This exhibition is a bit different from traditional photography exhibitions in that it is not only about showing beautiful images, it was a social experiment of sorts.Luis Okamoto
Se puede leer la versión en español de esta entrevista aquí …
In a world of increasing individualism, identity has become the chimera of being. Our sense of self is a constantly evolving synthesis of experience and aspiration, what we wish to be and what we discover we are. But our identity is a contested space in which that ever-unfolding sense of self confronts our reflection in the eyes of others. We are unique entities, yet we are perceived as members of a group, indeed of many intersecting groups: types of being, each with its own portfolio of traits and tropes.
While the chimera of ancient myth was a miscellaneous creature – part lion, part goat, part snake – contemporary science applies the concept of chimerism to a single organism composed of cells with more than one distinct genotype. Even though genetic analysis shows us all to be the product of many origins, we each feel ourselves to have an identity that is both unique and shared; individual yet tribal. Belonging to a clearly defined type or community helps anchor our sense of self in the world outside ourselves. We seek at once to be recognised as distinctively singular and at the same time part of something bigger, with its own abstracted, if reductive, characteristics. It is a psychological need exploited by advertising, amplifying the eddies of uncertainty that lie between the rigid square of in-group belonging and the uncertain circling of nascent self-knowledge. In such a state of mind, the notion of the hybrid can be unsettling.
It is this complex contested space of individual and typical identity that underpins an exhibition focusing on the photography of three Latin-American artists of Japanese heritage. Versions of the exhibition have already been shown in Tokyo, and Barranquilla, Colombia. A new, expanded version opens in 2021 at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas del Mundo in Mexico City.
Curated by Alantl Molina, ‘Nippon América 日本アメリカ’ features the work of Taeko Nomiya (Mexico), Marcio Takeda (Brazil) and Luis Okamoto (Peru). Their images were made during a month-long residency in Japan. With each artist following the threads of family history, this was to be a vision of Japan seen through a gaze that was simultaneously foreign and inherited. The concept was as much a social and psychological experiment as an artmaking exercise. Of the three, only Taeko Nomiya had visited Japan before when, as a child, her family holidayed there. How would their Japanese cultural heritage and their Latin-American upbringing manifest within their work? Would it demonstrate a point of equilibrium between notions of Nature and Nurture, or something more complex, less tangible, evanescent…?
In this, the first of two interviews, I caught up with the three artists ahead of the launch of their exhibition in Mexico City. Given the global pandemic, we met in the virtual space of an online chatroom. The curator, Alantl Molina, was unavailable at the time, but I have since arranged to interview him in the new year, when the exhibition will have opened to the public and the initial critical response will be known.
Alasdair: Hello everyone. Thank you for connecting up to talk with me about your forthcoming exhibition. I am interested… did you know each other before Alantl Molina proposed the ‘Nippon América’ project?
Luis: As a matter of fact, we met in Tokyo. The project involved sending the three of us to Japan for a month to take the pictures. We were recruited by Alantl and we were in touch with him but, in the months leading up to the trip, only Taeko had met him in person, because they were both in Mexico. Marcio was in Brazil and I was in Lima.
Can you explain a bit about the concept for this exhibition and why you think the curator selected your work to present?
Taeko: The underlying premise is that, outside Asia, no-one really understands Japan – it gets ‘lost in translation’ – and so we just write it off as something alien and extravagant. This failure to even try to understand ‘the other’ is very symptomatic of the times we are living in, and so this exhibition seeks to show that making the effort to understand each other can pay off… That we shouldn’t ever give up the possibility of establishing a bond. They chose three Latin American photographers of Japanese descent so we could act as ‘cultural bridges’.
Marcio: And the starting point for the selection was demographic. Brazil has the largest nikkei community in the world, so they looked for a Brazilian photographer and they found me. The second largest community in Latin America is in Peru, and there was Luis. And then they found Taeko in Mexico, and she was a perfect complement for the exhibition.
You each have a very distinctive approach to making photographs. Could you tell me a little about how your style of working developed and what inspires you? Perhaps we could begin with Taeko…
Taeko: I grew up taking pictures because at home there were always cameras around. Whoever happened to be near a camera would grab it and take the picture. So, I never considered photography as an activity in itself, it was just a part of everyday life, like cooking and eating, like combing your hair. Just something you do. My big revelation came when my father showed me you could do double exposures. All of a sudden, everything made sense … because, before that, I’d always felt all images needed some background, additional comment.
What about you, Marcio?
Marcio: I am what they call a street photographer. I work as a photojournalist in a newspaper in São Paulo, and there I follow all the rules of photojournalism. But what I really enjoy is just to go out into the street in search of miracles. When I go out, I don’t know the picture that I am going to take. I go out to see what the day will bring. And the day never disappoints!
And Luis, what drives your work?
