Although World War II had just ended, the battle for acceptance had just begun. Roger Shimomura paints a comic book-like representation of his experiences as a Japanese-American living in a country that once labeled him the enemy.
The Museum of Art Exhibit
Shimomura will be on campus Thursday to give a lecture at the opening reception of his exhibit, “Roger Shimomura: An American Knockoff,” on display at the Museum of Art Sept. 19 through Dec. 13. The reception will begin at 6 p.m. followed by Shimomura’s lecture at 7.
His appearance on campus acts as an opener for a series of related exhibits across campus, including photo collections, film screenings, and dramatic performances about the internment of Japanese Americans. Museum of Art Curators Zach Mazur and Ryan Hardesty collaborated with the CUB Gallery, the Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections at Holland and Terrell Library (MASC) and many others to bring cohesion to the exhibits.
“It’s going to be a bold, colorful, exciting show about an American artist who has Japanese descent,” Mazur said, “who does artwork based on his struggles growing up with having this experience of being an interned Japanese-American and the struggles of trying to redefine his identity as a Japanese-American.”
Shimomura uses acrylic paint on canvas to reflect on the Japanese internment, and questions what it means to be American in a postmodernist style. Museum of Art Director Chris Bruce said he recognized Shimomura’s work as something unique that WSU hasn’t shown before.
“We look for someone with a very specific kind of niche in art,” Bruce said. “And whenever possible we look for someone who creates beautiful art that also connects with a social or cultural point of view, and he’s just a master at it.”
A Seattle native, Shimomura earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington and his master of fine arts degree from Syracuse University. He taught at the University of Kansas from 1969 until 2004. His artwork is in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian, and more than 90 other museums, according to his website rshim.com.
Debby Stinson, PR media manager of the Museum of Art, said Shimomura is an American artist born and raised in the U.S.
“And yet,” Stinson said, “When people look at him they see someone who is Asian and they always ask, ‘Where are you from?’”
Many of Shimomura’s paintings feature comic-book versions of himself tackling typical American iconography, or sarcastic interpretations of stereotypes. Mickey Mouse and Superman make appearances in what Mazur said is an ironic and satirical collection.
“This show talks about that dichotomy,” Stinson said. “It talks about that duel personality that he has, who he is as Roger Shimomura versus who people see.”
Shimomura said he doesn’t have control over how people interpret his work, but his art came from a personal desire to draw attention to the alienation he felt from his country as a Japanese-American.
“It’s not a good feeling to be a citizen of this country but to be perceived as a foreigner,” he said.
Because he was so young, Shimomura said his memories of his time in the internment camp are limited. He said his grandmother kept a diary while in the camp and much of his work is inspired by entries she wrote.
“My first memory of life is my third birthday,” Shimomura said, “and that was in camp.”
He said one of the few scenes he remembers well is walking around and telling everyone that he was now 3-years-old. He said he remembers very clearly the extreme weather conditions they were subject to while living in the barracks.
“I like people to take a second look,” he said about his art, “and to think, and look for deeper meaning.”
He said he knows it’s easy to be seduced by the bright colors in his paintings, but try to look past them.
“An artist builds upon his or her past artwork as they develop their career, and so you start to see the process of that creative evolution,” Mazur said.
Hardesty said the exhibit could be loosely described as a retrospective; most of the work was created from 2009 to the present, but there are older works to show the development of Shimomura’s ideas.
“The exhibit comes ripe with conversations we can have around it with our visitors and students,” Hardesty said.
Mazur said most students don’t realize that WSU was one of the first universities to welcome interned Japanese-Americans back to study.
The CUB Gallery
The CUB Gallery brings that fact to light in an exhibit titled “Heart Mountain,” opening Oct. 13.
Kyla Lakin, CUB Gallery curator, said the exhibit showcases the lives of Japanese-American students at WSU just after the internment camps closed.
“That’s really what we wanted to do with this exhibit,” Lakin said. “Educate people on the Japanese internment camps but then also show the student impact.”
The exhibit will transform one of the CUB display cases into a WSU residence hall room from the late 1940s, including items owned by Japanese-American Cougs from that time. The mock room will have tracksuits, sweaters and even an ROTC uniform that belonged to a student once interned at Heart Mountain, one of the internment camps in Wyoming.
“There’s a cool focus on the students,” Lakin said. “And I think that’s something the students can relate to.”
The exhibit was inspired in part by a significant donation of photographs taken from inside the Heart Mountain internment camp. Among those photos are pictures of Japanese-American students playing in integrated intramural sports and track teams.
“There were friendships, there were no barriers on these teams,” Lakin said.
The MASC Exhibit
More than 2,000 pictures were donated from a single private collection. Patti Hirahara donated photos, as well as her time and funds in planning the exhibits. The pictures were taken by her father and grandfather who were interned in the Heart Mountain camp from 1943 until 1945.
“My father’s wish was for this collection to go to a good home,” Hirahara said, “and with my father entering WSU after he graduated from Heart Mountain High School in 1944 it seemed the perfect place to tell a Washington family’s story through these photographs at his alma mater of WSU.”
The George and Frank C. Hirahara collection, “Memories from Heart Mountain,” will be on display at the Terrell Library Oct. 6 through 24.
Trevor Bond, head of MASC at WSU Libraries, said the collection has been a magnet for other alumni and individuals to donate their photos to add to the collection.
“I think just the candid nature and the range of the photographs, a lot of what we know about life in internment camps comes from government propaganda and government photographers,” Bond said. “But I think having these photographs that were taken by members of the Japanese-American community, there’s just a certain intimacy and genuineness that you don’t see in many of the official government photographs.”
Bond said the photos are unique in their high quality. Five different documentaries have used photos from the collection including “Witness: The Legacy of Heart Mountain.”
Hirahara said the documentary won three Emmy Awards, and a screening of the documentary will take place at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 in the CUB Auditorium followed by a panel discussion.
“If through these photos we can help educate people about this time in history,” Hirahara said, “I feel these photos have served their purpose.”
A play titled “Within the Silence” centers around a teen-aged Japanese-American girl during the time of internment, and will take place at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13 in the Jones Theatre at Daggy Hall.
Shimomura himself said he found several of his grandmother’s diary entries did not lend themselves to still art mediums. The history of Japanese Internment in America will be expressed in a variety of art forms all over campus.
“The ideal would be that in over a four-year period, the normal college lifespan for a student,” Bruce said, “is that you have an experience of different kinds of art and different ways of relating to the world.”