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Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010

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"Adrift II," a 2008 oil painting by Taeko Tomiyama (trimmed). COURTESY OF THE ARTIST


Brushing with authority

Sidelined in Japan, but respected the world over, Taeko Tomiyama tells Nobuko Tanaka what has inspired her art for more than 60 years

Special to The Japan Times

I will never forget the day I went to a show titled "Embracing Asia: Taeko Tomiyama Retrospective 1950-2009," which was one of 370 art exhibits by creators from 40 countries comprising the fourth Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial staged over 50 days last autumn at locations across a huge area of rural Niigata Prefecture.

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Undimmed flame: Taeko Tomiyama pictured in the studio in her Tokyo home, with two of her oils on the walls behind, during the recent interview she gave The Japan Times.
"Normally people think negative things about getting old," she observed with a smile, "but I enjoy my glorious 80s and, as I am an artist, I don't have a retirement age and can just carry on working."
Though virtually unknown at home, Tomiyama has, over her long career, had many excellent reviews for her exhibitions outside Japan, notably in London, Berlin, Paris, New York, Bangkok and Melbourne.
In 1995, she was invited to exhibit as a Special Guest at the first Kwangju Biennial Art Festival in South Korea, in honor of her many artworks based on the bloody, prodemocracy Kwangju Uprising there in 1980. Then, in 1998, she received the Women's Human Rights Special Award from The Foundation for Human Rights in Asia.

Entering the exhibition's venue, a disused but bright and airy elementary school in the village of Nakasato, beside the picturesque Kiyotsu Gorge, was in some ways like stepping into a modern-day but decidedly Asian Hieronymous Bosch festival. Among more than 200 of Tomiyama's artworks on display were astonishing and stunning surprises at every turn — from woodcuts that brought to mind Fernand Leger or Pablo Picasso to surreal Asian histories in oils, silkscreens and graphically politically technicolor collages the like of which I'd never seen before. Never seen, especially in Japan, as the powerful, detailed and frequently comical, erotic or ironic content of many of the pieces spoke directly to issues so rarely if ever openly addressed in this country.

Surrounded by such a wealth of creative energy, my eyes were riveted to the displays. It was as if I'd stumbled into an artistic Aladdin's Cave.

To my great surprise, I soon discovered that Tomiyama, the creator of these beautiful but clear and direct political and social messages — addressing festering sores such as Japan's war guilt and countless global contradictions — was not a thrusting thirtysomething but a thrusting artistic agent provocateuse now in her 89th year. She was also someone I definitely wanted to meet.

Born in Kobe in 1921, Tomiyama was an only child who says she started to draw for want of having any playmates, but also because her mother loved doing beautiful embroidery. Her father drew cartoons as his hobby and sometimes invited friends who were professional suibokuga (Indian ink) artists to stay over.

When Tomiyama was 10, however, the family moved to Manchuria when her businessman father was transfered there by his company, the English-based Dunlop Tyre Corp. So it was that for the next six years, at an impressionable stage in her life, she lived in Dalian and Harbin — "witnessing both the conquering and conquered sides" in the puppet-state dependency that militarized Japan called Manchukuo.

But then, at age 16, Tomiyama moved alone to Tokyo to attend the Woman's School of Fine Arts, later joining the Japanese branch of of the German-based Bauhaus School of art. Before long, Japan was at war, and by the time hostilities ended in 1945, Tomiyama was a "very poor," divorced mother of two little girls.

Then, in the mid-1950s, when she returned to visit an area in Miyagi Prefecture in northern Japan where she'd been evacuated to during the war, Tomiyama was powerfully struck by the bare mountains swathed in black dust and smoke from the area's coalmines. It was a sight that fired her artistic spirit and led not only to a series of writings and stark pictures on that brutal industry but to a turning point in her life that set her focus thereafter on social issues — something that even today many artists in Japan tend not to address head on.

Before long Tomiyama was off to South America on a shoestring budget to document the Japanese miners driven by poverty to emigrate there. Next she visited Cuba, then later, in search of her Asian roots, Central, West and South Asia. In the 1970s, deeply affected by the democracy movement in South Korea, she went to that country in turmoil and created a storied series of lithographs themed on the antigovernment poet Kim Chi Ha. That experience also fostered her continuing interest in and artistic focus on Japan's annexation of Korea from 1910-45 — involving issues such as Japan's many thousands of Korean "comfort women" (wartime sex slaves), her homeland's largely ignored war guilt, and the present conditions of Asian women in general.

