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Minidoka Revisited: The Paintings of Roger Shimomura

by William Lew, Editor
Lee Gallery, Clemson University, Clemson, SC, 2005
Distributed by The University of Washington Press
128 pp., illus., col. Paper, $18.97
ISBN: 0-295-98583-6.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens
Department of Art, University of Northern Iowa


It’s been well over a half-century since World War II, yet few events in American history evoke such lasting bitterness as the thought of what the U.S. government did to thousands of its citizens (many, or most, American-born), not because they broke the law, but simply because their forebears had come from Japan. Using racially targeted scrutiny that was defended at the time as a way to prevent a second attack on Pearl Harbor (a shocking tragedy now compared to 9/11), 110,000 American families of Japanese descent were pulled out of their own homes, and, without recourse, shipped off to concentration camps (surrounded by barbed wire) in remote regions of the country. One of which, called Minidoka, was in south central Idaho, about 20 miles from Twin Falls. Among those imprisoned there were members of three generations of the Shimomura family, the youngest of whom was Roger Shimomura (born 1939), who as an adult would become a painting professor at the University of Kansas.

Many Japanese-Americans still share disturbing stories about this deplorable phase in U.S. political history, but, in Shimomura’s case, the memories of his family remain even more vivid for the reason that his paternal grandmother (Toku Shimomura) kept a diary (written in Japanese) from the year of her arrival in the U.S. in 1912 until her death in 1968. When she died, her grandson inherited that diary, and excerpts from its entries are quoted in this exhibition catalog. This has everything to do with Shimomura’s artwork, which at first might be dismissively seen as a harmless art historical blend of Pop Art, comic book drawings, and ukiyo-e woodblock prints from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, as this catalog shows, in a series of interesting essays about the context and consequences of his work, his art not only barks–it bites. While comic at first glance, a closer look at his paintings reveals an abiding rage, in part of course because the attitudes that imprisoned his own American family appear to have once again surfaced, this time directed not at Native Americans, Jews, Asians or Blacks, but at those of Arab ancestry. "Lest we forget," writes art historian William Lew in his introduction, "Shimomura’s art admonishes us–sometimes subtly, sometimes veiled in humor and irony, and more recently with a fury and an intensity that strikes us between the eyes like a sharp blow–about our inclinations to succumb to a distrust of those who don’t look like us."

Reprinted by permission from Ballast Quarterly Review from Vol 21 No 3 (Spring 2006).



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