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Japanese responses

Chiaki Ajioka, Mayumi Uchida and Hitomi Toku, and chaired by Andrew Pike
Emily symposium, National Museum of Australia, 23 August 2008

ANDREW PIKE: The first of our three speakers will be Hitomi Toku, who is a cultural officer from the Australian embassy in Tokyo. I think that official designation is absolutely no indication of the importance of Hitomi to this exhibition. Hitomi was the translator at an enormous range of levels. She translated language for Margo when Margo was dealing with the Japanese but she also translated cultures. Hitomi was the pivotal mediator in the cross-cultural experience of Australia-Japan and Japan-Australia. This exhibition - I think it is fair to say and I don’t think Margo would disagree - would not have taken place in the way that it did without Hitomi’s dedication and commitment which went way beyond her nine-to-five job. Now that it has left Japan I think she might get a weekend off here or there.

HITOMI TOKU: Actually this is my day off. I am brought to work.

MARGO NEALE: This is not work compared to what you have had to do.

ANDREW PIKE: Sitting to Hitomi’s right is Chiaki Ajioka. Chiaki is an art historian and art curator living in Sydney now. She did translations for many years for Japanese movies on SBS [Special Broadcasting Service], which is how I have come to meet her. To her right is Mayumi Uchida, who was also intimately involved in this exhibition and its tour to Japan, because Mayumi had a lot of the responsibility for bridging the path of the community members from Utopia to Japan. I think the exhibition owes a huge debt of gratitude to Mayumi.

MARGO NEALE: Mayumi had triple cultural barriers to cross - the world of Australian English, the Japanese and the world of the Anmatyerre. She has had a long-term association with Barbara Weir and other members of the Utopia community, has taken many Japanese people to Utopia, and lots of projects with many other Indigenous communities through the centre. She is well versed in how to look after them in the way they need to be, yet service the needs of the very opposing cultural demands of being in Japan or wherever. She has been extraordinary - right to the point of feeding them, ironing their clothes, everything. She has to fly to Utopia to get them. She helps with their clothes, medications and doctoring needs to ensure that everybody is happy on both sides. The needs from the community’s sense of time, place and commitment is quite different from what we might require in the West or what the Japanese might require. It was an amazingly complex exercise and a very important one to this exhibition. This time we let her off the hook a bit as the Utopians have been assisted by people in the Museum. It has deepened her contacts even more with the families.

MAYUMI UCHIDA: The Japanese just love Aboriginal people.

ANDREW PIKE: We will hear from Hitomi first and then we will have a discussion among the panel.

MARGO NEALE: I didn’t require anyone to write a paper, but I think they all have because they are Japanese and are always very well prepared and conscientious. This session was really to be a conversation and responding to what we have seen up there [in Japan]. Each of them have taken a special interest, heard stuff and gone to blog sites in Japanese that we can’t unlock. I have heard many stories from each of them about certain reactions. You can feel perfectly comfortable just to talk about things you saw and heard without feeling on the spot.

HITOMI TOKU: Good morning everyone. First of all, I would just like to say that it is a great honour for me to participate in this forum at the National Museum of Australia - thank you, Margo, for inviting me. Nevertheless, I must say that my main role as a cultural officer at the Australian embassy in Tokyo is to promote Australian culture in Japan, so I don’t have the academic background or material to talk about the Japanese responses to the exhibition. But if sharing any knowledge I may have with you this morning might contribute to the understanding between Japan and Australia, it’s a great honour and I am very happy to do so.

Rather than analysing the Japanese audiences’ reactions immediately, I would like to talk about my personal views on why we were able to make the Emily exhibition in Japan such a success. The total numbers of the visitors to the Emily exhibition in Japan was 124,664. As Mr Tatehata said in his video message yesterday, this number was higher than that of the retrospective of Andy Warhol held in 1996 in Tokyo. This is one of the reasons why we think that the Emily exhibition in Japan was such a success.

