“Living in Aging” Yuko IMAI

Nihonga painter, Yuko Imai, is a 25-year old young woman who has touched me with the portraits of her grandmother. The depictions of her grandmother, outside of the politically correct codes of representations, testify to the reality of feelings yet also hints at the ambivalence of emotions. These images of her grandmother is at once, soft, humble, cheeky but also confronting and disturbing.
A present day reality represented in a painting style from which we can sense an undertone of ancient sourced inspiration.
I will now hand it over to Yuko Imai.


When people grow old, they do not simply. Sometimes, they release indomitable vitality.
Facing impending doom, their vitality is peeled bare, clinging desperately to the life.
I felt this when spending time with my grandmother, watching her life as she stood face to face with her imminent end.
By painting and looking at “old age,” and discovering through trial and error what “life” is, I realize that I too am destined to be
deeply fascinated with the process of life and death.
The lives of people are expressed through their wrinkles, the depth of their pupils, as well as the ends of their fingertips.
As someone living in the moment, in the now, I hope to develop my work to pursue the real essence of people I meet.

When I was a child my grandmother suffered a nervous breakdown when she lost her husband, my grandfather.
For the past six years, she has not “lived” aside from eating and sleeping. She now only lives through her own tenacity.
Her only reason for living is her attachment to the mortal body.
No matter what she transforms into, she insists on staying alive, if only to not die.

She discloses her desire to satisfy no one but herself.
Showing a cold glance to others and then a sympathetic smile to her grandchild, she expresses a mix of underlying emotions that are continuously interwoven and in conflict with one another.
The broken mirror in my work symbolizes a collapse in her rationality, and her inability to connect and relate with society.
Though I love her as my grandmother, the broken mirror also signifies my feelings of resentment towards her.

The theme, “Living By Aging”, ponders what it means to live a life.
Recently, Japan has become an aging country, and a trend of the elderly taking care of the elderly has been increasing, and in my opinion, the question of death now overshadows our thoughts on how tolive.
However, the events after the recent Tohoku Earthquake have shown us the power of mankind’s mortality.
I believe that by asking questions and thinking about life and our existence, we will form a new sense of values about humanism.
Yuko Imai

From Textile Design to Nihonga- Sunaina Bhalla

“The beginning was with Japan and Nihonga.”

Sunaina Bhalla is a contemporary artist of Indian origin who lives and works in Singapore. In this interview, I chat to her about her foray into Nihonga which lead to an impressive first solo show and then her departure away from Nihonga into her mixed-media work now.

Sunaina’s works are widely exhibited and collected, including the permanent collection of ESSL Museum in Vienna. She recently participated in the India Art Fair 2012 showing her latest series, Parallel Journeys. Her next solo show is scheduled to open in Mumbai in August 2012.

Eve Loh: You were originally trained in India in textile design. Then you moved to Japan with your husband who was posted there to work. There, you studied Nihonga for 5 years with a teacher. How did that happen?

Sunaina Bhalla: It took me awhile to find a teacher. A year, in fact. I got really lucky because Ota Sensei speaks English. It would have been impossible if not for that. Sensei was teaching a group of expatriate ladies and I studied with her over the course of 5 years. I was probably her only professional student.

EL: But you already knew the principles of design and how to draw.

SB: Well, with Nihonga, you first learn to draw with ink. For the first 10 months, it was only ink. You get only one paintbrush and you learn how to control ink using that paintbrush. It took me 10 months to figure it out despite having done art and being an artist. It looked simple but it is not. Sensei wouldn’t even let me buy paints. Then after those 10 months, she taught me pigments and gouache (commercially-prepared pigments). As I advanced and wanted particular shades and hues, Sensei would give me the Japanese name of the pigments and I would then go to the art supply store to pick them up.

EL:    Yes, it seems that having to re-learn drawing and painting is a rite of passage all students go through, despite their prior background when it comes to Nihonga.

What was it like over the 5 years working with Nihonga? How did your style come through?

