Saturday, September 19, 2009

Yellow Terror beckons at Wing Luke

Today I took advantage of free admission at the Wing Luke Asian Museum in the International District, my first visit since they opened the new space in May 2008. I came specifically to see the new exhibit that opened last week, Yellow Terror: The Collections and Paintings of Roger Shimomura.

Some big and some small, all of Shimomura’s paintings are eye-catching. They are done in a brightly colored pop art style and explore Asian and Asian American stereotypes and our perception of the Other, set in the context of World War II. He looks at how Japanese nationals were depicted during this time in American history, and how the stereotypes of yellow skin, buck teeth and slanted eyes were visually exaggerated to encourage normative Americans (as he names them) to relegate an entire group of people to subhuman status. Shimomura uses himself as the primary subject in several of the pieces, intending to juxtapose images traditionally associated with Japanese identity and his own self-confessed non-Asian-American appearance. I especially like how he employs color, heavy on the use of bright yellow when depicting Japanese or Japanese Americans, and often pink or beige for the faces of normative Americans. Some of my favorite pieces are part of the “Mixing & Matching” series that depicts several couples mixed and matched into multiple color combinations.

In addition to his paintings, Shimomura also shares his collection of ephemera from that time period. It was so interesting to see how the xenophobia of the age was cultivated through an enormous array of materials. There were the more extreme examples like Jap hunting club cards, but it’s the everyday objects that seem somehow more jarring. The caricatured depictions of Japanese nationals in everything from salt and pepper shakers, to the bottoms of ashtrays, to cookie jars, not to mention postcards, buttons, envelopes and greeting cards, all underscore the insidiousness of this brand of racism. Add to what’s apparent in these physical objects, their portrayal in the movies, books, cartoons and comics of the era, you can clearly see “the ease with which stereotypes moved from the public sphere to private consumption.” Frightening stuff.

The exhibit opened last week and continues through April 18, 2010 but I encourage you not to wait that long to see it. Take note that admission to Wing Luke is free on the first Thursday and third Saturday of each month, with extended evening hours on both days. In a time when our recent history includes terrorist playing cards and an immigration debate with its own heavy undertones of xenophobia, the history of 70 years ago suddenly doesn’t seem quite so distant. What’s that again about history and being doomed to repeat it…?

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