When I started working at the embassy in April 2004, I had been informed that Mr Tatehata, who was an art university professor at the time, was a bit disappointed that an Emily exhibition project had been cancelled. But when I asked him, he said that he was still personally very interested in Emily’s works. So on my familiarisation trip to Australia in June 2004, I was told to visit the major art institutions in Australia in order to explore the possibilities of reviving the project. That was the first time I met with Margo. She showed me the 1998 exhibition catalogue with the images of the frames painted by Emily. [Shows image] That was when I thought that this might work in Japan.

With the little knowledge that I have, I am aware that a picture frame is an important element when discussing paintings in the history of Western art. If avant-garde art has been a process of overcoming the existing framework, one might be able to say that the Japanese artists had to overcome two obstacles to be considered equal in Western art history. Since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when Japan opened its doors to other countries, the Japanese had to first master Western art. It was only then that one could start thinking about creating something original. But when I saw the Emily painted frames, they seemed to so easily overcome all these complexities and that one could find there nothing but an expression of limitless creativity.

Another thought I had about the frame is that Japan, compared to Australia, is probably a more minutely controlled society. Greater Tokyo’s population is said to be approximately 34 million, and I remember how the Australian couriers were amazed at seeing the busy Tokyo station that 3.6 million people use every day. [Shows image] So it is understandable that, in order to function, the society needs some degree of control.

After the War all Japanese shared the same objective which was to become economically rich. However, since the economic crisis in the early 1990s, many Japanese seem to have lost their meaning of life. Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. It is also an ageing society. So under the increasing pressure from the society, people seem to be at a loss and not know how to break away from the rules and values imposed.

So when I started learning more about Emily and her works, I thought that this may give the Japanese an opportunity to think about their identity and ask themselves if they were able to appreciate the works without necessarily having the full knowledge of the artist’s background or of her reputation.

At the same time the challenges existed as well. There is still a strong tendency among the Japanese to follow the others. The Japanese love ‘famous’ artists like the Impressionists, and we have French and Italian exhibitions all the time. There is no risk in going to an Impressionist exhibition as it would mean that everyone will approve of your good taste. But I wonder how many people know that the Impressionists were rebellions when they first held their exhibition in 1874. So Australian art, including Indigenous art, was a bit of a problem. [Shows image] For example, there had been a couple of Australian art exhibitions in the past. The Australian Aboriginal Art exhibition that I believe Mayumi Uchida was involved in had approximately 26,000 visitors. The Prism, Contemporary Australian Art exhibition held in central Tokyo had approximately 15,500 visitors. All these were very good exhibitions, but the number of visitors remained relatively small.

I know that the Japanese involved in the Emily project had a belief in her works. The biggest challenge was not so much about what was shown inside the gallery but how to get people coming to see the works. We also knew that Emily would have many competing exhibitions, without mentioning all the various entertainment offered in Tokyo. This is all the list of exhibitions that were going on at the same time as Emily’s exhibition [shows list].

Thus, I believe that one of the key factors of the success was that we had the best partners to realise the exhibition. I thank Mr Morton of the National Museum of Australia for giving his total support to the project and allowing all his amazing staff to work on it. As for the Japanese, we had the National Museum of Art Osaka, which Mr Tatehata had become director of in 2005. However, the embassy worked very hard to convince the Yomiuri Shimbun and National Art Centre Tokyo to officially come on board. The Yomiuri Shimbun is Japan’s largest daily newspaper with a circulation of 11 million. The partnership with them meant that we would have more publicity. If we wanted to place an advertisement like this [shows image], which they did on the opening day of the Tokyo exhibition, it would normally cost more than A$300,000 - we never could have done that.

As for the National Art Centre Tokyo, it was not even open when the embassy had preliminary discussions with them. [Shows image] But we knew that it would attract people and that Emily’s work would look spectacular in their 2000-square metre, eight-metre high ceiling gallery. It was also important for us to show Emily’s works in the only two national institutions with a focus on contemporary art. After a number of bottles of wine, the embassy was able to convince the two organisations that we knew would bring people to the exhibition.

