By REHAN DADI
Visual artist Roger Shimomura’s latest exhibition of paintings at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Minidoka On My Mind, is deeply inspired by the artist’s traumatic upbringing. Soon after he was born in 1939, Shimomura’s family was forcibly moved to the Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho. This was one of the 10 internment camps where the U.S. government housed Japanese-American citizens during World War II. The exhibit, which coincides with the New Student Reading project and the campus and community reading of Julie Otsuka’s novel, When the Emperor was Divine, seeks to expose the terrible living conditions and the degrading and lasting effects of Shimomura’s family’s imprisonment. The exhibit also pays homage to the extraordinary resilience of the Japanese-American community as they faced intolerance and hatred during this time period.
The visual language of Shimomura’s works is drawn from a combination of Japanese woodcuts and pop art, as well as American graphic cartoons. The majority of work shown at the Johnson was painted using acrylic paints on a canvas background. Shimomura includes commonly recurring motifs of dark barracks and barbed wire in the paintings, and the series evokes a strong protest against racism, fear and xenophobia.
Over the course of World War II, hysteria led to the imprisonment of 120,000 innocent Japanese-Americans; the House Un-American Activities Committee in their “Report on Japanese Activities” described Japanese-Americans in 1942 as possible instruments in the forthcoming attack on the United States. The darkness of this event in American history is reflected in the stark and powerful imagery of Shimomura’s works.
American Infamy #5 (2011) depicts an aerial view of the camp from the perspective of U.S. soldiers in the guard towers. There were 10 concentration camps bordered with barbed wire — some of the camps even had electrified fences. Guard towers were strategically placed along the fences, which were constantly monitored and manned by soldiers. The title is a reference to the outrage expressed by former President Franklin D. Roosevelt when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The painting incorporates several elements of the traditional Japanese folding screen, or byobu, including the division of the painting into panels, the top-down view of daily activities and the superimposed dark clouds. These elements create a sense of unity across the picture lane and add a haunting, near-cartoonish effect to Shimomura’s imagery.
Another of his works, Furlough (2007), symbolizes one of the camp’s central ironies: Japanese-Americans were viewed with suspicion while simultaneously being considered indispensable for the U.S. war effort. The U.S. army began enlisting Japanese men into a special regiment of the 442 Combat Team, where many were deployed to Europe and the Pacific. Over 14,000 Japanese-Americans served, and of this group, almost 4,500 were killed or wounded. The painting contrasts very cheerful, light colors in the fashionable clothing worn by the dancers with the dark and ominous background of the barracks to show that even this festive occasion is marred by the humiliation of imprisonment. Furlough depicts the painful reality of the loyal Japanese-American soldier and his wife who are forced to celebrate his furlough behind barbed wire as enemy aliens.
In Classmates (2007), a barbed wire fence separates two “all-American” girls. The girls sport similar flowery dresses, hair styles, lipstick, and apples, and each one is but one is blonde, while the other, a Japanese-American girl, is behind the wire. Shadow of the Enemy (2007) explores a similar motif. It shows the silhouette of a pigtailed girl jumping rope, an image of a happy American child — save for the fact that she is playing outside the barracks of a concentration camp and is represented as only a shadow, the pigtails darkly reminiscent of horns. The work clearly and poignantly symbolizes the ethnic and racial tension of the time, along with the unsubstantiated fear that caused this innocent girl to be labeled an enemy of the state. In traditional Japanese prints, shadows were used as allegories to reveal the true nature of disguised or hidden demons, and this painting clearly refers to this historical motif.
Block Dance Break #1 (2006) depicts one of the many dances that took place inside Minidoka’s barracks, usually before enlisted men were sent to the front. These special occasions were intended to bring a sense of normalcy to the barracks, despite the harsh reality of inescapable incarceration. In this painting, a colorfully dressed woman stands in stark relief to the dreary background as she waits in line for the latrine that has no running water.
Many of Shimomura’s works are autobiographical, such as Enemy Alien #2 (2006), which portrays the lasting psychological effects of incarceration in the internment camps. The artist paints himself as an old man inside one of the barracks while the shadow of himself as a boy leans against the outside wall, wearing a baseball cap and leaning on a bat. This juxtaposition suggests that incarceration robbed him of his youth and childhood.
Of the 120,000 “Japanese” were imprisoned in the camps — over two-thirds of them were American citizens. Shimomura, along with his parents and relatives, were imprisoned for more than three years before they were allowed to return to their home in Seattle. Many of the artist’s first memories were of life in the camp. Eventually, Shimomura landed a teaching position at the University of Kansas, where in contrast to the racial diversity of Seattle, he was constantly self-conscious of his ethnic identity. In 1976, these formative experiences led him to begin researching the most shameful moments in American history, culminating with his creation of the extraordinary Minidoka series.
Since then, Shimomura has created a diverse range of work, from paintings and lithographs to performance pieces, all dealing with the experience of incarceration. The works in the exhibition, for example, form part of a much larger series of paintings that comment on the threats and crises that contemporary America faces. They also question whether the United States will commit to its professed ideals of truth, justice and freedom. His work testifies that issues of racial and ethnic profiling have yet to be resolved decades after the end of the WWII.
The Minidoka On My Mind Exhibition, curated by Ellen Avril, chief curator and curator of Asian art at the Johnson Museum, is on display until Dec. 22.