Cranes at Night

Cranes at Night

SB:    It looks intimidating but when you actually start, it is a lot of fun.

I observed a lot and copied a lot from the masters. Ota Sensei even made a textbook just for her students. Those 5 years were very traditional for me. Even though I was surrounded by contemporary Japanese art, it felt as if I was in a time-warp. I didn’t paint on canvas, only washi (Japanese paper), shikishi boards (handmade paper mounted on boards) and on byo-bu (folding screens and scrolls. I used gold leaf and pigments. I didn’t experiment as much then as I do now. Japanese art for me was really about showing these delicate sensitivities instead of expressing personal emotions or messages. The materials in Nihonga are chosen especially to express these sensibilities.

EL:    And at the end of the 5 years, you were given the opportunity to exhibit your works?

SB:    Actually I started doing group shows in the 4th year together with other students from Sensei’s class. And my first solo show was in 2002.

  As part of the 50th year of Japan-India cultural relations, the Indian Ambassador invited me to be the art representative and arranged an exthibition sponsored by the Japan Foundation. I exhibited 45 works and sold more than half of them at the exhibition. It was a great experience for me. It was opened by the Japanese ambassador in a big opening party with a lot of press coverage. Following which, the curator of the India Habitat centre, Delhi, Dr Alka Pande , suggested I travel the show to gallery Art Folio in Chandigarh. So I packed up what was left and drove off to the second exhibition. When I was arrived, the press was already waiting for me while the paintings were being hung. It all happened so fast and at the end of that show, only 5 or 6 works remained.

EL:    What a great solo show you had! I think the reception you had really speaks volumes in recognition of your work as a Nihonga artist and the richness of cultural exchange. Actually I read from one of the articles on you that your work is referred to as Sumi-e (ink painting). Perhaps now is a good chance for me to ask you what you think defines Nihonga as that is often contentious.

SB:    I never said I was a Sumi-e artist as it wasn’t only ink that I painted with. I used pigments as you would with Nihonga and gold leaf. As with defining Nihonga, I can only say that to begin with, it is difficult to even define what kind of artist I am. I am an Indian painting Japanese art in Singapore. When you look at my works now, you can’t tell if it’s Indian as there is nothing very Indian about it. Unless I specifically address a theme. Otherwise, the idea of contemporary art is all mixed up.

Peony Screen

Peony Screen

EL:    Yes, it’s becoming less important now to categorise style and traditions as a lot of influences are being blurred. It appears that Nihonga was for you, a rite of passage that you went through and then came out of, completely different with the works that you currently do.

SB:    Well, the whole idea of painting for me changed when I moved to Singapore. With Nihonga, it was all about trying to keep the sensibilities mild and delicate, with a muted colour palette. I tried to continue with Japanese painting outside of Japan when I moved here. But I couldn’t keep up with it, with the climate here and the problem of mildew on my washi. And when I finished using the pigments, that was it. It was hard to keep doing purchases from Japan.

    The beginning was with Japan and Nihonga. Then I broke free when I moved here. I started experimenting and having more fun, discovering new stuff, working with stone textures and gel.

EL:    Indeed, your works are quite different now with much brighter colour palettes and strong visuals. And you seem to be making your artist voice heard more through your post-Japan works.

Fate… or Free Will

SB:    Yes, in Fate… or Free Will, my message is about urbanisation and how birds are getting extinct.  And this bird, known as a Simourgh, is actually a mythical bird that protects humans.

    In The Light, I feel that various religions are contesting to imprison that light and that the interpretation of what God is, is very limiting.

The Light

The Light

EL:    These commentaries appear well balanced with the media you now work with, more so than with Nihonga on delicate sensitivities.

SB:    With Nihonga, I was just following the footsteps of my Sensei and learning through doing so, more of the technique. When you’re someone starting out, it is good to follow for a while.

Yes, I am happy with my process now. When I’m stuck for ideas, I turn to my best critic who is my husband. I take his criticism very seriously and he can come up with some really good ideas.

