Roger Shimomura: Eternal Foreigner

"My first memory of life is celebrating my third birthday in camp." (From "Memories of Childhood" by Roger Shimomura, 1999. Lithograph.) On display through December 30, 2011

Eternal Foreigner 2 is the title of a painting by Roger Shimomura that we recently exhibited at the Sabatini Gallery. It’s been on my mind these days, especially now that we’ve marked the 70th anniversary of the December 7 bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941.

That event marked the beginning of United States’ involvement in World War II, and forever changed the course of Lawrence, KS artist (born in Seattle, WA) Roger Shimomura.

"Untitled (Boot, Goofy & B-17)" by Roger Shimomura. Acrylic on canvas, 88.21. On display through December 30, 2011.

Out of fear of espionage and sabotage along the Pacific, President Roosevelt authorized the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West coast on February 19, 1942. These American citizens, none of whom were ever charged with a crime, were forced to leave their homes for ten large relocation camps in remote, desolate areas, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Two-thirds were native-born American citizens.

One of them was Roger Shimomura, aged three.

I keep returning to the title of his piece because I’m struck by the difference in our American experience, especially during wartime. Like Shimomura, I, too, was born in this country. Neither of us speak the language of our immigrant parents (in my case, grandparents), but for someone who “looks” like the enemy, Shimomura, along with many others, was treated as a threat to national security. And long after World War II was over, the effects of prolonged discrimination have an understandable impact on his world view, informing much of his work as an artist.

“Shimomura knows well the pain and embarrassment associated with xenophobia, and being ‘different’ in America. Shimomura creates work that often pivots on the racist stereotypes that have been used to characterize Asian Americans.” [1]

"Mistaken Identities" by Roger Shimomura, 2005. On display through December 30, 2011.

But Shimomura’s work goes above and beyond representing his own story. It not only illustrates a powerful moment in our collective history, but acts as a reference point with broader applications.

I can’t help but compare his struggle with that of Muslim-Americans being feared and demonized for “looking” like the enemy after 9-11. Or how Latino American citizens feel pressure to assert their citizenship because of on-going immigration issues in this age of terrorism. Shimomura’s work is powerful enough to transcend his own experience and become a voice for Americans marginalized in our country due to physical appearance or heritage.

We couldn’t ask for a more perfect context in which to showcase Library-owned work by Roger Shimomura than Call of Duty: Kansans in World War II. In this exhibit you’ll find a timeline of events, Allied and Axis uniforms, photographs, interactive areas, but also the Japanese American story that that gave us Roger Shimomura, an American hovering between two cultures: one in which he isn’t Japanese enough, in the other, not quite American enough—American citizen and eternal foreigner.

If you’d like to learn more about the pieces on display, check out this short video:


Heather Kearns

I've been the Sabatini Gallery's associate curator since 2004 and social media coordinator since 2008. My passion is helping people “get“ art, and by that I mean creating an environment both in-house and online which fosters a greater understanding, confidence, and sense of enjoyment from the art experience. Art should be easy to access and available to everyone. I take helping people very seriously.