Focus on the Permanent Collection
By Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions
A third-generation Japanese American, Roger Shimomura was born in Seattle, Washington and has resided in Kansas since 1969 where he holds the position of Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Fine Art at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Shimomura’s work in printmaking, painting, and performance art addresses the contradictions and prejudices that frequently characterize America’s cultural diversity. Blending American Pop Art influences with 18th- and 19th-century Japanese woodcut traditions, Shimomura explores both the humor and tragedy that are part of his Asian-American identity.
American Guardian belongs to a group of images created in response to his family’s detention during World War II, when Shimomura was a young child. Utilizing notes from his grandmother’s diaries along with his own
recollections, Shimomura produced a haunting series of paintings and prints that reflect his upbringing in wartime internment camps in Washington State and Idaho, a period that lasted more than three years. In a composition that suggests the serene “pictures of the floating world” of Ukiyo-e prints, Shimomura contrasts the innocence of childhood with the harsh realities of an anxious world. The lithograph’s palette of drab military colors combines with the unmistakable symbols of high-security imprisonment to instill in viewers a vicarious experience of the hardships such families endured.
Today’s world again abounds in anxiety-producing occurrences and harsh realities. News reports bear witness to heart-rending instances of international displacement, discrimination, intolerance, and violent acts of hatred. It is often remarked that man’s history is repetitious. George Bernard Shaw wrote, in Man and Superman, “If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience.” As we engage in public debate over issues of immigration, the handling of refugees, and the extent of humanitarian duty, it is easy to lose touch with our common and natural compassion. Shimomura’s print is a graphic reminder to reflect on our own history and shared humanity while we face these unfortunately familiar challenges. Citing Shaw again, from The Devil’s Disciple: “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.”