EL:    Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me and sharing your experience with Nihonga .

Sunaina can be contacted through her webpage, Sunaina Bhalla.

Interview with artist Makoto Fujimura, February, 2012

Judith Kruger interviews Makoto Fujimura for Nihonga 100 blog, February 7, 2012

JK: Hi Mako, thank you for agreeing to answer some questions for the Nihonga 100 blog.

JK: You were a student at Bucknell University, I believe in another major other than art. Would you kindly tell us a little about what you were studying and why you decided to delve back into your roots and study Nihonga? Were you familiar with Nihonga as a child….how did it move to the forefront as something you chose to pursue?

MF: I studied both sciences (Animal Behavior) and the arts at Bucknell in a liberal arts tradition.  Looking back, I benefitted from having a broad education, and now, some 30 years later, I am able to finally begin to synthesize all of the influences.

 MF: Every painting pointed to the need for me to re-examine my roots.  I did not know the contemporary Nihonga, but was drawn to many 16th century, 17th century Japanese paintings at museums in NYC, Boston, and DC.

JK: What was the program at Tokyo Geidei like? How do you compare it with what you know of the American university system?

MF: Geidai curriculum was a combination of western (particularly drawing) and Japanese Nihonga. I was at Geidai (Tokyo University of the Arts) at the same time with Takashi Murakami and Hiroshi Senju.  It was, looking back, an ideal setting for me as they valued beauty and craft.  Takashi and I would often discuss the need of conceptual in the education; we both realized that we had a unique setting.

JK: Tell us a little about your sensei Kayama Matazo. How often did you meet with him?

MF: Kayama sensei and I met several times a year.  He would often come into the studio unannounced, and sit down to talk to me and any who were there.  He also did several demonstrations of use of gold and silver, an indelible experience I have never forgotten.  As it turned out, due to illness he was only at Geidai for three-four years.  I was privileged to be chosen by him for the doctorate program, and he soon left the school after I when back to US.

JK: What do you think his most significant skill was? He extended his work onto cars, ceramics, kimono, etc…Does this commodify traditionalism or is it ok?

MF: Interestingly, the design interest, and the broad range of interests he had was never a problem for anyone.  Commodification and the validation he had received he clearly thought he deserved and the public appreciated that as well.  He had an audacious sense of confidence that re-defined contemporary Nihonga toward Rimpa design, and everything he did was in his conviction of creating beauty.

JK: Since you are my sensei, I want to share that there are two really important messages that you communicated, which I will never forget. One is “a successful painting gives birth to a new painting”. I just love that, because it keeps painting alive! Second you said “you don’t have to say it all in one painting”. This one’s a bit harder to follow but it’s a great goal: a mantra. What were your sensei’s most useful words to you? Do you still feel he is by your side today or was that a long time ago and much forgotten?

MF: Ah…that is part of “generative principles” that we are developing at International Arts Movement.  The most significant message that I’ve received from Kayama sensei was his sense of conviction about the Nihonga (and Japanese) sense of beauty.

JK: Certainly much time has passed since those days and you have grown so much and accomplished even more than I am sure you could ever have imagined. What do you feel has been the most meaningful aspect of your career as an artist?

MF: The greatest memories come from personal experience of people responding to my work.  Certainly, having a good critical response, exposure is exciting, but not as fulfilling as a few experiences I’ve had, often unexpectedly, from personal experiences of people encountering something new from my work.

MF: The recent Four Holy Gospels project was certainly a monumental project that I am very proud of.  There are specific paintings, including the “Golden Sea” painting (will be exhibited this November) that defines my career.  But in many ways, I feel I am just beginning my journey as an artist, and I am looking forward to being able to assimilate all that I have learned thus far, and creating generatively into the future.

JK: I know that your work ties directly to your journey as a devout Christian. I have heard you liken the Nihonga materials, i.e. precious minerals and fine silver and gold, to gifts from God and that as artists, we are all God’s children continuing the work of creation. Would you expand upon this concept a bit? What do you actually feel when you are painting? Is it a true encapsulation of grace? Do you ever think about tapping into your cultural lineage or is it about something even higher and deeper that is difficult to grasp?