However, there was another problem. In the beginning Yomiuri was quite pessimistic about the numbers so their initial promotional budget was quite limited. So all the partners decided to do everything we could. The embassy not only financially contributed to the publicity but also sent out flyers to schools and organised lectures at universities by Margo and Dr Sally Butler, who spoke yesterday. We especially wanted NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster, to produce a 45-minute feature on Emily and her works on its influential arts program. We repeatedly received negative answers from NHK. I went to them five times and after eight months they finally agreed to do it. It was done with the cooperation of Chiaki, Mayumi and all the Utopia community members, so I would like to thank them here.

In addition, we organised a function inviting 140 important arts and media contacts at the National Art Centre Tokyo to coincide with Prime Minister Rudd’s viewing of the exhibition. [Shows image] We also lobbied the Crown Prince to see the show, and finally not only him but also the Princess came. So all the media, including the rivals of Yomiuri carried the story, and our final effort ended by having the Empress come to see the exhibition just before it finished.

But obviously it wasn’t only the embassy. The National Art Centre Tokyo also contributed significantly by organising Indigenous music workshops, dance events and tours for disabled people. Yomiuri Shimbun also did its best. It successfully placed transit advertisements whose value would normally be probably more than A$800,000. [Shows image] There were posters and flyers in trains and stations all over Tokyo. In addition, by using Yomiuri’s channels of publicity, many articles appeared in various media. Neither the two art galleries nor the embassy would ever have been able to secure such an amount of exposure on our own. Therefore, with the efforts by all partners combined we had an event every week. We also had a lot of articles and advertisements coming out all through the exhibition period. You can see here [shows diagram] how the numbers of the visitors increased day by day. I cannot stress more that the success of the exhibition was due to this wonderful collaboration amongst all the partners. On the last day of the show in Tokyo we wanted the gallery filled with people and we were very moved.

I would just like to conclude that, without all the efforts by everyone involved in the project, the exhibition would have never been a success. However, this was only possible because Emily’s works themselves had the power and strength that the Japanese had never seen before in their lives. In particular, the curators of the National Art Centre Tokyo, with Margo and all the other Australian staff, made best use out of the huge white cube gallery. Many people wrote about their experience in the blogs and some even said that they felt that the National Art Centre Tokyo was specifically built to show Emily’s works. Some people wrote that they did not find the same difficulties with Emily’s works that they had with other abstract art. Some even said that it seemed useless to compare Emily with Monet or other Western masters. And many people commented that they were amazed by the fact that there was no prescribed orientation and that the Emily works could be hung in any way.

Edan Corkill, an English art journalist, starts his article in frieze magazine online as follows:

What’s the easiest way for an artist to get noticed in Japan? Hold an exhibition in New York. Or so the saying went for a long time. It was true for both Japanese and foreign artists, including those who were much further from the American coast than to Tokyo. A stunning beautiful and astoundingly ambitious retrospective for the Australian Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye, currently on show at the National Art Center, Tokyo is proving that the old adage is well and truly dead and suggesting that perhaps for the first time Japanese curators are learning to cut their own paths through the global cultural landscape.

He concludes:

This is more than an extraordinarily beautiful exhibition for an extraordinary gifted artist; it is a watershed in Japanese museum history.

So the exhibition was an opportunity for both the Japanese art world and the audience to go outside of the Euro-American mainstream and connect with the art works by themselves.

Finally, I think it was not so much about Indigenous or contemporary, Australian or Japanese. Emily’s works transcend and I believe that people saw something fundamental for all human beings or creatures in the works. Emily’s works just seem to have the capacity to allow many layers of understanding. This discovery was such a relief to the Japanese who had always thought that they had to look at art in a certain way and live in a certain way. They felt that, beyond the ego of the artist, Emily was sharing her knowledge of life with them. So people were given the energy and hope to continue to live. I feel very privileged to be able to witness such a wonderful moment and I hope I was able to share some of these exciting moments with you today. Thank you very much.

ANDREW PIKE: Thank you very much, Hitomi, that was wonderful. We will now have a discussion between the panellists here. Chiaki, would you like to start with some of your own observations?

