Roger Shimomura’s life story is, mostly, all-American. Born in Seattle in 1939, he studied art at the University of Washington, joined ROTC and then the Army. After working as a commercial designer he earned an MFA from Syracuse University in 1969 and then retired in 2004 after 35 years as a college professor at the University of Kansas.
In 2001, the College Art Association awarded Shimomura with the Most Distinguished Body of Work Award. His painting “Crossing the Delaware” (2010) is at the National Portrait Gallery in the Smithsonian, and that institution has acquired his personal papers for their Archives of American Art.
When becoming an artist, students often assume they’ll need a day job. But Shimomura realized his American Dream, a true success story, given his chosen profession.
At 80, he’s still an active artist. In the exhibit Roger Shimomura: By Looking Back, We Look Forward, currently at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, he has art on view from as recent as 2019.
But his American Dream was interrupted in 1942 when he was removed from his home — along with his family — and made to relocate to the Civilian Assembly Center in Puyallup, Washington. Afterward, he and his family were taken to the internment camp Minidoka War Relocation Center in Hunt, Idaho, one of 10 in the country at that time. They were forced to stay there for three years until the end of World War II.
He is cited in the exhibit as saying, “People ask how I feel about my camp experience, but as a two- or three-year-old, you don’t think about that. The kinds of things you think about are far more immediate, like the fact that all my friends were around me all of a sudden. From that standpoint, I thought whatever change this was, was all for the better.”
Shimomura the toddler was glad to be with his friends at the internment camp. Still, the adult Shimomura’s art is often informed by the dark past of such places. “Enemies” and “Enemies 2,” done in 2008, depict the artist as a small child with his mother (“Enemies”) and grandmother (“Enemies 2”). These are ordinary family portraits, except the people in them are posed beside barbed wire.
These small portraits are among the most powerful in the entire show. And it is an impressive exhibit that houses a significant amount of the artist’s work, including the self portrait “American vs. Japanese #3” (2011) and the monumental-sized “American Infamy #5” (2006).
The latter is a panoramic view of an internment camp. It borrows from traditional Japanese art the technique of using a multi-panel, wide perspective to tell a narrative. In this case the scene’s point of view is from above, where American soldiers equipped with guns stand guard over the Japanese American families below.
The feel of Japanese prints works well with Shimomura’s pop art aesthetic. Like comic books and other popular commercial print media, both share the use of outlines and bold, flat areas of filled-in shapes.
“American vs. Japanese #3” is a brilliantly colored conglomeration of traditional Japanese imagery, with Shimomura at the center. A self-portrait that references both Japanese stereotypes as well as American comics, it pictures Shimomura surrounded by traditional Japanese characters such as Kabuki actors and Japanese samurai. The artist has swords as well, and one is out ready to strike.
You could say Shimomura is placing himself within his ancestral heritage, except that his samurai costume shows beneath his robe an iconic “S” on his chest. Is he a samurai fighting alongside his ancestors, or an American superhero fighting against the Japanese stereotypes that surround him? In “American vs. Japanese #3,” he is both American and Japanese, an individual characterized by his dual cultural identity.
The art in By Looking Back, We Look Forward comes mostly from the collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer, with selected works on loan from Shimomura, the JSMA’s collection and from Sherry Leedy and Greg Kucera galleries, both of which represent the artist’s work.
The exhibit is highly accessible, due to Shimomura’s pop art artistic approach, but also because of excellent organization and explanatory language that includes quotes by the artist, comparative accompanying thumbnail images and historical material such as the “Wartime Civil Control Administration” announcement instructing “…ALL PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY” with procedures for relocating.
In addition, one portion of the exhibit is dedicated to “Context and Inspiration.” Shimomura was a student in upstate New York as the pop art movement was reaching its height in New York City. Works by artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein are included in this section, as well as work by Japanese printmakers of the Momoyama period (1568-1615).
Shimomura is Japanese American. But not all his work references his particular cultural identity. In his series “Muslims and More” (2018-2019), he portrays President Donald Trump with barbed wire. In one work he is at the U.S.-Mexico border, in another he stands eerily behind a woman wearing a hijab. In yet another, Shimomura represents the president by just his tuft of hair blowing in the wind.
The barbed wire is Shimomura’s symbolic design element. It stands for the worst that can happen when prejudice fuels policy and governments legalize treating whole categories of citizens as suspect.
Near the end of the show, we find out Shimomura distinguishes himself from other Japanese artists who make “pretty” pictures. His goal as an artist, he says, is to look forward by looking back. In his words, “don’t forget, don’t forget.”
Roger Shimomura: By Looking Back, We Look Forward is on exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art through July 21.