Luis: Although I am nowhere near being able to claim that I do what they do, I really admire the Masters of Photography like Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. For me, they represent what photography is really about. But I was invited to join the exhibition because the curator found an Instagram account my wife opened for me. At first, I refused to use it because the medium seemed so transient, exactly the opposite of what photography is. Anyway, then I decided that I would only upload Polaroids there, in keeping with that spirit of fleetingness. Those Polaroids never showed any people, only architectural details. I didn’t realise I was sealing my own fate because, when Alantl saw them, made by a Peruvian nikkei, he said it worked as a perfect contrast to Marcio’s style.
Has your Japanese heritage affected each of your senses of personal identity?
Marcio: Personally, I always felt Brazilian. It was my dad who migrated here, my mom is Brazilian. My dad never wanted us to stand out, so he raised me and my siblings as Brazilians. It wasn’t until this exhibition that I was able to travel to Japan, and it blew my mind, because I thought I wasn’t Japanese enough, but then a lot of things I found there just made immediate sense. And I also discovered that Japan isn’t as homogenous and monolithic as it seems from outside. I tried to capture that in the pictures for the exhibition.
Luis: I always had a sense of reverence for Japanese perfectionism. I think that has been one of the guiding principles of my life. It wasn’t until I visited Japan that I realised that more than perfection, the Japanese aspire to harmony. That was a big change of paradigm … it’s had a profound effect in my life.
And how do you think Latin America has shaped your creative work?
Taeko: I think it inevitably does. In my case, both my parents are Japanese and I was raised in a home that was a Tokyoite bubble in the city. But I was born in Mexico, and my parents sent me to Mexican schools, so I often joke that I am 100% Japanese and 100% Mexican. Having a dual nationality is like that, you are two things at once. You are always thinking how you are going to explain everything to each side. I think that is why double exposures work so well for me, because I can show the thing I want to show, and then add some context … or merge the two worlds I live in into a single image, when most of the time they don’t really touch.
Taeko, both Japan and Mexico, in their different ways, are quite patriarchal. Do you think it is easier or harder as a woman to work in Latin America?
Taeko: I was born a woman, so I wouldn’t know how different it would have been as a man, but I do know that my face looks Japanese, so people immediately assume I am not Mexican. At some point when I was younger, I realised I was being pushed to be many things I am not, because I was responding to the idea that people had of what I should be as a Japanese woman. And later I realised that the idea of not having a ‘Mexican face’ was absurd, because Mexico is incredibly diverse and there is no such thing as one face that is innately Mexican. In the long run it helped me cement my individuality… but growing up it was a bit confusing for a while.
Marcio and Luis, do you find that, as men, it is easier to be accepted as an artist in Latin America?
Luis: I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think gender is an issue. I see plenty of successful women photographers who stand out over many men and they are widely celebrated. I think it is a matter of vision, of personal commitment…
Marcio: Personally, I do think women have to put up with a lot of things we don’t. I have never been asked by an editor to go to his house to discuss my pictures, but a lot of my female photographer friends have. I’ve been in newsrooms where women pitch stories and they are openly ignored, and then a man repeats their ideas and he is given the assignment. It happens all the time.
To me, the images you each create are very different one from the other. What do you think we learn by bringing your work together into a collective exhibition? Is there something about being Japanese that connects your work?
Taeko: When the project began, before we went to Japan to take the pictures, that was one of the things that was suggested might emerge from it… I don’t think that happened, but something did happen that, to me, is more interesting. When we did the show in Colombia, an art critic said she could tell that Marcio’s pictures were taken by a Brazilian because Japan looks like Brazil in his pictures. So, I guess we were able to show Japan in a way that people find new. And for a place that has been as photographed and overexposed as Japan, that makes me very happy.
A question for each of you: What is the most surprising response you have had to one of your images?
Luis: In Tokyo there seemed to be a small, but very loyal group of people who really liked my photographs and thought there should have been more of them in the exhibition. When I spoke to some of them and told them about my other work, they were disappointed. They thought it was a sign of artistic inconsistency that I would do anything other than the architectural Polaroids!
Marcio: I used to go this favela in São Paulo for my job. Sometimes I would bring prints of pictures I had shot on previous visits, as a way to thank people for letting me take their picture. One day I went and a guy who was a member of a small gang saw me and was like “Hey, you, come here!” I thought I had gotten myself into trouble, but it turned out he had had a picture I took of him tattooed on his chest and wanted to show me. I couldn’t believe it!
Taeko: Before the exhibition I had never shown my pictures publicly, only to friends or relatives. Soon after the project began people started writing articles and social media posts about them. Then people started sending me pictures of their computers with one my pictures as the wallpaper. Or as their Facebook cover. Then some digital artists started appropriating them and using them in their own work. I love it when that happens and I have made a couple Instagram stories to tell people it doesn’t upset me and that if they do, they should send me pictures of it because I’d love to see them.
Aside from your shared heritage, I understand you all use social media a lot to build an audience for your work. Do you have any special strategies you would like to share for successfully promoting oneself as an artist online?
Luis: Taeko is our social media expert…
Marcio: I actually only started my Instagram account for the exhibition because I mostly publish my pictures through the newspaper I work for.