CHIAKI AJIOKA: I am not sure what I can say after Hitomi’s very eloquent speech. Mine is very short. I just want to tell you about my understanding of Japanese responses that I gathered by taking my own friends [to the exhibition]. A few friends passed on some other people’s comments on emails and I did some blog searches as well. There are two things that I found striking. The first thing is that Japanese museum goers are very sophisticated, as perhaps you can see from the interviews [shows comments] that the Japanese museum goers are very sophisticated. Secondly, it was almost a primordial experience that they were expressing in their responses. They are the two things that I want to say but perhaps to give you a bit more explanation.

Firstly regarding a ‘sophisticated audience’, Hitomi has already told you about the competing entertainment and other major exhibitions. They are constantly exposed to exhibitions of Western art from all ages. Masterpieces from the major museums of Europe and America are constantly being shown somewhere in Japan. At the same time exhibitions of very good Japanese art from ancient to contemporary are also being shown constantly, and of course Chinese and other Asian art are also shown constantly. Individual museum goers are going to see art from different cultures constantly and making their own minds up about the art. That is the audience that they have in Japan.

What I meant by saying ‘primordial experience’ is that it seems to me from the reactions that Emily’s work really triggered a collective memory of our relationship with the land by showing her relationship with her land. By collective memory I mean it is something that is shared but also it is an experience that is very personal like Professor Tatehata was struggling to express. It is something very personal and even very private.

The reason for the responses being so direct can be seen in some examples from yesterday’s talks that I picked up. One was Djon Mundine saying that he was surprised at the smoking ceremony in Japan - yet we didn’t do anything in Australia – with Japanese people lining up to be blessed. Of course, if you go to the Asakusa temple district in Tokyo you will see a huge incense burner constantly producing smoke and people washing their hands to be blessed. That is a very natural reaction.

Sally Butler also talked about the Aboriginal culture not having a distinction between art and craft. It is exactly the same with Japan where the distinction between art and craft was sort of artificially set according to Western standards around 1900 to adjust to Western notions. But the wider community still values objects according to the merit of individual pieces rather than the concept of whether it is painting and therefore it is more important.

Another point was pattern making relating to this appreciation of so-called craft work like textiles. When I took a friend of mine to the Tokyo exhibition in the first room she saw Big Yam, the pink one that was shown vertically. As we moved to the next section that displayed Emily’s batik works she said, ‘Oh that makes sense because when I first saw the Big Yam I immediately thought textile’. Of course she had no value judgment, it is just something objective that reminded her of textile patterns.

Regarding nature worship, I thought it was really funny, watching the NHK program that Hitomi mentioned, when the narration says, ‘In Aboriginal culture everything in nature has a spirit’, and I said, ‘Well the Japanese have that too’. Japanese consider that even man-made objects have a spirit.

I will just say something very personal about my father who was a very progressive thinker. As a senior public servant he was involved in modernising one whole large government organisation. Some years ago when I visited him and was helping him to clean up the house, there was a very dusty little plastic figure - I can’t remember whether it was a cat but it was one of those things that come with packets of sweets - that had been given to him by my niece and had been sitting there for five or six years gathering dust. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you throw this out?’ He said, ‘Well I have been meaning to. I have been wanting to do that but I feel that it might appear in my dream resenting it’. It is so natural to feel that way.

With the ‘primordial reaction’ in some of the comments that I picked up, virtually everybody said how powerful Emily’s paintings were. Someone also said that it is very powerful but non-threatening. Others said it was as though they were drawn into the work and that it was very difficult to physically move out of it. There were also comments like ‘recharged’ or ‘energised’, as you saw in one of the comments. The way I interpret it is that perhaps this impact was particularly strong because, as Hitomi explained, Osaka and Tokyo is a very urban environment where everyday life is very unnatural with people squeezing into crowded trains every day and living in this concrete jungle, if you like. In this sort of situation the buzzword at the moment in Japan is a ‘healing effect’, and Emily’s work struck the right chord in this ‘healing’. So in Djon’s words they were ‘reading the sign’. I think that’s about it.

