Roger Shimomura takes racist's points of view to challenge perceptions

Honore Lee

A familiar cast of characters from American popular culture appears in the paintings of Roger Shimomura, inviting a backward look at Warner Brothers’ cartoons, Disney movies and Dell comics.

But this walk down memory lane soon becomes strange as nostalgia recedes and viewers are confronted with their reaction to the visual language of racism.

Don Desmett, director of exhibitions at the Richmond Center for Visual Arts at Western Michigan University, said, “Roger uses humor to get us to look. You find that you’re laughing before you know what you’re looking at.”

The Richmond Center hosts “Yellow Terror: The Collections and Paintings of Roger Shimomura” from Thursday through Nov. 24. The exhibition was organized by the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle.

Born in Seattle in 1939, Shimomura and his family, along with many West Coast Asian Americans, were forced into internment camps during WWII. Shimomura was 3 years old when interned, along with his parents and grandmother, in a camp in Minidoka, Idaho, while his uncle served in combat with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the United States Army — a unit comprised mostly of Japanese Americans.

Shimomura’s grandmother, Toku, an “Issei”, or first-generation Japanese immigrant, kept detailed diaries spanning 56 years of her life, including the years at Minidoka. Her diaries have been a source of inspiration for Shimomura’s work.

Feminist art critic and author, Lucy Lippard said during a recent visit to Kalamazoo that, “not a lot of men do autobiographical work. While he doesn’t exactly wear his heart on his sleeve, his work is emotional.”

In her book, “Mixed Blessings: New Art in A Multicultural America” she said Shimomura is “bitterly aware of statements made by whites about Japanese-Americans during this period — such as those by the governor of Wyoming, who said that if Japanese Americans were not interned, there ‘would be a Jap hanging from every pine tree,’ and by Idaho’s attorney general: ‘We want to keep this a white man’s country.’”

After the war, the Shimomura family returned to Seattle, where he completed his education. Later, he joined the faculty at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. His continued experience of life as an Asian-American in Kansas also informs the content of his work in regard to culture, discrimination and ethnic stereotypes.

Shimomura’s acrylic paintings employ the hard-edged technique of Pop Art and combine, as Lippard writes:  “Pop Art and ukiyo-e prints.  His strategy is to depict bicultural imagery in a purely ‘American’ style.”

“The images that Shimomura portrays in his work are, in part, inspired by the historic conceptualization of Asians as the yellow peril,” Desmett said. “The exhibition title ‘Yellow Terror’ draws up on the history and associations related to this term, used to describe the perceived menace and threat of the hordes from the East to the Christian morals, values, way of life and to the social order of the West.”

Shimomura uses the technique of painting racist incidents from a racist’s point of view, such as in the painting Frat Rats. Regina Hackett of the blog Artsjournal writes that in the work, white boys from the world of “Archie” comics appear dapper and the white women comely, while in the foreground, a buck-toothed and spectacled Asian male poses for the camera.

“His yellow hand wraps the slender ankle of an all-American girl. Anyone looking at his paintings is seeing through the eyes of a white person who fears and loathes all others,” Hackett writes.

This Asian male appears throughout Shimomura’s paintings and represents the artist as if drawn as a caricature for propaganda purposes.

In Yellow Terror, he appears in the center, mimicking Asian caricatures while at the same time nearly drowning in the claustrophobic crowd of them. Like African American painter, Kara Walker, Shimomura uses racist stereotypes in his work in order to defuse them.

Different Citizens shows us two views side-by-side: the caricature and the man as rendered in a realistic manner, straight-on and looking at us. He seemingly poses the question: “Who do you see when you look at me?”

Propaganda is integral to Shimomura’s work, which is juxtaposed with a selection of items from his collection of Asian stereotype memorabilia from WWII (much of which he has donated to the Wing Luke Museum),” said Stacey Uradomo-Barre, who curated “Yellow Terror” for the Wing Luke Museum.

The signs and symbols of racism include “Slap a Jap cards,” Jap-hunting licenses, Jap comics, dart boards and grotesquely racist masks. A set of salt and pepper shakers seem more benign and bland, yet, “You’re taking these images of stereotypes of Asian people and then integrating them into your daily routine, so you don’t even think about it anymore,” Uradomo-Barre said.

Shimomura believes that the need for conversations about race and stereotypes is as urgent as ever. In a 2009 interview with the Missoula Art Museum in Montana, he said,  “Skeptics who wonder about the advisability of bringing these images back, all they need to do is look at . . . any community newspaper and to pay attention to the number of articles that relate to stereotyping.  I hope that the exhibition will challenge the viewers to become aware of it and to speak out against it.”