HM - Jan. 2017 - Zavadil White

Partners in History

Investigating Global Competence Through Portraiture

By Briana Zavadil White 
Student and Teacher Programs Manager
National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the story of America by portraying the people who shape the nation’s history, development, and culture. These Americans—artists, politicians, scientists, inventors, activists, and performers—form our national identity. They help us understand who we are and remind us of what we can aspire to be. As an institution, we consider this mission through three lenses: art, history, and biography. For our student and teacher audiences, the study of portraiture is a multidisciplinary endeavor—portraits present insights into history and biography, prompt writing in the classroom, inspire students to create self-portraits, and even offer great ties to science and mathematics. Recently, however, I have been considering how to engage our student and teacher audiences in exploring portraits that examine multiple cultures and consider our place in a global world.

A little more than five years ago, the Portrait Gallery hosted an exhibition, as part of the Portraiture Now series, called “Asian American Portraits of Encounter.” It was then that I was introduced to the work of Roger Shimomura (b. 1939), a Japanese American artist. Shimomura combines American culture with Asian traditions to create artworks—paintings, prints, and performances—that play on Asian stereotypes and create thought-provoking questions about racial and cultural identity. During World War II, Shimomura and his family were imprisoned at a camp in Idaho, indicative of the widespread xenophobia taking place at that time. 

Teacher Group Observing "Shimomura Crossing the Delaware"
by Roger Shimomura
Image Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

During his time as a professor at the University of Kansas, Shimomura used his art to explore the complexities of American cultural identity and the challenges of being of Asian descent in the United States. Shimomura combines the traditional “look” of Japanese culture and American material culture to draw his audience’s attention to the unconscious stereotypes that are all too often overlooked. While at the University of Kansas, Shimomura faced questions about how long he had lived in the United States or what part of Japan he was from. Shimomura noted the confusion on their faces when he answered that he was from Seattle, signaling the idea that “American-born citizens of Asian descent continue to be thought of as only ‘American knockoffs.’” Aware of the controversial nature of his work, Shimomura reflects, “if my work is seen as raising more questions than it answers, I’d be pleased, because I’m not sure what those answers are.”

What if George Washington was Japanese American?” With this thought, Shimomura created Shimomura Crossing the Delaware (2010), a play on Emanuel Leutze’s 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. He placed himself in the iconic pose as Washington but replaced the Continental army soldiers with Japanese samurai. In addition, Shimomura remakes the body of water they cross to resemble San Francisco Harbor, with Angel Island (the processing center for Asian immigrants) in the background. The work echoes the compositional format of a Katsushika Hokusai woodblock print. 

At the conclusion of the exhibition, the Portrait Gallery acquired Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. I couldn’t have been more thrilled! I found great success using this contemporary portrait as an entrée into a dialogue about identity and stereotypes, using the following line of inquiry: 
Portrait Observations
1.    Describe what each sitter is wearing. How are their outfits similar, and how are they different?
2.    Describe the setting of this portrait. What type of landscape do you see in the background?
3.    What objects do you see in the portrait? 
4.    Describe the sitters’ facial expressions. In what direction are they looking?
Portrait Analysis
1.    How do the different elements in the portrait combine to tell the story? Consider the setting, clothing, pose, facial expressions, and objects.
2.    What can you tell about the sitters based on their clothing?
3.    How can we interpret the presence of the objects found in the painting? 
4.    Why might the artist have arranged the sitters in these particular poses? What can we determine about the relationship among the sitters? 
5.    How is Americanism and patriotism reflected in this portrait? Why would the artist include these elements?

As I discussed Shimomura Crossing the Delaware with more and more students and teachers, I realized something was missing from my facilitation, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  Then, last year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in a group considering how to educate students for global competence, facilitated by Veronica Boix-Mansilla, principal investigator and lecturer in education for Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Jim Reese, director of the Professional Development Collaborative at the Washington International School. 

In order to help students create a culture of global competence, Boix-Mansilla created a number of global thinking routines—tools specifically designed to support and guide students’ thinking. Her Unveiling Stories global thinking routine is part of this series. Ah ha! This is what was missing from my discussions! The Unveiling Stories routine invites the viewer to examine the multiple layers of meaning in a work of art by asking five questions: What is the story? What is the human story? What is the world story? What is the new story? What is the untold story? Through a thoughtful examination of Shimomura Crossing the Delaware, teachers—and in turn students—are encouraged to see the potential for portraiture as an invitation to investigate the world.

Here is an outline of how I used Boix-Mansilla’s Unveiling Stories global thinking routine with Shimomura Crossing the Delaware: 
•    Start with a minute of quiet looking.
•    Discuss your initial observations with a partner.
•    Compare to Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (
•    Discuss additional observations with a partner.
•    What’s the story? This is where we synthesize the observations we made initially, and where we discuss the overarching theme of the image.
•    What’s the human story? We consider the person-centered experience: how does the story help us understand the lives of our fellow human beings around the world?
•    What’s the world story? What global issues today does this painting reveal for us?
•    What’s the new story? What is new and instructive about the issue explored? At this point I tell viewers that Roger Shimomura is third-generation Japanese American, and that as a small child, he spent two years in an internment camp in Idaho during WWII.
•    What’s the untold story? What are the important absences of the story? What could be happening beyond the frame of the portrait?

This routine has led to thoughtful conversations about immigration, Japanese internment, identity, appropriation, etc.—topics that certainly enable us to consider our past, present, and future, but also our place in a global world. I hope you will consider using the Unveiling Stories global thinking routine with Shimomura Crossing the Delaware. You will not be disappointed in the rich dialogue you will have with your students!  

Additional Resources:
The National Portrait Gallery’s Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter web exhibition: 

Virtual Asian American Art Museum Project:  

“Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World” by Veronica Boix-Mansilla and Anthony Jackson: 

Boix-Mansilla, Veronica. “How to Be a Global Thinker” Educational Leadership. December 2016: 10–16.