Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 12, 2013
Laura Hein and Rebecca Jennison, eds. Imagination without Borders: Feminist Artist Tomiyama Taeko and Social Responsibility Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies, Number 69.. Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2010. 164 pp. Paper $24.00 (9781929280636)

Artists whose work engages in critical social commentary have never found a particularly warm reception in Japan, and most of them remain underrepresented. Even today, politically oriented artists find support and exhibition venues more easily overseas. Such has been the case with Tomiyama Taeko (b. 1921), an artist who has devoted her life to art and political activism concerning such issues as Japan’s wartime crimes and its victims in the former colonies. Because of such biting content, her art has been better appreciated outside Japan, primarily in North America and East Asia. Turning ninety-two this year, Tomiyama is far from retiring; instead, she is focusing her energy on producing works dedicated to the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami and other recent incidents.

Laura Hein and Rebecca Jennison co-edited Imagination without Borders: Feminist Artist Tomiyama Taeko and Social Responsibility, the first English-language book to introduce Tomiyama’s work to a broader audience. The collection illuminates multifaceted aspects of Tomiyama’s art through four essays by Japanese and U.S. scholars of history, literature, cultural studies, and gender studies, as well as an essay by an Italian composer living in Japan. It also features a dialogue between Tomiyama and U.S. artist Eleanor Rubin in order to add the voices of artists themselves. This cross-disciplinary approach to exploring the work of one artist is refreshing and illuminating. Such an approach is particularly valid for Tomiyama whose work is not limited to painting and printmaking, but also extends to multimedia presentations that incorporate slide projections of her paintings and music by her long-term collaborator, the renowned composer Takahashi Yūji.

The companion website set up by Hein through Northwestern University and featuring color illustrations of Tomiyama’s work is a necessary addition. The book contains only a small number of black-and-white images that are not adequate to illustrate the detailed discussions. Color reproductions on the website allow closer viewing and zooming in on details, yet limited captions require the viewer to turn to the book for contextual explanation. Furthermore, as an art historian, I felt frustrated not to find dimensions and medium for most of the work presented either in the book or on the website. Another welcome addition to the website would be a video clip of one of Tomiyama’s audio-visual presentations, as it is difficult to imagine what they are like even with detailed descriptions.

The book’s organization is compact and carefully planned. Hein’s introduction first lays out critical issues at stake, including Tomiyama’s presentation of Japan’s colonialism from the perspectives of the colonized, while simultaneously providing a biographical sketch of the artist. Born in Kobe in 1921, Tomiyama spent her junior high and high school years in Dalian and Harbin, then part of the Japanese colony in China called Manchukuo, where her father worked for a British company that had a factory in Kobe. There she experienced going to a girls’ school with the daughters of the colonized Koreans and Chinese and developed an early awareness of ethnic hierarchies and discrimination. By 1938, when she returned to Japan to attend the Women’s Academy of Fine Arts, she had developed a sense that she was neither an insider nor an outsider in Japanese society. After the war, during Japan’s rapid democratization, it became almost taboo to talk about the colonial experience, and Tomiyama could not incorporate her wartime reflections into her art until the 1980s.

As Hagiwara Hiroko discusses in her essay “Working on and off the Margins” (chapter 6), Tomiyama’s earliest painting series—from the 1950s—was of coal mines throughout Japan. She felt a deep sympathy for the miners who were forced to do strenuous labor under poor conditions, and she wrote newspaper reports on their situation. But Tomiyama was dissatisfied by her landscapes in a Cubist style, feeling that they did not convey the harsh reality of the coal mines. She became heavily involved in both the miners’ labor movement and the concurrently developed anti-U.S.-Japan Security Treaty movement, both of which ended in defeat in 1960. Feeling drained, Tomiyama decided to travel to Latin America to trace migrations of Japanese miners there, which opened her eyes to the problem of global capitalism and its exploitation of workers. After returning from an extended around-the-world trip, she found a kindred spirit in South Korea. Inspired by satirical poems by Kim Ji-ha, who was imprisoned for criticizing the South Korean government, Tomiyama created a series of lithographs to accompany a short Japanese television program protesting the poet’s detention. Although the program was canceled and never aired, it was transformed into a slide presentation, titled Chained Hands in Prayer: Korea 1974 (1977). The discovery of this audio-visual format opened up new possibilities for Tomiyama whose political works were not readily embraced by commercial galleries. Extremely mobile, a slide presentation can be shown in various venues and reach a broader audience. According to Hagiwara, this new format became Tomiyama’s signature medium and allowed her to express even more political subjects, such as the long-suppressed issues of Korean comfort women. A Memory of the Sea (1988), a series of paintings and multimedia presentation on the subject, was shown in London and Berlin, and Tomiyama was credited with being the first visual artist to comment on this complex issue.

