Sugano Matsusaki. True Identity

Expressing intangible ideas and thoughts is the mainstay of art. You might say that this outlet was created for that sole purpose. In a dream-like fashion, it seamlessly allows us to explore ideas that are so ambiguously complex that they cannot be put into words. For one young artist, Sugano Matsusaki, her experiences with photography, film, and calligraphy all have but one thing in common – an insight into her identity.

“I was interested in how I became Japanese,” Matsusaki tells me, frankly. “The cultural things became really Japanese, but every year we still have [traditional local] rituals and events. In that way, I mean, it’s not Japanese culture,” she says. “Through the ritual, through this shamanism, we tried to keep our identity.”

Sugano Matsusaki, Hajichi, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

Matsusaki ’s journey into the art world was an unexpected one. It came when she was still a student of sociology in Tokyo. There, she met a student photographer, who on learning that she practiced calligraphy, suggested that the pair work together on a project. The subject was to be shamanism in Okinawa. Not only was this the focus of her degree thesis at the time, but it was also a topic deeply rooted in her heritage. Therefore, it ought to come as no surprise that two of her most arresting pieces show her grandparents as subjects.

The first piece, entitled simply Hajichi (meaning ‘tattoo’), is a collection of photographs that feature traditional Okinawan tattoo designs. One image in particular shows Matsusaki’s grandmother adorned with a distinct pattern. At first glance, one may have no idea of the tattoo’s significance, but it has a story to tell.

“The pattern I used was from an old tattoo in Okinawa for the protection from prostitution,” Matsusaki explains. “[Historically], the women would put this mark on their hands so when they poured alcohol, this tattoo looked angry. Its purpose was to scare men away.” Later, the significance of this tattoo shifted. It became synonymous with all of female-kind. When girls matured, they would get it as a point of pride and honor – a sign they were to be good mothers, daughters, and sisters.

However, when the island came under Japanese rule in 1879, choosing this tattoo was a fearlessly bold move. The government saw it as a symbol of patriotism to the fallen Ryukyu Kingdom. They forbade anyone to get it. These days, even some locals fail to understand the symbol’s meaning or, worse, have never even laid eyes on it.

After painting the pattern on her grandmother’s face, Matsusaki asked her to look angry. It was her goal to convey the tattoo’s actual meaning. Yet, much to her dismay, when the final picture was shown to audiences, people said it was beautiful; they admired its underlying allure. She didn’t understand it. “It was a bit strange that people called it art.”

Sugano Matsusaki, Until Grandpa Becomes God, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

The second piece, entitled Until Grandpa Becomes God, was conceived in the most difficult of circumstances. On learning that her grandad did not have long left to live – he had cancer – Matsusaki traveled home to say her final goodbyes. Once there, her father made a special request of her. She was asked to film her grandfather’s last living moments.

“Dearest my granddaughter, thank you so much,” he utters from his hospital bed. “Thank you, grandpa,” she replies. Her grandfather clasps the hand of a relative. “My son, my son,” he says in his native tongue, “The life is bitter.” A few shots later, Matsusaki and her grandpa hold hands. His time has almost come. “Hold on a bit more,” she asks him. She promises that people are coming to see him if he’d only wait a little longer. She pats him gently on the face, reassuring him that the others are on their way.

The final moments of the film are of the funeral — her grandfather’s body being prepared for the event along with shots from inside the funeral home. The film ends abruptly with a close up of her grandfather’s face moments before he passed. “Were you happy? Are you happy?” Matsusaki asks. There’s a split-second delay, and then the screen turns blank.

Sugano Matsusaki, Until Grandpa Becomes God, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

“I wanted to express that we’d lost traditional Ryukyu language — grandpa was the last native speaker in my family. He always spoke in this language, and I couldn’t really understand him. This contrast was interesting for me,” Matsusaki explains.

The subtle differences between the Okinawan and Japanese culture are hard to pinpoint, especially to an outsider. They warrant essays, introspection, and a deep understanding of the cultural norms. For Matsusaki, these lines are bold and obvious; she attempts to weave them strikingly throughout her art.

They are the common threads that tie Until Grandpa Becomes God and Hajichi together – each, in its own way, opening a dialogue centered on the ancient ways of her homeland. It’s true that the Okinawan identity is still a blurred one, and yet, it’s pulled directly into focus here. We all see it. Clear at last.

Image provided courtesy of Sugano Matsusaki.
Charlotte Grainger