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Virtual Asian-American Art Museum Project

Alexei Taylor, Author

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Shimomura Crossing the Delaware

As a historian, I’m tempted to peel apart the layers or to tease out the connections between things that may, on the surface, appear to be incongruous, and I wonder if you mind if I use that as a segue to a slightly different form of appropriation in a more recent painting that has recently been on view at the National Portrait Gallery: Shimomura Crossing the Delaware (fig. 16). Clearly, the work is a play on Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. Could you speak to the different influences that went into this and perhaps what you meant to accomplish with this work?

This painting had a lot to do with ego. I came up with the idea of doing a series of works that placed me, as a Japanese American, in various key roles and positions in the history of this country. Of course, one of the first things that came to mind was [George] Washington crossing the Delaware. I was aware that other artists had taken this on, such as Bob [Robert] Colescott. But I liked the question that this posed: What if George Washington was Japanese American? You know, that’s such a staggering “if.” Just imagine. I mean, it’s mind-boggling. It was such an absurd idea that I decided it was the right one. Then to even consider how history might have changed after he crossed the Delaware if he were Japanese American. Particularly with a crew of nine Japanese rowing him across [the river]. What would the circumstances have been for nine Japanese to be rowing this Japanese American, who treats himself as though he were Caucasian by assuming the costuming, you know? There are just so many layers there that go way beyond my imagination.

I think part of what makes it so effective is the really seamless integration of an icon of art of the United States with very strong elements of Japanese woodblock printing—Hiroshige and Hokusai, for example, come to mind. It also raises the question of patriotism. Clearly this question of what is an American, what is American-ness, is at the core of what you do as an artist. We spoke earlier about your military service, but I think this work forces us to address the complex question of patriotism, especially with the inclusion of the American flag at the center of the painting.

Well, I agree. The main question here in the end is how does this painting affect the way we see patriotism and what’s important about patriotism, or how blind is patriotism? That question, that issue, comes to the forefront in just about all the work that I do. Anything that has to do with race, ethnicity, Americanism asks that very same question. Really, how absurd is it that a Japanese American might lead a boat across the Delaware? Then, as well, that a crew of Japanese nationals would be rowing the boat? I think it becomes philosophical after a point.

Speaking of the question of patriotism and the complex issues of race and ethnicity it can engender, particularly at transformative historical moments, I wondered if you could speak to a painting you have recently completed: Not Pearl Harbor (fig. 17). It’s a fascinating reflection on the implications of September 11, which immediately drew comparisons with the Japanese aerial attack that brought the United States into World War II. Could you speak to its scale and its pictorial style and narrative strategies? What inspired you to develop this response to this traumatic event approximately a decade after it transpired?5

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was preparing to take my wife to the Kansas City airport to catch a plane to LaGuardia [Airport]. I turned the TV on just as reports were coming in that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Then I watched the second plane hit, and I knew my wife would not be going to New York. Within hours, comparisons were being made to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and how the world would change forever. When I heard this parallel, it didn’t take me long to think of the comparisons between what ultimately happened to the Japanese Americans following this attack, and what might happen to other innocent Americans should the events of September 11 be proven to be an act of terrorism. Within days I received a call from a gallery in Washington, D.C. [Anton Gallery, since relocated to Monterey, California], asking if I would provide a painting on the World Trade Center attack to be sold as a fund-raiser for victims of this tragedy. I happily agreed to do so. In it I depicted two stereotypical “Japs” with Taliban facial hair wearing turbans. In the background a Japanese Zero fighter plane crashes into an unseen target. I don’t think the parallels need explanation.

Over the next few years, I produced several variations of this painting. Many years later the idea to do a major work on this subject began to germinate, based on some of the conversations I heard on talk radio regarding the possibility of incarcerating all people of Arab extraction as part of the war on terrorism. During times of national crises, the American government has shown the ability to forget lessons learned from past history. In 1941, owing to wartime hysteria, the attack on Pearl Harbor ultimately led to the wrongful imprisonment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry. Earlier events like the Iran hostage crisis (1979) and Operation Desert Storm (1991) spawned paranoia, resulting in excessive police surveillance and Muslim-bashing rhetoric. The World Trade Center attack, with its comparisons to Pearl Harbor, rekindled serious interest among some segments of American society in suspending the rights of innocent people of Arab descent and practicing Muslims in an attempt to ferret out the guilty. The painting Not Pearl Harbor depicts many of the main characteristics and historical events related to and resulting from the attack on the World Trade Center and is meant to stimulate dialogue on whether mistakes committed in 1942 could possibly be repeated today. The prevalent smoke that covers the painting emanates from the World Trade Center. The two left panels depict historical issues of the Middle East, while the right two panels depict issues related to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In total, the painting is intended to ask the question: Just how far have we come in exercising good judgment where racial profiling and religious tolerance are concerned?
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