Roger Shimomura highlights cultural singularity with Yellow No Same.
Thursday, September 16, 2004
An exhibition of paintings at the Monterey Museum of Art by Roger Shimomura, titled Yellow No Same, juxtaposes the styles of American comic books and traditional Japanese woodblock prints. A Samurai warrior and Kabuki actor rub elbows with Japanese-Americans, circa 1942, communicating the swirl of emotions surrounding the issue of the internment camps. The series focuses on issues of race, stereotyping, cultural blindness and ignorance. Using the imprisonment of Japanese-American citizens during the World War II as a connectingsubject.
The exhibition is being held in collaboration with the Department of Visual and Public Art (VPA) at California State University, Monterey Bay, and is the second in a series of four annual “Geography of Memory” exhibitions. Dr. Amalia Mesa-Bains, director of VPA, curates these shows, which highlight the ethnic and cultural richness of the Central Coast through works of contemporary artists. Last year’s display of paintings by Hung Lui inaugurated the series.
Throughout the 1930s, sentiment against Japanese-Americans was ever present—an ugly heir to the prejudice against the Chinese immigrants of the 1800s. White Americans couldn’t abide that Japanese-American farmers were successful working lands that had been deemed unsuitable for growing, or that their work ethic made them successful shopkeepers and businesspeople. From Seattle to San Diego, Japanese-Americans worked to become “model citizens.”
Inspired by the yellow journalism of the Hearst and McClatchy newspapers, many West Coast Americans became primed to betray their fellow citizens. Shortly after December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, an edict that required all people of Japanese-American descent to evacuate their homes within a short time frame, and report to a number of detention centers before being assigned to one of the internment camps in remote regions of the greater West.
In October and November, before Pearl Harbor, Curtis Munson of the State Department studied the threat of the Japanese-American community on the West Coast as the Japanese Imperialist Army advanced across Asia and the Pacific. In his report, he concluded that there was nothing to be concerned about. The US government ignored the report.
In Salinas, the rodeo grounds held 3,600 Japanese-Americans rounded up from Watsonville, Pajaro, Monterey, Pacific Grove and the Valley towns and put them on trains for the camps—grim, cramped barrack towns surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, with no running water. The majority were women and children.
Shimomura, whose Seattle family was sent to Idaho, remembers the camp.
“My earliest memories all had to do with the weather extremes of Camp Minidoka,” he says. “The hot, humid summers, the frigid winters, the muddy, swampy Falls and the constant wind.”
With three successful uncles who were graphic designers in Seattle, Shimomura always knew he wanted to make art as an adult. In the early 1970s, as a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, he “decided to do a painting about my Japanese-ness in a virtually all-white environment.”
Relying on childhood memories and a diary kept by his immigrant grandmother, Shimomura began to address issues of cultural identity and prejudice.
By juxtaposing quintessential Japanese icons—the Kabuki actor, the Samurai, Floating World imagery— as well as American icons—such as Mickey Mouse, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Superman and Marilyn Monroe—the artist achieves provocative effects. Done in a graphic comic book style, the images are arresting and accessible, even with the understated outrage.
In the Yellow No Same series, the Japanese icon stands outside strands of barbed wire, while the Japanese-American citizen (with baseball cap or accordion or gingham dress) looks forlornly out. One subtle detail in the series underscores yet another piece of the story of the camps. Young men were given the option of enlisting in the US Army, even while their families remained behind barbed wire. Shimomura had depicted young men with their military uniforms visible.
(The Japanese-American soldiers were assigned to the 100th Battalion, 442nd Infantry Regiment for duty in the European theater where they distinguished themselves with unprecedented valor. The 442nd is the most decorated outfit of its size in the history of the US Army.)
The exhibition will also include a 10-lithograph series by Shimomura, “Memories of Childhood,” as well as documentary photographs of the internment in Monterey County.
“I deal with the ‘old issues’ that simply won’t go away,” Shimomura says. “America’s inability to distinguish between Japanese and Chinese people, Asians always being mistaken for foreigners, stereotypical assumptions about Asians, etc., etc.”