NORTH ADAMS -- The paintings of Roger Shimomura are fun, cartoonish and delightfully over-the-top, but what lurks behind them is a serious history of racism in America, and an examination of how naturalized cultures are expected to bow to the dominant one, with no compromises.
Shimomura's work is part of "Freedom, Just Another Word For ..." showing at KidSpace at Mass MoCA starting Saturday, June 15.
One painting to be shown at KidSpace features Shimomura, decked out in a judo outfit, punching Superman, the ultimate white American. It's typical of Shimomura's method of addressing stereotypes as he's experienced them.
"The reason for the outfit was I was presenting myself in that stereotype that says, ‘if you're Asian you must know martial arts,' " Shimomura said. "Punching out Superman was intended to depict a tension between Asian-American culture and the dominant white culture in this country, and how things that have to do with just about everything many times comes down to race. That's why, in this case, I'm having this struggle with the dominant race, represented by Superman."
Another painting features Shimomura's head transplanted on top of Mickey Mouse's body as an expression of the struggle to assimilate, a further example of Shimomura's appropriation of popular culture to address the place of all minorities in the United States, as seen through the lens of Japanese-American issues.
"These have to be seen as being metaphors for a much bigger issue," Shimomura said, "not specifically Asian-American, but any person of color in this country. All of the arguments seem to be very similar in that regard."
Shimomura's work also acknowledges the way Japanese culture is sometimes appropriated by the dominant American culture, such as Pokemon or Hello Kitty, in some ways the modern equivalent of the embrace of black entertainers, like Louis Armstrong or Sammy Davis Jr., as safe, in contrast to more politicized or honest manifestations of race in entertainment.
"It's a strange way of accepting a culture," said Shimomura, "kind of a backward way in many regards, to accept the non-serious, non-threatening icon as part of the American fabric."
Shimomura acknowledges that the tide is changing and things have improved in depictions of Asian Americans, but he grew up at a time when they were at an all-time low -- the World War 2 era, which he spent in a Japanese internment camp with his parents.
"It was always the stereotype and those are the things that I've been reaching for in my own work, specifically those stereotypes from the war years," he said. "A lot of them were toward Asian people and the ones against Japanese people, in particular, were ruthless."
"As a kid I bought into all this. I grew up collecting comic books. I never read them, I looked at them. I think that has a lot to do with my paintings looking as they do, that early influence of loving to look at those bright colors and all that. As far back as I can remember, I was absorbed in the appearance of that comic culture, which slides right into popular culture."
Shimomura says that the stereotypes he faced on a daily basis in the entertainment he choose and which was even specifically aimed at kids forced him into a kind of disconnect, though one that struggled against the reality that was hard to escape.
"There's a photograph of myself and my buddies in the neighborhood, all Japanese-Americans at the age of about 7 or 8, this is after we got out of camp, and we're all dressed up as soldiers, and we're playing what we called, ‘Kill The Jap,'" he said.
"We would take turns being the Jap, and none of us would want to, because the Japs always got killed. That was an integral part of our lives, those stereotypes, but we didn't feel a part of that. The irony of that, of course, is that's how we were seen by the majority culture. That's why we were in the camps."
The other irony is that Shimomura's parents were in the camp because of their skin and their descent, and the perceived threat of those -- there was very little of substance to justify the incarceration of Japanese families other than racism.
"Those of us who went in as kids had parents that were citizens that were also born in this country," Shimomura said. "My mom and dad, being 100 percent Japanese blood, both passed away without ever having stepped foot in Japan, which wasn't uncommon."
For Shimomura, what makes this issue so relevant to modern America is that the lesson on the part of white America seems to have been to shift that course of action to a different ethnic group, rather than disown it all together.
"Just look at 9-11 and all the talk of people and their backgrounds," he said. "Some politicians say that maybe it's best if we detain them all and then, as they prove themselves innocent, we'll let them out. It's amazing they could say that in light of what happened before, so the lessons have a very short shelf life."
Shimomura moved to Lawrence, Kansas, in 1969 to teach, and still lives there. It was at the time of that move that popular culture images began to show up in his work as a way to address his experience growing up with institutionalized racism.
"The work goes back over 40 years, using things that came from popular culture," said Shimomura, "and then their identities became a little bit more specific when I started working on these issues of my own identity and how I fit into that culture,. All of a sudden, the images were not just popular images that were floating out there."
"I started assigning specific meanings to some of them, vis a vis Superman representing white male-dominated culture, and this blind belief in that culture and in that system. I started challenging that and then gradually I started introducing other objects and then and people from that culture into the work."
Shimomura's fear is that while the improvement in depictions is clearly there, it could always slip back into mundane usage of racial stereotypes in popular culture, and as long as that is a threat, the issue needs to be addressed in the open as a way to combat it.
"We're a long way away from that utopian situation where we're color-blind," he said.
But he also notes that through manga and anime, there has been wide movement on the part of younger Americans to absorb Japanese culture in a positive way, without any negative connotations being brought in on their first contact. His hope is that part of his effort amounts to a generational one, and he's not about to give up yet.
"I'm toward the end of a lot of these things that I'm concerned with," Shimomura said. "It's just that given my age, how long I've been doing this, that I feel like it's the fight that I've created and been fighting all my life, and with the amount of time that's left, I've got to continue the good fight."
Find Shimomura online at rshim.com.