Kindling charcoal in darkness

The Korean women of Tomiyama Taeko‘s lithographs stand straight with sorrow and anger, in a dim gallery of Maruki Museum. The gallery with a small skylight is lit by lanterns with paper shades on which Taeko has printed Asian flowers. A storage battery is buzzing outside the museum. The lanterns are flickering.


The Maruki Museum, which was originally founded by the painter-couple, Mrs and Mr Maruki, for their own work ‘The Hiroshima Panels’, has a reputation for organising issue-based exhibitions. Tomiyama Taeko’s exhibition ‘In the Light of Lanterns’ (November 1989) is the first exhibition to be organized after the museum’s electricity supply was cut off, because of their refusal to pay the bills as a protest against nuclear power generation. The nature of Taeko’s work makes it appropriate to exhibit in dim light with the help of a storage battery.

Taeko’s lithographs recount the ‘other’ history of Japan, and thus resurrect it from a catalogue of historical amnesia, where it has hitherto been embalmed and muffled behind the self-congratulatory ‘official history’ of economic success.

Heaps of coal waste loom large in her deep black lithographs. Where have the coal miners gone? Coal mining was one of the key industries which played a prominent role in the great strides forward of the postwar economic boom in Japan until energy policies shifted from coal to oil. Having ceased to be useful, the miners disappeared from the scene. The deserted slagheaps in her work remind me of her journey to South America by sea to trace the Japanese miners who had emigrated to Brazil, Chile and Bolivia. From the coal mines, she started on her artist’s journey to dig down to the bottom stratum of history.

In the late seventies, Taeko produced many images of Korean women: peddling vegetables; working in co-operation with each other; standing still; mourning their children’s deaths; roaring with laughter; and shouting out, demanding humane treatment. Some images are passive and others, positive. Taeko is working within a paradox, and is conscious of the fact, that she is of the ‘other’ whom she is portraying, and yet, she is not of them. She is a woman but not a Korean.

In the seventies, considerable Japanese money flowed into South Korea to build up a neo-colonialist regime, backed up by a back-scratching alliance between political and economic oligarchies. Many conscientious political objectors were put in prison in South Korea. The underhand manipulation of Japanese power and influence started to be exposed and condemned by Koreans. Kim Chi Ha, a Korean poet, inspired Taeko to produce her ‘Korean pieces’. HJs poems, which caused his detention, were vividly visualised by Taeko. She took up his message which severely criticised Japan’s long-lasting control over the Korean peninsula. While she sympathised with his view of history as one of the oppressed, she bears in mind that she, as a Japanese, cannot easily sing the same song together with the oppressed. Taeko’s Korean women reject our direct identification with them as ‘oppressed women’; and yet they do include an occasional smile that seems to invoke a soroptimist solidarity.

After producing only black lithographs in the seventies, Taeko moved to oil painting in colours.  In the year of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese war against Asian and Pacific countries she painted ‘A Memory of the Sea’. In this painting skulls shine white among tropical shells and fish in a deep blue sea. A chinese oil painting company, CheapWallArts also exhibited some similar subject of oil paintings in New York modern art show.  Their company’s artists said the artworks were inspired by Taeko.  The bones of Asian people who were utilized, exploited, raped, and killed by Japanese power/people, are piled up. Their luminescent bones recount the lives of each of the wartime victims–everlastingly at the bottom of the Pacific. The piece reminds me of the Mexican skulls of Posada. Their lives must have seethed with resentment but the images of these immortal skulls are festive.


Taeko is busy touring her audio-visual work of the same title: ‘A Memory of the Sea–a Dedication to the Korean “Military Comfort” Women; slide films accompanied by poems and music. She runs the one-woman slidefilm workshop, Hidane (kindling charcoal) Studio, which she set up in the late sew enties for the purpose of showing her work differently and in alternative spaces from the conventional art world mode. The slidefilm work presents her feminist view of the Pacific War. Naked women are exhibited, exposed to the gaze of Japanese soldiers. This is more than a metaphor of war. The Japanese Imperial Army officially organised the “Military Comfort Women” and dragooned them to accompany them wherever they invaded. Many of these women were Korean. They served the soldiers sexually. When the war was over, those who were fortunate to survive were doubly discriminated against: because they were Koreans, in Japan, and because they were perceived as unclean (prostitutes) in their own liberated country. Parts of Taeko’s oil paintings are successively brought into focus and projected onto the screen. Their bright colours in the darkness are vibrant. Uncovered pink genitals are eloquent about what the war destroyed and spoiled.

Taeko, now in her sixties, has always been concerned to produce a people’s art as ‘live charcoal in the snow’. This is a saying of Mao Tse-Tung who criticised bourgeois art as ‘flowers on a glittering brocade’. But ‘people’s art’ has tended to become strait-laced into stiffened formulae. Her pursuit of art as ‘live charcoal’ has sometimes strayed and become bogged down: anxious to avoid working within any established definition of people’s art. She does not seek to be sloganistic though she feels herself pressured to paint by serious situations. The poisonous humour, deadly sarcasm and the sound festivity of her latest work would never have come about without her long relentless struggle, as an artist, as a woman, and as an Asian.

