbaum Krauss Gallery, 1994), 40-41.
5. Kind, Diary Series, 4.
6. The diary excerpt reads as follows: "I spent all day at home. Starting from today we were permitted to withdraw $100 from the bank. This was for our sustenance of life, we who are enemy to them. I deeply felt America's large-heartedness in dealing with us."
7. Artist's statement for Intermediary Arts/McKnight Interdisciplinary Fellowships, 1995.
8. Kind, "Introduction," Diary Series, 2.
9. Ibid., 4.
10. "Introduction," The Last Sansei Story (performance script).
11. Arts/McKnight artist's statement.
12. Shimomura, quoted in Richard LeCompte, "Arts: Lawrence in Kimonos, A Multicultural Portrait Series," Lawrence Journal World, 5 May 1991, 10.