Most of us can’t retrieve memories of events that occurred before the age of 3, and many of us don’t remember much before the age of 5. Psychologists cal this “infantile or childhood amnesia,” and whatever the cause (there are several theories); it is part of human experience that we retain few, if any memories of our first years of life.
Memory is a malleable, changeable mechanism even for the sharpest adult minds. It can be very difficult to distinguish the knowledge of an event from the memory of an event, especially if we repeatedly exchange stories about what happened. The ways in which we remember, and how we transform the stories in that remembering, can tell us as much about who we are.
Roger Shimomura was 2 years old when his family entered an Idaho internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II and 5 when his family was released and they returned to their home town of Seattle.
When Shimomura reached adulthood, his grandmother’s diaries (which she recorded over 50 years), along with his own memories and those shared by his family, became the subject matter for his prints and paintings. For Shimomura, these sources created a complex and personal story of one of America’s worst moments of cultural bigotry, a painful reality that he has spent much of his life sorting out.
A recent series of Shimomura’s prints and paintings about “Minidoka on My Mind,” opens tonight at Eight Modern in Santa Fe. Influenced by Japanese and Chinese art, ukiyo-e, and comic, Shimomura’s scenes of interment camp life are simplified and flat. Space is layered from the bottom of the frame to the top with the main subject in the foreground.
In “American Infamy #3,” two American soldiers look over rows of barracks from a high lookout. They are so high up, in fact, that the super flat clouds floating by are in front and behind them. They are literally “in the clouds.” Below, Japanese-American families gather, children play, conversations take place. The dusty ground is the same color in the foregrounds and the same color in the background, the sky is an eerie orange, and the barracks are cookie-cutter buildings lacking tenderness or decoration.
Shimomura uses the low-brow form of the comic to articulate the serious and somber troths of internment life, creating a “comic inversion.” This is a brilliant choice because it catches the viewer off guard. The form of the comic suggests, in contemporary mind terms, entertainment and fiction. But Shimomura’s images are neither.
Shimomura is not the first contemporary mind to employ this “comic inversion” in his work. Art Spiegelman created MAUS, a series of comic strips about the horrors of Nazi Germany that was first published in the journal RAW between 1980 and 1991, and published in volume form in 1986 and 1991. However, in MAUS, Spiegelman employs symbolic stereotypes (the Nazis are cats, the Poles are Pigs, and Jews are mice), and the images are supported by narrative text, charts and maps.
Shimomura offers the viewer comic images devoid of language of commentary. But the messages are clear, in “Business Man,” a Japanese man in swank striped pants and crisp white business shirt fills the entire vertical of the frame. He looks extremely successful and knowledgeable. However, his legs (his mechanism for movement) are visually pinned by two by two barracks in the background. Similarly, in “Lush Life,” two gorgeous Japanese-American women in stylish suits and look at the viewer; between them we see the barracks. As in “Business Man,” they seem to be challenging us challenging our notions of who they are and what they are worth.
Works like these are strong, but the messages are one-liners. Once you get the message there isn’t much else to absorb. Other works in this series are denser. “Desert Garden #4,” adopts the flat, nature-based patterns of Japanese decorative objects, but there is compelling formal and conceptual twist. On the left of the canvas, a butterfly lands on a flower. On the tight, we are confronted with flat planes of color that are up against the picture plane of the canvas. We are looking at the stark, hard edge of the barracks building, next to which life blooms (albeit behind barbed wire). This work is literal (a scene like this is possible) and symbolic (it suggests the ultimate survival of both life and culture).
The truth is that we all oversimplify the true nature of American nationalism, internationalism, international politics and bigotry. It’s easy to flatten everything out into digestible bites of history. Shimomura reminds us that this is what we do-reduce it all into simplified shorthand devoid of intimacy of deep understanding. This is important work to see and think about, especially now, when the realities of Guantanamo have been revealed, and it had been made clear that, as Americans, we have perpetual “infantile amnesia” about how brutal and heartless we can be.