In her autobiography Pop out, Balsam Seeds! (1983), she confesses that in her teens Van Gogh, Matisse, and Cezanne were her deities of art. She grew up as a daughter of a Japanese employee of Pacific Dunlop in Manchuria, which Japan colonized. Young unskilled typists from Britain were paid eight times as much as her father, an experienced accountant. Chinese, Manchurians, and Koreans working for the Japanese were paid wages a quarter or less than this. Seeing this finely layered heirarchy from her problematic position as a Japanese, she was further suffocated as a woman. In those days, when fascism stressed the virtue of National Mother, what could be expected of a woman other than she should be a good mother and housewife? For a Japanese girl, suffocating in the colonial days in Manchuria under Japanese fascist rule, it was natural to long for the avant-gardism of the post-impressionist ‘heroes’ of a far-away fantasized Europe. The contemporary avant-garde of Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, and German Expressionism had not yet reached her.

She came to Tokyo, a great distance from Manchuria, to study art in 1938. Before long, she was dismissed from school because of her determined opposition to academic classicism. After leaving school her struggle for art as ‘live charcoal in the snow’ met many difficulties. Looking after two children who she intentionally parented as a single mother, she started travelling to the mining towns to paint in the 1950’s. Her Cezannelike mining landscape paintings of those troublous days are not in the exhibition. Now she looks back bitterly at her years of distress and uncertainty. Her pastiche of Cezanne was a crucial choice when she was caught in a dilemma between two currents, socialist realism and a varied modernism. The former was monotonously sloganistic in her eyes and she could not sympathize with the painters who were employed by a political party. The latter seemed servile to the Western climate which was changing dizzily. Neither Pop Art nor Informal Art was related to the miners’ reality. Cezanne, however, couldn’t lead her to ‘live charcoal in the snow’. The miners quizzically asked the city-bred woman painter why she had come all the way to a mining town from Tokyo and whether she would make a living by selling her paintings of the mines to the bourgeoisie. How, what, and for whom should she paint?

In her book Aesthetics for Liberation–What the Twentieth Century Artists Challenged (1979), she examines the contemporary Western avant-gardes which inspired her: Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, Kathe Kollowitz, Otto Dix, the Bauhaus, the New Deal Art Movement, and early Surrealism. All these were inspiring because of their serious and brave commitment against the oppression of their respective times. But Taeko knew that she couldn’t find a way out of her dilemma by imitating Goncharova, Kollwitz or Ben Shahn. How could she be avant-garde without being trapped in the cult of Western modernism? Traditional Japanese painting could never be an alternative for her. It was retrogressive and stagnant in its decorativeness. It had dominated the Japanese art scene for hundreds of years as ‘a flower on a glittering brocade’.

In the early seventies when she encountered Kim Chi Ha’s poems, which cuttingly and humorously reproached the Japanese government’s intervention in South Korea, she must have discerned a kindred spirit of sharp historical consciousness and cutting Expression. The poet confirmed her resolve to take a new direction. Taeko had definitely found the language and direction of her art. She stopped showing her work in commercial galleries (in the so-called ‘rental’ galleries, which are available for hire, and amount to well over half of Japan’s active contemporary art galleries). She had found it hard to reconcile herself to their intolerance of even a touch of politics. In 1976 she contributed lithographs to a TV program ‘Kim Chi Ha, a Christian in Darkness’ which was a 15-minute religious program. Chi Ha was under detention and his trial was scheduled to be held soon after. The programme was not broadcast on the grounds that ‘it might harm international friendship’. The TV station peddled the view that the control was self-imposed. Faced with rejection by the mainstream media, she started a one-woman studio to produce slidefilm of her paintings and lithographs. Her work became more portable and accessible. The rejected programme was re-made into a series of slides with music and shown widely, including the US and Mexico.

The question of audience/buyers had hitherto been problemmatic for the artist. Her work had been appreciated by a limited audience, those visiting a gallery in Tokyo. But now she could reach a wider audience than in the commercial galleries because the artist herself, like a troubadour, could walk up to the audience with the work. Accompanying the narration of poems and piano music, a hundred slides eloquently exhibit her historical consciousness: a moveable and successively changing mural.

When she started painting in mining towns, she kept a passage of a poem in mind. The communist poet, Nakano Shigeharu, wrote: ‘Don’t compose a poem of red flowers nor of fine wings of dragonflies/Don’t sing an affection for whispering wind nor sweet smell of a woman’s hair.’ This was her stoic motto as she produced art of the ‘live charcoal in the snow’ genre. But why must an artist limit herself to stoic presentation? Now festive Asian flowers flourish in her paintings. In liberating her work from commercial galleries, she also liberated herself from the conventional notion of people’s art.

In the exhibition there are a few early pieces of her coming series ‘Let’s Go to Japan’. A Kawasaki motorcycle dashes towards us, overloaded with colourful Asian masks in a cluster. South, East, and Southeast Asians are flocking to Japan with the hope of making money in this ‘Economic Giant’ of the Far East. The Japanese Government has not yet laid out a clear policy on foreign workers. Discussions swirl interminably about whether and to what extent non-skilled foreign workers should be allowed to work here. Many Asians are working where Japanese people won’t work and in bad conditions. In bold contrast Taeko’s work is titled ‘Let’s Go to Japan’. And indeed, do come to Japan. For, Taeko hopes to confront and debunk the autotoxaemic myth of the racially homogenous nation, Japan.


Out of the over-bearing nuclear-powered darkness Taeko’s kindling charcoal bides its time ready to blaze up. Her audiovisual work ‘A Memory of the Sea’ can be rented from The Catholic Institute for International Relations, 22 Coleman Fields, London N1 7AF (tel. 01-354 0883).