Taeko: I would recommend doing ‘takeovers’. I call mine Taeko-vers (laughs). Do them with accounts that are followed by the people you are interested in. Don’t ever pay for online advertising. Don’t pay influencers to feature you. Also, don’t subscribe to that naïve belief that pictures explain themselves. Share the stories behind the pictures. Give context. But, really, the best advice I could give is to do takeovers.
A question that comes up regularly in discussions with students and artists is “can one make enough to live on being an artist-photographer?” What is your experience?
Marcio: I am a photojournalist, so I have a salary and I get published, but it’s a whole different dynamic.
Taeko: I graduated and practiced as an industrial designer for years before getting into photography professionally. I got into it because of the attention the exhibition got me – and not long after it all started, I was being represented by a gallery – so I think my experience is a bit atypical. But I would say that, in my opinion, it is possible to make a living as an artist-photographer, but it is three full time jobs: you need to be the photographer, the social media manager and the agent. It’s a lot of work. It’s worth it, but it is definitely a lot of work.
The relationship between an artist and a curator can be complex. How is it working with this exhibition?
Luis: This exhibition is a bit different from traditional photography exhibitions in that it is not only about showing beautiful images, it was a social experiment of sorts. So, the selection was a matter of choosing pictures, but the actual narrative was dictated by our personal experience in the experiment, it wasn’t decided beforehand.
Taeko: There is something that happened to me that might interest you as a photography expert, Alasdair. I had been taking pictures all my life, but when I was asked to do it as a ‘professional’, I froze. I went through the photographer’s equivalent of writer’s block, and I didn’t know what to do. Then, when we were in Tokyo, Alantl pointed out to me that I was the only one of the three who had travelled to Japan before, and he said “why don’t you show us the Tokyo you remember from your childhood, when your parents brought you here on holiday.” And that gave me a starting point to break through the block.
I am interested in what you think about each other’s work. So, here’s a question for each of you: What word sums up the work of each of your two co-exhibitors? (I leave it to you who goes first…)
Marcio: I’ll start: Taeko is a ‘mountain’. The kind of presence that witnesses everything silently and sees all. Luis is ‘strategy’. His pictures make me think of the board games where there are no sudden movements, but there is a lot of thought.
Luis: Marcio is ‘empathy’. In his pictures, people always seem to be living in a happier world … and he gets to take pictures of people that I wouldn’t ever dare to ask. Taeko makes me think of the Japanese concept of ‘kami’, the spirit of things. She seems quite adept at capturing the true nature of places.
Taeko: Marcio is ‘fire’, definitely. Luis is ‘moss’. Timeless and ever present.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of making your art?
Luis: I used to think that time and practice turned you into an expert. And that one day you would feel you had reached a point where you had mastered your craft. I am now 56, and I am pretty sure that will never happen. That curiosity and need to experiment will never dry up.
Marcio: I have never been career-oriented. I do what I do because I love it. And some people see that as being unambitious. But, you know, this experience with the exhibition really showed me that if you stick to what you really love to do, good things will come your way. Even if you can’t anticipate them.
Taeko: The other day I received a message from a girl who said she was writing because she was Mexican-Japanese too, and she had never seen herself in an image before. She said that she had never seen an image that was simultaneously Mexican and Japanese and that my pictures gave her a very special feeling. Being an only child, and growing up being singled out for being different, I had just internalised the idea that I was a rare specimen. That message reminded me that there will always be others who feel the same way you do. You are not alone in this world.
TAEKO NOMIYA was born in Mexico City in 1990, the daughter of a Japanese couple who relocated to Mexico in the 1970s. She has a degree in Industrial Design Research from UNAM (the National Autonomous University of Mexico). Although she started taking pictures at an early age, the ‘Nippon América’ exhibition was the first time her work was shown publicly. Since then, she has gained representation at the MAIA Contemporary gallery, becoming one of a rising new generation on the Mexican contemporary art scene. Instagram @nomiyataeko
MARCIO TAKEDA was born in São Paulo in 1994, the son of a Japanese father and a Brazilian mother. A graduate of São Paulo’s University Centre of Fine Arts, he works as a photojournalist for O Hoje newspaper. He had never travelled to Japan before the trip to take the pictures for the exhibition. He was one of the winners in the professional category of the 12th Old Holland Photojournalism Award and was part of the ‘Fotografia Tupiniquim’ travelling exhibition. Instagram @takeda_marcio
LUIS OKAMOTO was born in Lima in 1964. A notary public and amateur photographer with over thirty years’ experience. The grandson of a Japanese man that immigrated to Peru in the first half of the twentieth century, Luis maintains that pre-Columbian Peru and Japan are “kindred souls”, and his pictures often point to their similarities. The pictures he contributed to ‘Nippon América’ are Polaroids that focus on architectural details. Instagram @luisokamotope
This interview is a Talking Pictures original.
‘Nippon América 日本アメリカ’ opens in 2021 at the Museo Nacional de las Culturas del Mundo, Moneda 13, Centro Histórico, Del. Cuauhtémoc, CP 06000 Mexico DF. The exhibition will run for four months.
[photo: © Marcio Takeda]