Albuquerque/Journal North - On His Mind

Kate McGraw

    Internationally known painter, teacher and performance artist Roger Shimomura will open a new show of his latest works depicting memories of the internment camps holding Japanese and Japanese-American families and individuals on Friday, March 6, at Eight Modern gallery.
    On Thursday, March 5, Shimomura will give an artist’s lecture called “An American Diary” at the Institute of American Indian Arts.  The talk will include a slide show of paintings, prints and experimental theater pieces that span the artist’s 40-year career.  “His work has a lot in common with some contemporary Native artists because of shared experiences with racism and ignorance toward the two groups—but at different times and for different reasons,” IAIA spokeswomen Staci Golar told the Journal.  The artist’s visit is being sponsored by the New Mexico Humanities Council, Santa Fe JIN, IAIA, and Eight Modern.
    Shimomura’s clean, flat style, drawn from American comic books and Japanese ukiyoe, draws viewers in with its pop art appeal, but it also confronts them with bold, pointed tableaux of a controversial chapter in American history. 
    “Minidoka on My Mind” is Shimomura’s fourth series of paintings about the interment experiences of the 120,000 American citizens and residents of Japanese descent who were taken from their homes and communities and held in hastily constructed cramps under military guard after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  The city of Santa Fe was itself home to Department of Justice camp, located in what is now the Casa Solana neighborhood, which detained men including Buddhist ministers, Japanese language instructors, newspaper workers and other community leaders.   Santa Fe also is home to veterans of the Bataan Death March and subsequent brutality in Japanese prisoner of war camps.  Both groups have had to confront sorrowful memories and recognition of the damage done by was and hatred.
Impressions of waiting

    Shimomura was 2 years old when his family was interned in 1942 and 5 when they were permitted to leave.  His depiction of life in the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho relies on his young memories, his grandmother’s diaries and a lifetime of study and observation.  His work is simultaneously autobiographical and universal.  “(The) images are scraped from the linings of my mind,” the artist has written.  “Not necessarily what I remembered specifically, but what I respond with when I think of Camp Minidoka.
    …The result of (my) search has been a visual distillation of tar-papered barracks, barbed wire and desolate landscapes, which are inhabited by muted occupants standing in line to eat and to clean, quietly interacting, contemplating their fate and to wait.  They appear almost as actors placed within stage sets sentenced to live in eternal ennui.”
    In “Custom Homes,” for instance, Shimomura presents five paintings of mass-produced barracks, each identical except for attempts to make them a home: a different set of curtains of different door covering.  In “Shadow of the Enemy 2, “he paints the shadow of a young child and a dog against the tar-paper wall of a barrack.  In “The Lineup,” he shows a broad swath of camp life by depicting older men, children and even a Japanese-American soldier waiting in line to use the restroom.  One escape from the internment camp was to join a Japanese-American Army unit.  Shimomura said Minidoka suffered more casualties from captive’s turned-soldiers in World War II than any other internment camp. 

Always confronting

    Throughout his career, Shimomura has sought not only to remind viewers of past racism but also to address contemporary prejudice or ignorance.  Many of his paintings and theater pieces have Shimomura’s real-life experiences behind them.  Remembering the once-ubiquitous American slang term “Jap” –used widely to describe anyone who was Japanese, especially during World War II—he took exception to the modern proliferation of the term “JAP,” short for Jewish- American Princess. After being asked by a young woman if he knew what a JAP was, he attended a seminar about how the term JAP was offensive to Jewish women.
--yet no mention was made of the same-sounding anti-Japanese slur.  Shimomura responded with a performance piece entitled KIKE, a word he said stood for “kinky, immature, kimono empress.”
    Shimomura received a bachelor’s degree in commercial design from the University of Washington and his master’s of fine arts in painting from Syracuse University.  He has had more than 125 solo exhibitions, including “An American Diary,” a national show of his paintings that traveled to 12 museums.  The Smithsonian Institution is one the artist’s foremost collectors: his art is in the permanent collection of the Institution’s National Museum of American History, National Building Museum and American Art Museum.  Additionally his papers and letters are being collected by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. 
    Shimomura retired from teachings in 2004 after 35 years at the University of Kansas, which awarded him 17 general research grants and made him the first Fine Arts faculty member to be recognized as a University Distinguished Professor.  The artist has received more than 30 grants, including four from the National Endowment for the Arts, and has been exhibited at dozens of American Universities.  His work is in the permanent collection of many museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Denver Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art.