Sansei Sensibility

Artist Roger Shimomura plays historian and reporter with cartoonish impressions of life in an internment camp

The primitive communality of the camp is underscored in a print titled, The waiting lines to the bathrooms are always very long. "All of the bathrooms, mess halls and laundry facilities were separated from the living quarters," Shimomura says. "If you had to go to the bathroom, you had to put your clothes on and walk out through the weather two blocks away to the bathrooms. You weren't allowed to cook or have any of those facilities in your room."

"Initially," he says, "you were only allowed to bring to camp what you could carry with two hands." Later, when the lack of any threat from the camp's inmates became apparent to their keepers, internees were allowed to send for trunks of personal items from home. In one of those trunks came a Halloween mask belonging to the artist, which appears in a painting of himself and his grandmother dated October 31, 1942. It is a stereotypically racist mask of a broadly grinning Chinese coolie.

Shimomura has long been noted for his cartoony, tongue-in-cheek treatment of less-than-subtle racial discrimination of Asian-Americans. Influenced by both pop art and California funk art of the 1960s, the artist early on adopted a graphically simple painting style.

Roger Shimomura's American Diary: October 16, 1942, a work in acrylic.
Roger Shimomura
Roger Shimomura's American Diary: October 16, 1942, a work in acrylic.

"I think the origins [of my style] come from the time I collected comic books as a child," Shimomura says. "I had a huge collection of comic books and never read one of them, but I loved to just look at them. For me, it was all about the difference between someone like Chester Gould, who did Dick Tracy comics, and Walt Disney. That became embedded from a very early age. When I went to college, it was a time when pop art was just becoming the thing. I felt a very close affinity for obvious reasons."

Beginning in the 1970s, Shimomura, who is also a performance artist, would often pair up classic 19th-century Japanese woodblock print imagery, known as ukiyo-e (and in the case of explicitly erotic imagery, shunga), with comic book and cartoon imagery, their 20th-century American counterparts.

"There's a tremendous graphic comparison between ukiyo-e prints and American comic books; ukiyo-e prints were sort of the comic books of that era," says the artist.

Even in recent work by Shimomura, it's not uncommon to see geishas cavort with American comic-book heroes and kabuki actors toting samurai swords paired with a Warholesque Marilyn Monroe or Liz Taylor -- with a backyard barbecue or rice cooker thrown in for good measure.

The artist has temporarily departed from this Lichtenstein-meets-Utamaro stylistic pairing for the work being shown in "An American Diary": "With the exception of two paintings, they're pretty straightforward," he admits. "I decided I would forgo that layer of working through the ukiyo-e appearance and do paintings that reflected the reporting nature of my grandmother's diary entries."

Unfortunately, this conscious decision to approach his subject matter head-on is what takes Shimomura's latest work out of the realm of art and puts it squarely into the realm of historical education.

"The exhibition is being paid for by a grant from the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund, which has set aside $5 million from the money paid as reparation to all the Japanese-Americans that were in the camps," the artist offers, in partial explanation for the stylistic gear-shifting. "This money was set aside for an educational program set up on a competitive basis for people to get grants for work that will educate the public."

Pointing to an image of his uncle Michio in U.S. Army uniform, Shimomura somberly reflects on the wartime experiences of his youth.

"That's one of the saddest depictions of this whole experience -- all of the Japanese-American men who lost their lives during the war. They came right out of the camps and were sent to Camp Shelby, Mississippi, to do their basic training. They were allowed out to say goodbye to their parents before they were sent to Europe, where they were killed at an incredible rate, so they went back to the internment camps. There are pictures of these Japanese-American GIs being searched while wearing their U.S. Army uniforms by fellows GIs of a lower rank before they could go inside the camps and say goodbye."

"Roger Shimomura: An American Diary" runs through May 7 at Phoenix Art Museum.

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