Sansei Sensibility

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

Artist Roger Shimomura's earliest childhood memories are etched into his psyche. He is 3 years old and living in a U.S. government internment camp in a forlorn corner of Idaho -- a camp set up to detain Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Shimomura has drawn on those vivid, often poignant personal memories -- as well as camp diary entries penned by his grandmother, Toku Shimomura -- to create the paintings and stone lithographs on view in Phoenix Art Museum's "Roger Shimomura: An American Diary."

In 10 cartoon-style lithographs of the artist's camp memories and 30 small, equally spare paintings reflecting journal entries originally written in fluid Japanese script by his grandmother between 1941 and 1943, Shimomura, a Seattle-born Sansei, or third-generation Japanese-American, memorializes the ignominious fallout from Executive Order 9066.

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.

Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt 10 weeks after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, the order baldly stripped more than 80,000 loyal American citizens of Japanese ancestry living on the West Coast -- as well as an additional 40,000 longtime Japanese resident aliens -- of all their constitutionally guaranteed rights for ambiguous "security" reasons. Roosevelt, with the stroke of a pen, basically consigned 120,000 innocent people to an American version of concentration camps. Their crime? Physically resembling declared enemies of the United States.

The paintings and lithographs of Shimomura's family saga are less engaging than the story itself. Though more didactic than aesthetically challenging, more reportage than enduring art, they are not without a certain accessible charm and ironic sting. And given the fairly recent Chandler police rousting of brown-skinned people, the work is a timely reminder that another racist roundup continues to be well within the realm of possibility in this country.

"These are actually my first 10 memories of life," says Shimomura of the lithographs appearing in the exhibition. "For me, all of my first memories come from when my entire family was in Camp Minidoka in Idaho -- my mother, father, grandmother, grandfather -- everybody, including my uncles, aunts and cousins. The order only affected Japanese living in the so-called security zone, which ran along the coast of Washington, Oregon and California. It's interesting because over 95 percent of the entire Japanese-American population in this country [lived in this area]. The other 5 percent were scattered here and there. It had an effect on virtually the entire ethnic group."

Displayed alongside his grandmother's diary references is a corresponding group of acrylic paintings arranged in chronological order, beginning with the United States' entry into World War II. They trace events leading to the family's two-year stay in Camp Minidoka, after an interim stop at a temporary "camp" in Puyallup, Washington. According to the artist, "the paintings start with what occurred following Pearl Harbor -- the freezing of bank accounts, fingerprinting, anxiety and notification that was posted all over Seattle that we were going to be interned." Referring to a painting of two faceless women trying to wrestle a slice of luridly pink lunch meat and a hot dog with chopsticks, the artist recalls that "for days, we ate just bologna and wieners. That wasn't really suitable to the Japanese-American diet, at least the first generation."

Several of the artist's own recollections, such as being quarantined for chicken pox and adults' complaints about bad mess-hall food, coincide squarely with those of his grandmother, Toku, a "picture bride" born and trained as a nurse and midwife in Japan. Her traditional arranged marriage brought her to Seattle in 1912 at the age of 23. Becoming an American citizen early on, she delivered more than 1,000 babies in the Seattle area, including her first grandson, Roger, now an internationally known artist and longtime professor at the University of Kansas.

The strong psychological bond between grandson and grandmother becomes palpable in Shimomura's comic book-influenced images, which quietly depict wretched camp conditions. In several, the artist captures the prison-like quality of the tarpaper-over-wood-stud barracks, a lone, coal-burning potbelly stove the only source of heat for each 20-by-20-foot sleeping area during the miserably cold winters. One stripped-down image features a solitary pair of feet in traditional wooden geta.The feet carefully traverse frozen ruts of mud scarring the earth after snowfall. A painting with a journal entry date of July 1, 1942, focuses on women's high-heeled feet poking out of the shadows of a grandstand, the only oasis from the broiling temperatures of the Idaho summers.

In another painting, the face of the artist's mother pops from a background of fairground bleachers and a roller coaster in the far distance. "Prior to going into the camps, because they weren't ready, we lived in the state fairgrounds," explains Shimomura. "It was called Camp Harmony, ironically. We lived in horse stalls and office buildings. That was really bad, literally shoveling manure out of the rooms and throwing down grass and burlap bags. After three months, the camps were finally ready and they put us in trains and pulled all the shades down so we didn't know where we were going."

An image of the camp, featuring an ominous yellow sky, barbed wire and a guard tower, was prompted by his grandmother's initial impressions upon arrival. "In this painting, my grandmother describes her feelings when they stepped out of the train and looked with amazement at this camp, which became the fourth largest city in the state of Idaho virtually overnight," the artist notes.

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.

"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-eprints and American comic books; ukiyo-eprints 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-eappearance 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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