The Yellow Peril Revisited

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Roger Shimomura is known for using his art to challenge racism and stereotypes and to explore Japanese American identity. Since the 1970s, the Kansas-based artist has been combining the concepts and aesthetics of pop art with the look of ukiyo-e (Japanese wood-block printing), juxtaposing iconic American imagery to make bold statements about the way we see race.

The Exhibit

His latest exhibit, “Yellow Terror: The Collections and Paintings of Roger Shimomura,” is at the Wing Luke Asian Art Museum (WLAM) in Seattle. Colorful canvases large and small, depict Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and a bevy of comic book characters alongside stereotypical representations of Asians and Asian Americans, including geisha, kabuki actors and World War II-era cartoon figures with grossly exaggerated features. Bright colors — yellow, red and blue — pop off the canvases. Shimomura himself features prominently in several self-portraits: He’s a Chinese emperor. He’s a karate master. He’s Sailor Moon.

“Yellow Terror” comprises a cross-section of the artist’s works, including paintings from several earlier series and 10 new paintings. But “Yellow Terror” is different from his past exhibits. This time his personal collection of racist and stereotypical memorabilia is being shown in tandem with the artwork it helped inspire. And while the “Yellow Terror” exhibit closes on April 18, Shimomura’s collection, which he recently donated to WLAM, will stay behind as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The Collection

Representing 20 years of avid collecting, the more than 2,000 items include posters, magazines, cartoons, toys, at least 80 Halloween masks and 300 salt- and pepper-shaker sets. Some objects were made in the States, others in Japan or Europe — the majority of it hailing from the World War II era. However, regardless of origin or age, these objects hold two things in common: they represent stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans, and, with a few exceptions, they were acquired on eBay, the massive online auction site.

Shimomura says he hopes that, if anything, his collection will help audiences understand “the sheer volume of materials on this subject that are floating around our society” and that these stereotypes of Asians and Asian  Americans, he says, “reappear at times usually when there is some economic or military crises with an Asian country.”

The hundreds of salt- and pepper-shakers, which were made from the 1930s through the 1950s, represent, in Shimomura’s estimation, about 65-75 percent of all that were made during that time. “My favorites are the ones that depict Asian women in kimono with white American men, sort of a double stereotype,” he says.

Though much of the collection hails from the 1930s and ’40s, some variations of these stereotypical objects are still being manufactured today. The collection includes a number of contemporary Halloween masks. “Except for the materials used, they are barely distinguishable in facial features from masks created almost 100 years ago,” says Cassie Chinn, WLAM’s deputy executive director. “They look the same — mostly, with an emphasis on buckteeth, slanted eyes and yellow skin and often times with a Fu Man Chu mustache.”

“Yellow Terror” was named for one of the exhibit’s 34 paintings — an imposing acrylic in which the painter’s self-portrait is nearly lost in a sea of stereotypical, racist imagery. Asian wartime caricatures with buckteeth and bright yellow skin brandish swords and bayonets. Shimomura, the only figure portrayed with any realism, looks out calmly from the center of the chaotic canvas. He is shown with his fingers pulling the corners of his eyes into slants.

Chinn says that the strength of “Yellow Terror” is the physical evidence of materials, spanning different eras and decades, being concentrated in one space. “Viewed in isolation, you might think, ‘Oh, it’s just one image’,” Chinn says. “But when you see these objects on this scale of production and produced over such a long time, that’s when you are able to say that this is really a phenomenon that exists in our material culture and in our mind-set, and that it endures.”

Eventually, Shimomura’s collection will be catalogued, with photographs of all the objects and scanned images of the documents. These will be accessible both online and by appointment at WLAM’s Governor Gary Locke Library & Community Heritage Center.

Karin Higa, the adjunct senior curator of art at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, says the collection is one of the best of its kind in the U.S. “The fact that it is now in the public eye is very important,” says Higa, who has worked with Shimomura before, “especially at the Wing Luke since it’s from someone in the arts community and a native of Seattle.” Higa says there is additional importance in the collection’s size, as well as its scope. “The collection is not just Japanese American-based,” she says. “It’s really a collection of the representations of Asians and Asian Americans in Western popular culture.”