ANDREW PIKE: Thank you. One of the interesting things about the exhibition in Japan is that the Indigenous context was very low key. While there was information about the Indigenous context it was mainly in the catalogue and in the Utopia room. In Osaka, the Utopia room was on another floor from the exhibition so it might have been easy to bypass it. In Tokyo, the Utopia room was in a room right at the back and again it could have been quite easily bypassed. The very warm, enthusiastic and emotional responses are not necessarily dependent on knowledge of the Indigenous context in which the paintings were made or knowledge about Emily herself. A lot of the responses are very interesting in that they are searching for points of identification between Japanese culture and the art works without the Indigenous context being in the foreground. Does that help you at all in coming up with some thoughts that might help us, Mayumi?

MAYUMI UCHIDA: Not at all. Please excuse my English. I went to see the exhibition when I was in Tokyo five times because I had free tickets. I felt that all the audience stood in front of every single painting. Then I saw one young gentleman who was crying. Because I talk to everybody, I asked the gentleman, ‘Are you okay? Of course you don’t know me, I’m a stranger, but are you okay?’ He said, ‘I don’t understand Aboriginal art at all but I felt very warm and then I feel like I am surrounded by warmth and energy of this painter Emily’. He said that he doesn’t normally go to see art exhibitions at all but that time was his tenth time. I was wanting to give him a free ticket as well.

Even people who have never heard of Aboriginal art and have never heard of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, they just enjoyed seeing Emily’s personality through the paintings. With Emily’s paintings you don’t really have to think in the head - for me - paintings just tell everything and then people just feel from the heart. So there is no need to have it explained at all. That is what I felt. I could see that from all the audience at the art centre.

I normally catch a taxi from Tokyo station because I don’t know how to get to the art centre by subway. So on one of the visits I caught a taxi and the taxi driver asked me the way to go and I said I wanted to go to the arts centre in Tokyo. I always talk to everybody so I said to the taxi driver, ‘Do you know what is happening there?’ He said ‘no’. I explained to the taxi driver about Emily and he said that he had seen the NHK documentary on TV. He was so excited and he said, ‘I am going to see the exhibition with my family next week’, so I gave him the free tickets, which was great.

I wanted to share with you my personal story that I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to meet Emily in 1996, six months before she passed away. That was just a wonderful experience for my life. When I met Emily I said hello to her and then she held my hands and asked me how many grandchildren I have. I don’t even have a husband so I don’t have any grandchildren. She was so funny, warm and energetic. Then I saw her painting in front of me. The audience at the art centre could feel Emily’s personality through her works. I thought it was wonderful how people who don’t know anything about Emily Kame Kngwarreye could feel, could see who Emily is through her works. That is all I can say. Thank you.

CHIAKI AJIOKA: I totally agree with what Andrew has said and also what Mayumi-san said, but the first reaction was that the audience immediately responded to it but then they wanted to find out more and actually the particular corner with the Aboriginal culture was very well used. A lot of comments included how wonderful it was and then they felt they knew something about Aboriginal culture. I took a friend of mine and, as soon as she walked in and looked at all the animals, she couldn’t control herself saying, ‘Isn’t it cute, it is so beautiful’. I tried to stop her because she was almost screaming. I felt embarrassed but she just could not stop. I think what was happening was that she could actually feel the energy coming from those figures as well.

I also just wanted to add that Mayumi-san is an author of a book in Japanese on Aboriginal art. After the exhibition a lot of people enhanced their knowledge and experience from reading her book as well. Even those who did not read her book [but found out about the book] they had a connection, that there was some Japanese who totally fell in love with Aboriginal culture and write a book about it. It is another kind of connection that I think that was very effective in increasing their link emotionally.

ANDREW PIKE: One thing I have been pondering, as we have been editing over 150 hours that we have taken for this film, is that it’s a reflection of the power of the paintings and the potentials to communicate that are in the paintings where the meaning of the paintings is so easily translated into Japanese by a lot of Japanese viewers who find points of identification in Japanese culture. There is this reverence for nature, which is extremely ironic because the Japanese, like the Australians, are very good at totally desecrating nature and covering nature with concrete and digging it up. But still we do both share that notional reverence for nature and respond to something in Emily’s work relating to that reverence.