MF: I have a creative cycle that relies heavily on Romans 7 and Romans 8 from St. Paul’s Epistles in the New Testament.  It’s called a “Sonship cycle” of spiritual growth (I learned this from pastors at Redeemer movement), moving from Romans 7 admission of my “wretchedness” of trying to attain to be good, or create anything worthwhile.  Romans 8 begins with a word “Therefore” – a counter-intuitive word that suggests that our admission of our wretchedness is a key in both artistic and personal growth.  Romans 8 is the most glorious, hopeful message of the Bible, and our identity as a child of God, and, further, also as princes and princesses of the great Kingdom.

MF: In this cycle, we need to remind ourselves that we are not orphans, but have been given an identity to create (co-create with God) something that can endure beyond our time here.  Of course, we fail daily to practice this identity, often failing miserably.  But by practicing our hearts to create out of love, rather than creating out of fear, or insecurity, I believe we are able to speak beyond our self-expressions.

MF: I think that the Japanese grasped something deeply true, and mysterious about this vista in their culture a long time ago. It is to recognize that beauty leads us to a deeper mystery.  I have come to appreciate this approach, even if Japan is not a “Christian.”

JK: Nihonga is a slow art form that requires much concentration, skill and deep intuition. The process of preparing to paint is not simple, like taking a trip to the art supply store, opening a tube of paint and mixing colors on a palette as is traditional practice in oils or acrylics. Please tell us a little about how the process of procurement of the materials plays into your creative process and why it may be worth the efforts.

MF: Yes, Nihonga is “slow art.”  It’s also deeply collaborational as I am able to work with paper makers, brush makers, pigment shops to create something unique.  Nihonga ways of making art is tied to nature, and the ecosystem affecting the quality of materials.  I am convinced that true sustainability and responsible stewardship is critical in creating enduring beauty, and Nihonga points to that ideal.

JK: If you had one bit of advice for a beginning Nihonga student what would it be?

MF: I would learn Nihonga not as a genre, but a way of entry into a collaborational process of creativity.  Japanese sense of aesthetics is far more important to learn than techniques of Nihonga.

JK: What do you think about in bed, just as you are ready to fall asleep?

MF: I go through the “Sonship” cycle of Romans 7 and Romans 8!  I reflect on where I’ve failed, and I ask God to help me generatively, to create in, through and for Love.

JK: Thanks Mako!

En Français ici

Nihonga in Paris日本画家 のフランス人

Valerie Eguchi is an artist based in France. Since she discovered Nihonga in 2007, she has been studying and practising Nihonga with great determination, overcoming difficulties in accessing materials and language barriers. In her attempts to understand Nihonga, she has sought out learning opportunities by assisting teachers and working tirelessly through experimentation and referencing from real artefacts. Her works show great sensitivity to the subjects she paints and dexterity in adapting from another culture.

Currently, Valerie organises workshops in France through her association, Pigments et Arts du Monde and actively champions the preservation and promotion of Nihonga.

You specialise in decorative and wall painting, in addition to painting Nihonga. How did you get started?

I was 25 years old when I went to Paris for specialist training in that. After that, I started making     copies of paintings in my boss’s workshop as well as doing work for companies. Then, I left and set up my own business. I worked for private individuals, restaurants, and hotels for the next 18 years. (At first when I started making art, I was using classical techniques I had learnt in oil painting. Then I started using pigments and acrylic mediums.

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Sunaina Bhalla in Singapore

 Sunaina Bhalla is an artist based in Singapore. When she lived in Japan, she studied Japanese-style painting under Ohta Suiko sensei for 4 years and started   exhibiting in group shows in her fifth year. In 2002, she held a solo exhibition in New Delhi, sponsored by the Japan Foundation. Since her move to Singapore in 2003, her style and artistic journey underwent a shift into exploring social issues.

Check back for my interview with Sunaina.