Chikako Yamashiro: Truth Seeker, Hope Giver

 

Okinawan artist Chikako Yamashiro draws from contemporary social issues, nature, and some of her homeland's deepest historical scars, in particular, the Second World War, to create work that kindles hope in the hearts of oppressed peoples around the world.

 Chikako Yamashiro,  Mud man,  2016. In cooperation with Aichi Triennale, 2016. © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates.

Chikako Yamashiro, Mud man, 2016. In cooperation with Aichi Triennale, 2016. © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates.

You could say that Yamashiro found her calling in 2008 when unexpectedly a newspaper in Okinawa commissioned her, an artist, to produce a piece that addressed the question: “How will the Battle of Okinawa be passed down to future generations?” Typically, the paper commissions photographers and journalists who, more often than not, heavily rely on archival films and photographs for inspiration. 

Yamashiro, however, understands that historical records, though terribly important, lack an artist’s imagination. This insight prompted her to call into question the ability of archival footage to convey to future generations the extreme hardships of war. “Is it possible to imagine the Battle of Okinawa," she says, "by only watching it on movies or looking at some pictures?"    

Searching for inspiration elsewhere, she began to recall stories of the war passed along from aging war survivors whose numbers are dwindling each year. Some time passed. Then from within, she heard a man’s voice, a kind of narrator, faithfully recount tales of the war. “The voice became so powerful,” Yamashiro says, “that I thought it would take over my whole body.” 

 Chikako Yamashiro,  Mud man,  2016. In cooperation with Aichi Triennale, 2016. © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates.

Chikako Yamashiro, Mud man, 2016. In cooperation with Aichi Triennale, 2016. © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates.

Perhaps the voice did indeed seize her, for it inspired her seminal performance piece Your Voice Came out through My Throat. The work finds its poignancy in its simple, yet powerful aesthetic. The face of an older man is projected onto Yamashiro’s face as she stands with her back to a blank wall. At the same time, a recording of his voice retells the experiences of war survivors while Yamashiro, synchronizing her lip movements with the man’s sonorous voice, silently relates the same frightful story. Your Voice Came out through My Throat resonates to us her belief in the power of the imagination to bring one closer to the truth.

From works such as Your Voice Came out through My Throat; to Sinking Voice; to A Woman of the Butcher Shop, Yamashiro continues to bring repressed feelings and memories from across the years into our consciousness, culminating with her most recent film entitled Mud man

Mud man opens with a simply garbed man, the film’s storyteller perhaps, who speaks to us in a bizarre hodgepodge of words borrowed from Japanese, Korean and Okinawan, highlighting the film's multicultural relevance.

 Chikako Yamashiro,  Mud man,  2016. In cooperation with Aichi Triennale (2016). © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates.

Chikako Yamashiro, Mud man, 2016. In cooperation with Aichi Triennale (2016). © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates.

The story now quickly develops. A passing bird excretes a feces-covered seed on a community of good mud-people, triggering a series of flashbacks. The people of the mud, then, re-experience memories of a turbulent past that begin them on a metaphysical journey from darkness to enlightenment, from barrenness to fruitfulness in a world abloom with lilies. We see the cycle of life at work here. “You can’t have much direction," Yamashiro reminds us, "without knowing where you came from.”

Towards the end of the film, in an ode to peaceful protest, the calm seas of Henoko's coast greet us; they welcome us. For this is the place where, in real life, the people of Okinawa, with the support of the international community, struggle to stop the construction of a new U.S. military base. 

One could rightly imagine that the festive and peaceful nature of the on-going anti-base demonstrations in Henoko harkens back to the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa before its annexation to Japan) when local gentry welcomed foreign emissaries with song and dance to foster friendly relations. However, for Yamashiro, song and dance are expressions of the common people that serve an important contemporary purpose. “Our traditional songs,” she says, “are weapons that bring hearts together.” 

Yamashiro brings this ethos of unity forward into her work too. Recalling the voices of yesteryear, she walks amid memories of the recent past: seeking truths and encouraging the masses to remain steadfast in the existential struggle to bring about a better world.

 Chikako Yamashiro,  Mud man,  2016. In cooperation with Aichi Triennale, 2016. © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates.

Chikako Yamashiro, Mud man, 2016. In cooperation with Aichi Triennale, 2016. © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy of Yumiko Chiba Associates.


Words Daryl Mitchell