One of the 2020 graduates who recently attended a two-time graduation ceremony at the University of Kansas – first delayed due to the pandemic, then postponed due to torrential rains – failed to hope to leave its mark in the world.
Artist Roger Shimomura has already made his mark.
Shimomura’s work is internationally known, locally celebrated, and collected by revered institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC Shimomura participated in a virtual graduation ceremony on May 23, receiving a PhD honorary in arts from the school where he taught studio art for 35 years.
I’ve been thinking about Roger Shimomura a lot lately.
“Probably a week does not pass, I am not asked where I am from,” he told me the last time we spoke on the radio, a few years ago. “The presumption is that if you are Asian, you must be a foreigner in this country.”
Shimomura was born in the United States, but spent much of his life being treated like an alien, starting with Executive Order 9066 which legalized the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in 1942. Shimomura and his family were sent. at the Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. He was 3 years old.
Minidoka was what many people call an “internment camp”; Shimomura calls it an incarceration camp.
“Calling them internment camps is really a misnomer because it downplays the seriousness,” he told me in 2016, explaining that the term internment had been mainly used to describe temporary isolation for people. medical purposes. Using this terminology to lock people up indefinitely because of their race, he says, is “a way to soften what it was.”
In 2021, we face another frightening moment. Shimomura doesn’t do interviews anymore, but what we’re seeing has everything to do with the tensions and bigotry he’s been trying to show us in his art for over half a century. He said in pictures that mainstream American discourse is just beginning to find the language to speak in words.
Shimomura mixes and pairs the Asian stereotype with the iconic American in a mishmash of Disney characters and blonde starlets alongside samurai warriors and rice cookers. In Super Buddahead, the artist lays his own head on Superman’s body. He asks a question: Does Superman have to be white to be complete?
When he started out as an artist, Shimomura did not intend to challenge stereotypes. He produced brightly colored paintings and prints that reflected the pop art style of the time.
“But when I came to Kansas for my first teaching job,” he told the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017, “all of a sudden, I was in a foreign country. suddenly I was Japanese again and people were asking me, “How did you come to speak the language so well? Where are you from? “… That’s when I did my first painting which looked Japanese.”
This painting was one of seven works that Shimomura contributed to an exhibition. The others represented things like Mickey Mouse and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Since then, Shimomura’s work has struggled with the contradiction of living like an American while being seen as an outsider.
It has not disappeared.
After spending over 50 years in Lawrence, Shimomura changed the community that initially made him feel so deeply misunderstood.
“Things here in Lawrence, Kansas, where I live, are different,” he told the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017. “I like to think it’s because I’ve been living among them for so long. long time”,
But fellow artist Marty Olson, who has been friends with Shimomura since the 1970s, notes that Shimomura’s relationship with Lawrence, while rewarding, has not been easy.
“It’s kind of a love / hate relationship,” says Olson. “His first encounters with the people who lived here were not pleasant.”
Olson says the friction has not entirely subsided.
“He fought very, very hard to make things right with Caucasian America in particular through his works,” he says. “It’s been a constant battle for him. He’s made his craft into a pretty powerful weapon, I would say, in his fight for recognition on so many different levels.”
Shimomura nonetheless remained in Kansas, even after gaining some sort of status in the art world that could have taken him anywhere.
And this despite being from Seattle, where the artist once told me that he was not only part of a large Asian-American community, but also diverse. In the Pacific Northwest, he might not have had to fight so hard.
Shimomura has previously traveled all over the country to talk about his experiences, and in some parts of the country, American history textbooks do not mention camps like Minidoka, where Shimomura was held as a child. In these places he inserted an omitted chapter.
If history is written by the victors, Shimomura’s quest to make himself understood kept him in the fight.
“They haven’t won yet,” says Marty Olson. “Not while he’s out swinging.”