There is the notion of ritual and ceremony. Even though the ceremonies are totally different the fact of the ceremony and the ritual are there. The points of identification in the colour palettes that Emily used, some of the designs in traditional Japanese art are identified in aspects of Emily’s painting. It is really fascinating that Emily’s work is so readily translated as it were into the Japanese art context. Would any of you like to comment some more on this?

CHIAKI AJIOKA: There is not much more than I have already said. For example, partly because Emily’s work is so direct and abstract, if you have to describe the style, it is more direct in the way that it communicates and relates to the land. For example, in the short introduction film yesterday we saw some festival scenes in Tokyo where they were carrying a portable shrine through the streets during a festival. This sort of festival is specific to one particular locality and when you take part it is a personal experience. But also the festivals are attached to the place - people come and go and you know that you come and go and the festival stays. The word I should use is ‘timelessness’ or something beyond the concept of time and that sort of connection is easy to understand when you see it. Does that make sense?

ANDREW PIKE: Yes. Hitomi, do you want to add anything at this point?

HITOMI TOKU: The only thing I haven’t mentioned and that made me think when I was listening to people speaking yesterday was that there were very few people who talked about political issues or social issues when they came to the exhibition. In one way you could say that the Japanese don’t have that consciousness, which is a pity because we have minorities as well, but at the same time, probably as I heard in yesterday’s discussions, Japanese didn’t have that baggage that probably people here might have. Of course they have no idea what kind of conditions Emily lived in. I think there were one or two people who said, ‘The support by the Australian government means that the government is exploiting something,’ but that was a rare comment. They didn’t think so much about that dimension which might have made it easier for people to just look at the art works and think for themselves.

ANDREW PIKE: Any comments or questions from the floor for the panellists?

QUESTION by Ian McLean: It doesn’t surprise me that more people came to see Emily’s show than Andy Warhol’s, but I am wondering how many people came to see the big Impressionist exhibitions that the advertisement seemed to be alluding to such as the big Monet water lilies.

HITOMI TOKU: The second exhibition held at the National Art Centre Tokyo, which was before Emily, was a Claude Monet big retrospective which I think had some 700,000 visitors.

ANDREW PIKE: Was the Modigliani exhibition on at the same time?

HITOMI TOKU: I think there were some 300,000 visitors. But for the Monet exhibition Yomiuri had four times bigger publicity budget than the Emily show. The point is that in Japan contemporary art exhibitions normally don’t get a lot of audience. If you think of Emily as a contemporary or abstract artist the number was phenomenal. That is what everybody says.

QUESTION by Djon Mundine: It is interesting with those figures because there was an article in the Japan Times commenting on those high figures. I get two messages sent to me every day. One is the Japan Times in English and the other is The Art Newspaper that has a list of the best-attended shows in the world. In fact, they don’t seem to report those figures from Tokyo at all. The best-attended shows are usually in New York or somewhere else, and the article was basically ignoring the audiences and the intensity of appreciation that happens in Japan.

There are two things that I remember from my limited time in Japan: one was this relationship between spirituality and attachment to land and places with Aboriginal religious beliefs and Japanese Shinto beliefs. I remember, after being there for a very little time and seeing some rituals, I said that Shinto is just like dreaming. My supervisor very bluntly said, ‘Shinto is not dreaming’. It is obviously a few more things. It’s the same but different, as we say in Aboriginal terms.

The other thing that I remember about Japanese relationships with Australia was that I read somewhere in Japan that one of the biggest selling novels, a love story, had its culmination in Uluru. Can you tell people about that novel? It is one of the biggest selling novels in Japan.

HITOMI TOKU: It is called something like ‘You cry out about love in the centre of the world which is Uluru’, I think.

QUESTION by Djon Mundine: The love story doesn’t end in Paris or somewhere, it ends in the centre of Australia, so the Japanese people obviously have a very strong attachment to Australia. One other point relating to the political end of things, I did give a paper to the Australia-Japan Foundation in the embassy - and I think you might have been there - and all I remember is that the audience, quite a large audience, was very sophisticated in knowing about political matters to do with Aboriginal people. They knew a lot about Australia, much more than they were exhibiting in normal conversation. That is all.

ANDREW PIKE: Thank you very much and thank you to the three panellists.

Date published: 11 March 2009