‘Commemorating the reprehensible’ at SVMA

The colorful, almost cartoon-like style of artist Roger Shimomura – a vivid mashup of pop art and Japanese prints — belies the seriousness of his themes. The exhibition “Roger Shimomura: Minidoka on My Mind,” through June 16 at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, confronts viewers with issues of ethnicity, discrimination and racial stereotypes, all informed by the period the artist was incarcerated in a World War II concentration camp in Minidoka, Idaho. The Sun asked curator Ann Wiklund about the artist and the exhibition.

Q: When did you discover the art of Roger Shimomura and how did it affect you?
A: I moved to Lawrence, Kansas in 1972 to go to graduate school in art history at the University of Kansas. Shimomura had taken a tenure track position at KU in 1969 in the School of Fine Arts as a professor of painting and drawing. I was immediately attracted to his work and my husband and I bought our first Shimomura piece from his “Views of a Japanese Restaurant” series in 1976. This work was heavily influenced by Pop Art and preceded his paintings dealing with his incarceration in the concentration camp for Japanese Americans in Minidoka Idaho.

Q: In the exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, what is his core message?
A: In the artist’s words, he “uses these paintings and lithographs to commemorate a reprehensible period in our nation’s history and to share its lessons with a new generation of Americans.” The exhibition takes viewers head on into the racial conflicts of World War II and the unjust imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

Q: The artist’s grandmother was also incarcerated at Minidoka. Her diary from 1943 is included in the exhibition. What impact did her diaries have on the artist? A. Roger Shimomura, as a sansei or third generation Japanese American, did not (and still cannot) speak or read Japanese. However, when his grandmother Yoku Shimomura died in 1968, he inherited her dairies and soon had the ones from the Minidoka years (1942-45) translated. That was the moment when the artist knew that learning more about his early childhood and the concentration camps would become the major focus of his life’s work as an artist. When the exhibition ends here in Sonoma, the diary will go to the Archives of the Smithsonian Institution where Shimomura has already donated most of his vast collection of materials relating to the concentration camps.

Q: Shimomura’s Pop Art, almost cartoon-like style, belies the serious subject matter. Is that part of the impact?
A: Absolutely! Through the jarring juxtapositions of barbed wire, Japanese screens, bright Pop Art colors, and hard-edged images, Shimomura conveys a sense of history…of a past still very real to many Japanese Americans…including the artist.

Q: Racial stereotypical images, the brutal history of the internment…this is not subtle.
A: Indeed it is not. And the artist is very firm in his conviction that his work should serve as a metaphor for the impending threats posed by current events including the suggestion by some, following the events surrounding 9/11, that Americans of Arab or Muslim ancestry should be rounded up and put into similar camps.

Q: His colorful juxtapositions are often like images from a comic book. Dare we laugh?
A. Several of Shimomura’s Minidoka works make me smile, but never laugh. A painting like “Block Dance” showing teens incarcerated at Minidoka acting like typical young people at a Friday night dance are intended, I believe, to tell us that the children and teenagers were best able to handle the horrible situation.

The museum, located at 551 Broadway, is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults. Children K-12 are admitted free, as are museum members. 939.7862. Svma.org.

Painting: Roger Shimomura’s “Classmates.”

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