Roger Shimomura battles racism with wit and humor in a compelling exhibit at the Belger Arts Center.
Roger Shimomura’s art has never seemed more timely. In the wake of a vitriolic election season, with its red hot issues of populism, anti-immigration and racial bias, the veteran artist’s unique ability to pictorially blend wit and humor with themes of racism and the anguish it causes is right on target.
— Roger Shimomura
His exhibit at the Belger Arts Center, “Roger Shimomura: American Knockoff,” showcases some of the most complex and compelling works of this artist’s long, storied career. Starting in 2009, all 30 pieces are self-portraits, and in most of them Shimomura depicts himself kick-boxing, wrestling or battling with everyone from Superman to a cast of Disney characters to slanty-eyed western stereotypes of Asians. Also included are small portraits of himself as Popeye, Porky Pig and other iconic cartoon figures.
All are painted in Shimomura’s pristine graphic style, evocative of Pop Art, comic books, and manga. Typically, the artist’s work is deliberately flat and two-dimensional. In this series, with its emphasis on physical action and deep space, Shimomura borrows stylistically from the idioms of baroque art. All the large paintings here stress visually dynamic, exaggerated oppositions, creating a field of theatrical drama that draws the viewer into the center of the painting.
As a noted performance artist who has acted around the world, Shimomura knows how to command the stage. In the “American Knockoff” paintings, he entertains us while pulling us into a proscenium roiling with tightly controlled emotions.
Shimomura’s subject matter has been constant for decades. “For the last 40 years my art has focused on three topics,” he said in a recent interview at the Belger Arts Center. “Japanese American stereotypes from WWII; concentration camps for Japanese Americans during WWII; and issues of ethnic identity, which is what ‘American Knockoff’ deals with.”
In the “American Knockoff” catalog essay, Shimomura explains why he appears as Superman, and also fights with him, throughout the series. “One of the primary themes in this series has to do with the physical appearance that Asian people have and how it affects how other people perceive them, rightly or wrongly.”
In a number of his paintings Shimomura wears a kimono, sometimes over a Superman suit. “I’m wearing a kimono not because I have ever worn a kimono for any occasion . . . but because people in the majority think I should look this way.
“They look at me and say, ‘This person is Asian.’ Now, along with that go a lot of traits and habits and so on that have no basis in fact . . . But because the connotation of being Asian in this country has been so negative — because of wars, because of exclusion laws and so on, it is not a comfortable identity to be wearing. Not only is it inaccurate, but it’s frequently insulting. By wearing the Superman outfit, I’m saying, ‘I, too, aspire to those American values that are in this country, to those rewards available for working hard and trying to attain success, like every other American, regardless of their cultural background or ethnic heritage.’”
One of the stereotypes Shimomura tweaks constantly in “American Knockoff” is that of the Asian martial arts master. “I offer myself as that Asian American we all know. You know, one who understands the martial arts in some deep, profound, instinctual kind of way, which is entirely a fabrication.
“I want to depict myself,” Shimomura says, “battling those stereotypes or, in tongue-in cheek fashion, becoming those very same stereotypes.”
The artist’s recreation of comic book heroes is inspired by something else.
“Dick Tracy, Captain Marvel, those characters were part of my childhood, and I loved them all. Sometimes people mistake my usage of them as painting the enemy. But it really comes out of visual reverence for them.”
Shimomura’s parents were second-generation Japanese Americans (Nisei) who lived in Seattle, Wash., where Roger was born. They never set foot in Japan and Roger does not speak Japanese. Nonetheless, during WWII they and Roger’s grandmother were forced into Camp Minidoka in Idaho as four of the 120,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in 10 “internment” camps in America. After three years and the end of the war, the Shimomuras returned to Seattle.
In junior high and high school, Shimomura was part of a culturally diverse population that was “one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Asian,” he recalls. He received a bachelor of arts in design from the University of Washington in 1961, and also graduated from UW’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
“I opted for the third and fourth year in the army when a Japanese American war hero convinced me that it was my ‘duty’ to serve as an officer and prove that those of us that were interned during the war were capable of holding leadership positions in the military.” Shimomura served as a gunnery officer in the First Cavalry Division in Korea on active duty, then was promoted to Captain when he retired from Army Reserve Service.
In 1967 he moved to the East Coast and in 1969 he received a master of fine arts from Syracuse University. “It was pretty strange moving to New York,” Shimomura recalls. “I was used to the diversity of Seattle. My first day at Syracuse a little kid saw me and pointed at me while yelling, ‘Look at the Chinaman.’”
In 1969 Shimomura moved to Lawrence, Kan., to teach art at the University of Kansas. In “Roger Shimomura: An American Knockoff” Shimomura writes, “The need to address my identity was genuinely born out of the need to mediate and reconcile my yellow presence in the Midwest.”
After settling in Kansas, Shimomura experienced a series of racist encounters both absurd and outrageous. He and his wife were denied credit cards at one well-known store in Lawrence because, as the store manager said, “We don’t give credit cards to Indians.” During the Iran hostage crisis a truck driver gave Shimomura the finger while yelling, “That’s for your ayatollah, you Chinaman!” When he was building a house just outside Lawrence there were 14 acts of vandalism; manure was dumped by the front door, the mailbox was cut down, and graffiti was sprayed over the entire home.
In 2004 he exhibited “Stereotypes and Admonitions,” an exhibit of paintings and stories about these incidents. “What brings them to life, and grounds these almost comic images in tragedy, are the stories that engendered them — absurd, painful, all too real,” acclaimed critic Lucy Lippard wrote In the catalog forward. “Humor masks rage, but it’s not meant to make us laugh … If this is so-called ‘chip-on-the shoulder art,’ more power to it.”
In 1994 Shimomura became the first fine arts faculty member in KU’s history to be designated as a University Distinguished Professor. In 2002 the College Art Association (CAA) gave Shimomura the Artist Award for Most Distinguished Body of Work, and in 2003 he became the first Asian American artist to give the CAA’s annual keynote address. One of his most meaningful achievements, he says, was starting KU’s performance art program. The University of Kansas now offers one of the few master of fine arts degrees in performance art in the country.
Shimomura retired in 2004. His “American Knockoff” series is ongoing, and clearly some of the most ambitious painting of his career. These works are not just a visual rant. Shimomura offers us a witty, loving, angry, and bittersweet tribute to his country at a time when it is truly needed.
“Roger Shimomura: American Knockoff” continues at the Belger Arts Center, 2100 Walnut St., through Jan. 21. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, and by appointment. Open “First Fridays” until 9 p.m. For more information, 816.474.7316 or firstname.lastname@example.org.