At least 1,000 items have been cataloged so far, and some are already online. For instance, visitors to WLAM’s online database, http://db.wingluke.org, can find the image of a U.S. Postal Service envelope, which Shimomura addresses in “Dr. Seuss Goes To War” (2008). In the painting, the Cat in the Hat character is shown in front of a sea of ’40s-era Japanese American cartoon figures, who are lined up along the coasts of California and Oregon. The words “Waiting for the Signal from Home” hang over their heads.

The envelope, part of a tribute to Dr. Seuss-creator Theodore Geisel, features a reproduction of a wartime poster. In it, a cartoon portrait of a Japanese general with slit eyes, a snout-like nose and buckteeth is framed by the phrases “Wipe that Smear off His Face” and “Buy War Savings Bond Stamps.” Only the date stamp, which reads “La Jolla CA March 2 2004,” gives away the envelope’s contemporary provenance. “The ‘beloved’ Dr. Seuss obviously saw the Japanese Americans as being loyalists to Japan,” Shimomura says.

The Artist

Shimomura began teaching in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Kansas in 1969. It was around this time that his paintings started addressing issues surrounding Japanese American identity and history.

He has continually created paintings about the incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II. Many of these, including those in the series “An American Diary” (2002-2003), were inspired by his late grandmother’s diaries, which she kept for 56 years.

Shimomura’s own family, which hails from Washington, was incarcerated at the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho. He was 5 years old when they were released. Paintings in the camp-based series often debunk perceived wartime dangers with poignant and sometimes painful scenes of everyday life: the silhouette of a soldier with a machine gun looms over that of a boy on a tricycle; barbed wire interrupts a portrait of a woman and child.

Though all are depicted in the same flattened, graphic style that Shimomura is known for, some of these camp paintings have a softer feel, an intimacy that brings to mind the perspective of a child. “They’re not childlike because they are so sophisticated,” Higa says. “But they have a much more subtle and heartfelt feel that’s a really interesting counterpart to his more densely populated canvases.”

During the mid-’80s Shimomura’s art began addressing how stereotypes in popular culture and media representations affect Asians and Asian Americans. Works from the series “Stereotypes and Admonitions” (2003) are included in “Yellow Terror.” These paintings illustrate instances of racial insensitivity experienced in Shimomura’s personal life, such as racism in college football coverage, with references to “Jap plays” and “Chinamen,” and employment discrimination. “In a sense he is revealing to us how stereotypes are created of the Asian American community but also of other communities,” Chinn says. “These are stereotypes based on what is regarded as ‘other’.”

Though he retired from his position at the University of Kansas in 2004, Shimomura still calls Kansas home. His years in the Midwest have greatly influenced his work. “What better place to gain reflection than a place where one is among the minority every day,” says Shimomura, who received his B.A. at the University of Washington, Seattle, and his M.F.A. from Syracuse University in New York. “I’ve always said that if I had landed anywhere else in the country, I’d probably be making art that looked quite different than these works.”

During his career, Shimomura has had more than 125 solo exhibits. In 2002, he was awarded the “Artist Award for Most Distinguished Body of Work” by the College Art Association for “An American Diary.” Shimomura also appeared in “The Cats of Mirikitani,” a 2006 documentary about Jimmy Mirikatani, an 80-year-old homeless Japanese American artist in New York City.

Currently, he is working on a show that will be seen in New York, Seattle and Sante Fe, N.M. Working titles include “The Complexities of Citizenship” and “Citizens, Aliens and Mixed Identities.” The paintings, Shimomura says, feature him self-portrayed “as a U.S. citizen fighting Japanese nationals, fighting American icons (Disney), fighting the Chinese and fighting World War II stereotypes of Japanese.” To learn more about the artist, visit www.rshim.com.

 

The Wing Luke Asian Museum is located in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District at 719 S. King St., Seattle. Info: www.wingluke.org or (206) 623-5124.

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