The subject of Korean comfort women is also a point of focus for Rebecca Copeland’s essay “Art Beyond Language” (chapter 2), although she first discusses the work of the feminist writer and poet Ōba Minako as a literary counterpart to Tomiyama. Despite the fact that Ōba and Tomiyama share feminist approaches to illuminating the oppressed in patriarchal society, an extensive discussion of Ōba’s work preceding that of Tomiyama’s feels slightly disorienting to the reader. Copeland’s in-depth analysis of Tomiyama’s The Festival of Galungan (1988), a Balinese festival for the deceased, is extremely detailed in its examination of various symbolic motifs and characters. A similar comparative approach is taken by Ann Sherif in “Art as Activism: Tomiyama Taeko and the Marukis” (chapter 1), drawing a parallel between the painter couple, Maruki Toshi and Maruki Iri, and Tomiyama. A heavier focus seems to be given to the discussion of the Marukis’ political artistic engagement rather than that of Tomiyama, and is again unwittingly distracting. While these artists employed art as activism, the Marukis were most active in the 1950s, producing paintings depicting the aftermath of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the United States, and they primarily serve as predecessors to Tomiyama, whose work mainly took off after the mid-1970s. Political contexts in the 1950s and 1970s are quite different. In terms of artistic style, too, Tomiyama’s has been based more on Surrealism and folk art, contrary to the Marukis’ realism. For a monograph, it seems somewhat unfitting to employ such a strong comparative approach.

Miyamoto Yuki’s “Fire and Femininity” (chapter 3), on the other hand, zeroes in on the symbolism of the fox motif in Tomiyama’s work over a few decades and explores its meaning and function from an anthropological point of view. It is particularly eye-opening to learn about the border-crossing representations of the fox in Japanese literature, folklore, and religion, and how effectively Tomiyama has used such mythical attributes in her paintings. It is equally poignant for Miyamoto to point out the fox’s symbolic relationship to the imperial family lineage and how this link is suggested in Tomiyama’s work in order to implicate Japan’s wartime imperialist expansion in Asia. The motif of the fox also figures prominently in the creative collaboration between Takahashi and Tomiyama as discussed by Carlo Forlivesi in “A Fox Story: The Creative Collaboration between Takahashi Yūji and Tomiyama Taeko” (chapter 4). With his perspective as a younger composer living in Japan, Forlivesi provides astute observations on the nature of the two artists’ collaboration. He points out that their critique of violence is done through “non-violence” rather than through the “violence of the images and music” (99). Forlivesi credits Takahashi for promoting a “more symbolic and iconographic mood” in Tomiyama’s paintings as opposed to oppressively conveying political messages (100). His analysis of Tomiyama’s and Takahashi’s respective political standpoints is helpful as well: he emphasizes Takahashi’s political commitment by contrasting him with composer Takemitsu Tōru, who has consistently received international acclaim. The belief in social responsibility over social acceptability has united Tomiyama and Takahashi for several decades.

Lastly, a dialogue between Tomiyama and Rubin, introduced and translated by Rebecca Jennison, is a welcome addition to the anthology, which at times tends to be overly academic. Although Rubin is almost twenty years younger than Tomiyama, the two artists share involvement in the feminist movement and anti-Vietnam War movement. Because this meeting took place in Tokyo on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, their conversation naturally reflected on how each of them responded to the event and aftermath, with a specific focus on artists’ social responsibility. A final statement by Tomiyama reveals her global and feminist historical conscience: “We can think of the short term, since 9/11, but we can also think in terms of the 5,000 years of patriarchy. Twentieth-century feminist art resonates across Asia and America because it deals with women’s disappointments and sorrows” (127). Altogether, the book successfully paints a complex and vivid portrait of this remarkably perceptive artist whose work is finally being appreciated in a broader light.

Midori Yoshimoto
Associate Professor of Art History, Art Department, New Jersey City University

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