Lost in shadow

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"American Infamy #4" by Roger Shimomura will be on display as part of "Shadows of Minidoka" at the Lawrence Arts Center.

The injustice of the World War II Japanese internment camps is not something that Lawrence artist Roger Shimomura has forgotten about over time. Shimomura, who spent time as a child with his family at Camp Minidoka in southern Idaho, has spent a large part of his artistic career reflecting on the experiences of his family and other Japanese Americans. And now he will be bringing his impressions to the Lawrence Arts Center with the exhibition “Shadows of Minidoka.”

“Shadows of Minidoka” will place works from Shimomura’s “Minidoka On My Mind,” an exhibition of paintings on the internment camp experience that has been touring the country for a few years, alongside Shimomura’s personal collection of internment camp ephemera.

Shimomura began teaching at Kansas University in 1969, where he now holds the title of distinguished professor of art emeritus. In that time, Shimomura has become an acclaimed and internationally known artist and shown his work in some of the country’s most prominent museums.

For the majority of Shimomura’s career as an artist, he’s been creating works that comment on the experience of living in the United States as an Asian American. He says his art generally focuses on one of three themes: the World War II Japanese internment camps, Asian stereotypes and self-identity of Asian Americans.

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"The Lesson" by Roger Shimomura Acrylic on Canvas 36x45 inches 2007

Many of Shimomura’s pieces contain classic American characters — football players, blonde youths in letter jackets, Superman — mingling with slanted-eyed, buck-toothed intruders. That these stereotyped Asian Americans don’t belong is painfully obvious.

Shimomura’s pop and comic book art stylings could almost be taken as humorous if it weren’t for the serious, sometimes tragic subject matter of his pieces. But the superficial lightheartedness of his art gives audiences an entry level to it, and gives Shimomura a chance to get his message across. Once viewers have their mouths open to laugh, Shimomura says, they are more likely to swallow the sad realities the pieces present.

The Minidoka series is decidedly darker than a lot of Shimomura’s other work, literally and figuratively. Nightfall, barbed wire and shadows are common themes throughout. Based on both his observations and diary entries kept by his late grandmother, the exhibition tells the story of a captive people striving to live and love despite their shackled existence.

Shimomura says that in his experiences presenting internment camp-themed art, he’s often shocked by how little people know about the camps, to the extent that they sometimes go as far as to question their existence.

“People in the Midwest and on the East Coast have very little awareness of it,” he says. “Here we are 60 years later, and some people still don’t know it happened.”

And more than just a statement on a historic and personal event, Shimomura says the internment camp pieces deal with issues that are still present in today’s political and social climate.

“If there wasn’t a relevance today, I wouldn’t be doing it,” he says. “I’m not interested in nostalgia.”

Susan Tate, executive director at the Lawrence Arts Center, agrees that Shimomura’s exhibition comments on current as well as historical ideas. She says his work succeeds in exposing the xenophobic attitudes of some Americans in the World War II era, attitudes that she still sees today. But she says the works represent more than just one society’s fear of “the other.” She sees the incredible perseverance of the Japanese people who were incarcerated in the camps. Tate points to the Japanese idea of gamen, which she describes as “to bear the seemingly unbearable with dignity and grace.”

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"Block Dance #2" by Roger Shimomura. Acrylic on Canvas 72x36 inches 2006

“In the act of our having this exhibition, what wins is life and creation and innovation,” Tate says.

Although this is the sixth stop on a national tour for “Minidoka On My Mind,” this will be the first and likely only time that Shimomura showcases his works along with his ephemeral objects. Gathered over the past 20 years, Shimomura’s collection ranges from books written by the government justifying the internment camps to artwork made by incarcerees. After the art center exhibition, Shimomura is sending the collection to the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian.

Along with the exhibition, the Lawrence Arts Center is releasing a 120-page publication to serve both as a catalog for the works and ephemera in the exhibition and as a source of information on the exhibition’s subject matter. The publication, also titled “Shadows of Minidoka,” is the product of collaboration between the arts center, Lawrence marketing agency Callahan Creek and Allen Press. It includes essays on life in the internment camps as well as information on Shimomura’s passion for collecting.

Presented along with Shimomura’s art and collection, in the art center’s smaller front gallery, will be the work of Japanese American artist Jimmy Mirikitani, who also stayed in the Minidoka camp and was the subject of the film “The Cats of Mirikitani.” As one of several special events revolving around the “Shadows of Minidoka” exhibition, the arts center will be presenting the film with discussion from Shimomura and the film’s director, Linda Hattendorf, on Feb. 28.

The exhibition and the events connected with it come with support from the Center of East Asian Studies at KU and with help from a grant from The Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. Tate says the LAC will use the funds from the Japan Foundation grant to make supplemental educational materials available to exhibition guests.

“Shadows of Minidoka” will be on display starting Friday through March 12 at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.

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