Roger Shimomura Is 81 Years Old. His Takedown Of Anti-Asian Stereotypes Is Timelier Than Ever
Lawrence-based artist Roger Shimomura just received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Kansas for his impact on the art world. The recognition comes as his work takes on new resonance.
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One of the 2020 graduates to have recently walked in a twice-delayed commencement ceremony at the University of Kansas—first delayed because of the pandemic, and then postponed for torrential rain—doesn't have to hope to make his mark on 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 D.C. Shimomura walked in a virtual graduation on May 23, receiving an honorary Doctor of Arts degree from the school where he taught studio art for 35 years.
I've been thinking about Roger Shimomura a lot lately.
"Probably a week doesn't go by I'm not asked where I'm from," he told me last time we talked on the radio, a few years back. "The presumption is that if you're Asian you must be foreign to this country."
Shimomura was born in the United States, but he's spent much of his life being treated as a foreigner, starting when Executive Order 9066 legalized the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in 1942. Shimomura and his family were sent to Minidoka War Relocation Center in Idaho. He was 3 years old.
Minidoka was what a lot of people call an "internment camp"; Shimomura calls it an incarceration camp.
"Calling them internment camps is really a misnomer because it plays down the severity," he told me in 2016, explaining that the term internment had been mostly used to describe temporary isolation for medical purposes. Using that terminology for locking people up indefinitely because of their race, he says, is "a way of softening what it was."
In 2021, we’re facing another frightening moment. Shimomura doesn’t do interviews any more, but what we’re witnessing has everything to do with the tensions and bigotry he’s been trying to show us in his art for more than a half a century. He's been saying in pictures what mainstream American discourse is just now starting to find the language to talk about in words.
Shimomura mixes and matches the stereotypically Asian with the iconically American in a mishmash of Disney characters and blond starlets alongside Samurai warriors and rice cookers. In Super Buddahead, the artist puts his own head on the body of Superman. He's asking a question: Does Superman have to be white to be complete?
When he first started out as an artist, Shimomura didn't set out to wrestle with stereotypes. He made brightly colored paintings and prints that reflected the pop art style of the time.
"But then when I got to Kansas for my first teaching job," he told the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017, "all of a sudden, I was in foreign country. All of a sudden, 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 that looked Japanese."
That painting was one of seven works Shimomura contributed to an exhibition. The others depicted things like Mickey Mouse and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Ever since then, Shimomura's work has wrestled with the contradiction of living as an American while being perceived as an outsider.
That hasn't gone away.
After spending more than 50 years in Lawrence, Shimomura has 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 that it's because I've lived amongst them for so long,"
But fellow artist Marty Olson, who's been friends with Shimomura since the 1970s, notes that Shimomura's relationship with Lawrence—while rewarding—has not been easy.
"It's been sort of a love/hate relationship," Olson explains. "His first encounters with the people who lived here were not pleasant."
Olson says that friction hasn't entirely subsided.
"He's fought very, very hard to straighten things out with especially Caucasian America through his artwork," he says. "It's just been a constant battle for him. He has made his art a a pretty powerful weapon, I would say, in his fight for recognition on so many different levels."
Shimomura has nonetheless stayed in Kansas, even after gaining a kind of status in the art world that could have taken him just about anywhere.
And that's despite coming from Seattle, where the artist once told me he'd been part of not just a sizeable Asian-American community, but a diverse one. In the Pacific Northwest, he might not have had to fight quite so hard.
Shimomura once traveled all over the country giving talks about his experiences, and in some parts of the country, American history textbooks don't mention camps like Minidoka, where Shimomura was detained as a child. In those places, he was inserting an omitted chapter.
If history is written by the victors, Shimomura's quest to be understood has kept him in the fight.
"They have not won yet," says Marty Olson. "Not as long as he's out there swinging."