Artist Roger Shimomura was only 2 when the United States' government relocated he and his family, along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, to the Minidoka Relocation Center in the remote high desert site of Hunt, Idaho. The move was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066, signed during World War II in an effort to exclude Americans of Japanese, Italian and German descent from certain areas of the West. More than 130,000 people were affected, some of whom ended up at an internment camp at Fort Missoula.
Shimomura takes on this shocking slice of American history in his new exhibition at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM), titled Minidoka on My Mind. But despite the bleak subject matter, Shimomura presents vibrantly colored and clean-lined paintings that reflect influences ranging from Andy Warhol and superhero comics to Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints. He also employs a forthrightly two-dimensional style, reducing old-fashioned optical tricks like shading or deep perspective to the merest gestures.
The pop art of the 1960s famously toyed with the distinction between high art—the stuff that fills museums—and the supposedly inferior products of commercial graphic design, comic book art and illustration. Shimomura continues this tradition, questioning societal concepts of value while asking questions about race, history and politics.
"Someone once characterized my work as 'seeking the deeper meaning of life through comic books,'" says Shimomura. "I am a postmodernist if there ever was one."
Postmodernism, with its unceasing interrogation of perceptions, assumptions and associations, can seem self-indulgent and even dull in an academic setting, but Shimomura's art distills challenging and even esoteric concepts into deceptively simple imagery.
As a child Shimomura was influenced by his grandmother, who began a diary in 1912—on the day before she left Japan for the United States—and maintained it until her death in 1968.
"She constantly filled me with a sense of what it meant to be of Japanese blood," says Shimomura.
Like his grandmother, Shimomura is driven to record and preserve, and he has spent many years collecting artifacts from the internment period, including letters, photographs and artwork produced in the camps.
Considering his interests and personal history, it seems natural that Shimomura would explore the internment of Japanese Americans in his art. Much of his material plays with cultural stereotypes and loaded imagery in order to explore Asian American identity, and that terrible episode in America's history is a necessary part of that exploration. But Shimomura doesn't want his work to operate simply as a history lesson.
"I want to stress that these are paintings and not meant to be illustrations of the camp experience," he says. "The difference lies in visual challenges that extend beyond mere representation, both visual and conceptual."
On the other hand, Shimomura does have an agenda, and he'll use art to further it. He believes our nation can't afford to ignore or forget what happened more than 60 years ago.
"The threat of internment continues to remain imminent," he says, citing hostage situations in Iran, Operation Desert Storm and 9/11. "In all [of these] cases the government talked about possible internment of Middle Eastern and Arab people living in the U.S. then allowing them to prove their innocence."
Shimomura's message is serious. It cuts to the heart of our nation's uneasy balance between the pursuits of liberty and equality and the desire to protect against real or perceived threats, and it reminds us that some things have not changed in those 60-plus years.
"In times of stress our government is capable of doing whatever allays people's immediate fears," says Shimomura. "And I would add that in this country, if you look 'foreign', you are presumed to be foreign and are then treated accordingly. Guilty till proven innocent."
"Classmates #1," represents the exhibition's tone. Two gaily-dressed young girls stand side by side, each holding an apple and smiling. The girl on the left is white, with blue eyes and blonde hair. The girl on the right is Asian. And a barbed wire fence separates the two girls. Because of the flat, comic-book style, the girls catch the viewer's eye first, and it takes a moment to register the barbed wire crossing in front of the Asian girl's face. Barbed wire serves as a simple but effective statement in many of the paintings, just visible in the background of some pieces and marching across the foreground of others.
Minidoka on My Mind will serve as the basis for this year's Fifth Grade Art Experience, and Missoula students will visit the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula as part of their learning experience. Fort Missoula, like Minidoka, was the site of a World War II "Relocation Center." Shimomura hopes the connection between his art and internment history strikes a chord with people here.
"It should resonate [in Missoula]," says Shimomura, "however it wouldn't amaze me if a significant number [of people] had still not heard of what happened during WWII. It all depends upon your history books."
Roger Shimomura delivers the Distinguished Artists Lecture at the Missoula Children's Theater Thursday, Oct. 1, at 7 PM. $5. Shimomura appears at an artist reception and gallery talk at MAM Friday, Oct. 2, from 5–8 PM. Free.