Yet though she is held in high regard and exhibited around the world, Tomiyama is virtually ignored in Japan — where the authorities ensure art and politics mix like oil and water — and her works are rarely shown even at small venues.

It was against this background that Fram Kitagawa, general art director of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, booked Tomiya's show last autumn in that disused school. As he wrote in a review of her autobiography, "Embracing Asia," published last year, Kitagawa did so simply because he believes Tomiyama "will in the future be seen as one of the best artists in Japan in this period."

When I visited her home in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward recently, Tomiyama put down her paintbrush, smiled warmly, and there in her sunny living room we started our conversation.

What's this painting you are working on?

I am painting a landscape of Afghanistan, where I spent three months in the autumn of 1967. It is part of my latest series about the Eurasian continent.

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"Mother of Kwangju" (above) and "Security Treaty," two (trimmed) 1980 lithographs by Taeko Tomiyama referring to the bloody, prodemocracy Kawangju Uprising in South Korea in May 1980, and to 1960's Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST
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When I went to Afghanistan there were no tourists at all, but there were those enormous ancient Buddha figures carved from the cliffs in the Bamiyan Valley. I remember I felt that there, somehow, was the indescribable origin of Japan, and also there I heard the local wedding music, and I thought it was very similar to the sanbaso music in Japan's noh theater.

The Silk Road ran through Afghanistan, and that area was an ancient link between East and West. Alexander the Great went there from the West, and Buddhist culture also flourished there. So, with my Asian roots, I felt somehow nostalgic there though I'd never been before.

Everywhere, too, there was a kind of illusory surrealism, and the place was covered in liver-colored sands. I'm painting this from black-and-white photos I took then, and also from recent pictures, so I am creating an illusory image mixing ancient sights and ones from today. (Pausing as if struck by an urgent thought, Tomiyama then turned back to her canvas and painted some sheep on it without any hesitation at all.)

I notice that you can paint very speedily.

Now, in my 80s, I can paint much faster and more enthusiastically. I have much less hesitation to use my brush than before. When I was young, it took much longer to finish a work as I worried about many different things to do with my themes and their purpose. But now I am quite clear about many things, so I can work quickly. For example, if I took a year to finish a work in my 30s, now I could finish it in two months. There's no point living for a long time unless at least some things improve, is there? (laughs) Normally people think negative things about getting old, but I enjoy my glorious 80s and, as I am an artist, I don't have a retirement age and can just carry on working.

As for the subjects of my artworks, they have always come to me in a stream, such as the Gwangju Democratization Movement iFn Korea (1980) and 9/11 in New York (2001). So as long as I am ready to react to such matters instantly, I never need to worry about finding my themes and I feel free and relaxed to express my thoughts in my artworks.

When I went to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial in the Niigata countryside last September, I thought I'd never seen such pictures as yours by a Japanese artist before, as they obviously had such strong political messages.

Hmm, it's been taboo for ages in Japan. It's a tacit unspoken understanding in the Japanese art world to steer clear of politics because artists fear being branded as antiauthoritarian by the powers that be. That's because those authorities are quite capable of ostracizing their work due to their groundless fears and lack of imagination.

Furthermore, commercial art galleries are hesitant to show such political and social works, as it may cause problems for their business, while the younger people who might want to plan such shows at public art spaces can't get their bosses' authorization, as they are afraid of causing controversy.

So do you mean there are certain taboos in art in today's Japan?

In Japan, artists can't indicate their political concepts clearly in their works, so normally they only allude to things in ambiguous ways.

For example, there is an unfathomable fog between citizens and the Imperial family in Japan. The Imperial family has never said that people shouldn't make mention of its war guilt, but there is a certain unspoken agreement about not talking about war guilt in our society.

It would be something sensational, for instance, if celebrities were to talk about their memories of their experience in Harbin, Manchuria or Korea during the wartime period. Talking about Japan's colonies is such a sensitive taboo in this country. I think it's so weird. Of course, there is no problem if they just talk about their nostalgic, fun recollections, and it's OK to praise the Imperial family. But once artists put critical or sarcastic messages about such things as war responsibility into their works, then it becomes quite unacceptable.

Unfortunately, artists are generally not well supported financially in Japan, so they tend to impose self-restraint in the interests of making a living. The same thing happens in the media, including television and newspapers.


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