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Virtual Asian-American Art Museum Project

Alexei Taylor, Author

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Toku Shimomura’s Diaries and Their Impact on the Art of Roger Shimomura

One of the components that were instrumental in developing material for the Diary series was the translation of your grandmother’s diaries, which I believe you began to undertake around 1980 with a graduate student in art education, Akiko Day.

Roger: Right. Day had been living in this country for eighteen years at the time and was quite proficient in both languages and always had an interest in my grandmother. I would point out certain dates that I thought were important, and she would, in turn, translate and give them back to me. So I naturally started with the 1941 diary and December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, and actually had her read it right on the spot. I was that anxious to decipher the contents of the diaries. She read me the translation, and at that point, I knew right away that there was going to be a lot of information there that would lead to new work. 

At the time I was still connected to the idea of keeping with the stylistic appearance of Japanese woodblock prints, to retain that sixteenth-, seventeenth-century visual language. I remember having an argument with my former wife when I did the Minidoka series. When she saw them, she immediately said, “You’re perpetuating stereotypes. White America thinks we go home after work and put on kimono and eat with chopsticks.” I said, you know, I realize that. But by the same token, I have to somehow make the work accessible. If I start doing just straight-up paintings about the incarceration experience, my dealers will not show them. Very few people were doing that kind of work at that time. If you look at the paintings out of that original Diary series from 1980 to 1983, they have a real kind of decorative Japanese woodblock appeal to them. I liked the idea that people were bothered by the little bit of barbed wire depicted (fig. 11). We’d be talking about one barb that’s an inch long, and they would say, “God, I’d love to have that painting, but that barbed wire just bothers me,” which shows that they weren’t ready yet to accept the work based on its real intention. It wasn’t until I returned to the Diary series vis-à-vis An American Diary that I felt like I could be straightforward and tell the story of the incarceration in this sort of series of snapshots. And it wasn’t until I did the Minidoka on My Mind series, which was the fourth venture into the camp theme, that some of them became huge, in-your-face paintings (fig. 12).
What’s so interesting to me is that the diary entry provides an important narrative gloss that enables one to appreciate certain elements of the imagery more deeply. To pull that away is to pull the substance away from the surface appearance. I wonder if you could speak a little more about narrative techniques that you have developed in your art.

One of the most difficult things is picking [diary] entries that are pregnant so that you’re not just illustrating but always implying that there’s more beyond what’s being said. In An American Diary, I would read a whole entry that might be two paragraphs long and pick just one short sentence out of that because it conjured an immediate image to me.

Let’s look at Diary: December 12, 1941 (fig. 13, front cover).

Roger’s Commentary: Right. The whole Superman thing came right at the very end. I had no idea that that was going to happen, and yet it happened in a very important kind of way that led right into the usage in the performances. Those two actually go hand in hand, because every act of the Kabuki Plays has [in it] a painting out of the earlier Diary series. Later on, as I started to uncover my grandmother’s autograph books and other books where she wrote poetry and songs and lyrics to songs and short stories and all that, my mind would just be flooded with how
to use these things, and the only way I could do it was in performance. You can’t hear music and you can’t recite haiku with paint. In the mid-1980s I bought a video camera, and that’s what changed everything. I knew a choreographer, Marsha Paludan, in Lawrence, who had her own dance troupe, and she would come over to my studio every Wednesday night. I’d put on all kinds of music, and she would wear a kimono, and she would do these dances. She would just improvise. I would shoot images by video and look at them and then suggest things that might be done. Then she started inviting some of her dancers to come, and pretty soon we had three, four, five people dancing in my studio to all kinds of music but dancing mostly in kimonos. Then I got an invitation from the university theater to write a stage piece for an original musical composition for their annual Contemporary Music Symposium. Before I said yes, I decided to do a small piece in a local gallery that combined lights, music, dance, property, and video. We pulled it off, and it was really kind of intoxicating. So I agreed to do this symposium project and decided at the same time that it would be act 1 of Seven Kabuki Plays. One of the things my grandmother did before she passed was to write a letter to her living relatives in Japan outlining her life in America. She also had her husband, my grandfather, do this. Before she mailed the letter, she recorded it with a tape recorder. When my grandmother passed away, my grandfather used to listen to her all the time, and my dad said you could hear the tape being played in my grandfather’s bedroom because he was missing her so much. And then, one night in a rage, he tore the tape out of the tape recorder. My dad saw it all over the floor in shreds, picked it up, and put it all back together again. Later on I discovered that tape.

With all its splicing?

Right. I mean, that’s a good example of something that can’t be used in any other way than performance. How do you make that into a painting?

Those tapes are integrated into Seven Kabuki Plays. Is that correct?

Right. My grandmother’s voice, during intermission, comes in, and you hear her reciting her letter. I used the tapes in another piece I did, with a fifteen minute meditation that incorporated a flamenco dancer.

My grandmother wrote a lot of haiku poetry in camp. I think one of the most interesting things of all were folk songs that she wrote the lyrics to. These were Japanese folk songs, and these lyrics were all about how pissed off they were at being put in camp. The story goes that they were very docile about it and accepting and went into camp and suffered quietly and all that. But these poems, these poems within the songs they sang, indicate that they were very upset over being treated so rudely by a country that they had invested in. When you have information like that, you’ve got to find a way of sharing it.

That’s a fascinating form of resistance. Your mention of haiku, which, of course, distills an experience, also makes me think about the degree to which some narrative techniques that play out in the realm of literature also seem to have resonance in your visual work. I’m thinking particularly of the dense layering of many of your images, for example, a recent painting of you fighting Disney’s stereotypes (fig. 14). There is a sense of lots and lots being pulled together into a single frame.

Yes, a lot of that is trying to achieve this balance between the story line, or the message, as it were, and something that’s interesting to paint. If the painting is not interesting to look at, then it’s not fully functioning. At least, that’s the way I see it.
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