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40 Years Of Wild Japanese Graphics

Back in the post-hippy, pre-punk early Seventies in Japan, Yumura Teruhiko (above in a fashion advert) was the trailblazer of a consciously raw, hand-made and apparently craftless graphic style, for which he coined the term ‘heta-uma’, broadly ‘unskilled-skilled’, or ‘bad but good’. Rejecting the period’s empty polish and inhuman perfectionism, ‘heta-uma’ was a much-needed injection of Pop Art Brut. Yumura rejoiced in exuberant scrawling and collage, off-register colouring and Japanised English, often embracing yet subverting imported American ideals from romance comics or muscle-building adverts. Under the mock-Westernised pen-names ‘Terry Johnson’ or ‘King Terry’ from ‘Tokyo Funky Studio’ or ‘Flamingo Studio’, his covers and comics appeared in the monthly manga magazine Garo (see selection displayed at Mangaro show below).

Founded in 1964, Garo peaked at around 80,000 copies (still very modest compared to mass-market titles) as an influential though unpaid outlet for many politically and socially engaged comics creators. But by the dawn of the Seventies, its role and relevance began to change amid the decline of the student protest movement and the acceleration of Japan’s economic boom. The arrival of Yumura’s work heralded Garo’s shift towards artists eager to experiment and express themselves through highly idiosyncratic styles and narratives, like Nemoto Takashi’s delirious ‘ero-guro’ or erotic grotesque, and Shiriagari Kotobuki’s Zen-like absurdism. Nemoto has hailed Yumura: “He opened many doors and allowed in artists who were not very strong technically but had a soul to express.”

Forty years later, three generations of these artists, all more or less affiliated with the ‘heta-uma’ avant-garde, have found themselves finally brought together for their first ever two-part group show, oddly not in their homeland but in two arts institutions in France. One reason for this French connection, as Kyoichi Tsuzuki, Japanese commentator and collector from Roadsiders’ Weekly, explained at the opening is: “You cannot do this exhibition in Japan, because the Japanese art world doesn’t care about this kind of popular culture, so they see ‘heta-uma’ is not supposed to be art, this is manga comic business or illustration business, not fine art.” Another factor is that outside of Asia, France is the largest consumer of translated manga. While sales are dominated by commercial hits, many French publishers also release more auteur or underground manga, several by artists featured in this double exhibition.

It also helps that French artist, Hervé Di Rosa, a key figure with his brother Richard and Robert Combas in the ‘Figuration libre’ movement since the 1980s, was hugely inspired by discovering Yumura’s work in 1979. Di Rosa offered to host this exhibition in the Musée International des Arts Modestes (or MIAM, French for ‘yummy’, photo above), in his native Sète on the Mediterranean coast, a repository, showcase and generator which he co-founded in 2000 for works on the peripheries of Art Brut, Outsider art and popular culture.

As co-curators, Di Rosa turned to Pakito Bolino, artist and dynamo behind the wildly uncompromising silkscreen publishers Le Dernier Cri, who in turn brought in Ayumi Nakayama from Tokyo bookshop and publisher Taco Ché. Together they expanded the project into two parallel shows, adding MANGARO into gallery space in the Friche La Belle de Mai, a former Gauloise cigarette factory turned multi-arts venue and Dernier Cri’s base in Marseille.

Godfather Yumura sadly did not attend, but some thirty artists aged between 25 and 60 came over from Japan, many meeting their peers for the first time, to work on new pieces inside the two spaces, from massive wall paintings to installing crazy, crude structures, part-shed, part-shrine. Kago Shintaro concocted bleakly humorous sex-toys gaudily packaged like joke novelties, while Tanaami Keiichi loaned some of his eye-popping kimonos (photos below).

Far from being ‘unskilled’, artists like Maruo Suehiro or Hanawa Kazuichi demonstrate dazzling precision, channeling draughtsmanship from past masters, while among the striking young artists are members of graphic magazines Mograg and Erect, and twin sisters Eru and Emu Arizono who collaborate as Hamadaraka [read an interview with them here]. Contextualising these, hanging from MIAM’s ceiling, are remarkable relics rescued by Kyoichi Tsuzuki - lurid original banners promoting Japan’s former travelling freakshows, one of which promises a pair of cows with the heads of Elizabeth Taylor and Elvis Presley.

Dense, intense, disturbing and disturbed, much of contents of these two landmark exhibitions comes from the cultural margins, unmoored from moral conventions or the propriety of Japan’s aestheticised self-image. This is what these fierce, uncompromising creators can bring, in particpant Sakabashira Imiri’s view: “Japan has been traumatised by disasters throughout its history: war, nuclear, earthquakes. Consumer society wants to make us forget them, but many of these artists are expressing through their work this deep trauma.”

HETA-UMA is at MIAM in Sète and MANGARO is at La Friche de la Belle de Mai, Marseilles, till March 1st 2015. Below is a short video tour by me of the MANGARO exhibition and a gallery of more photos from both exhibitions.

Tacho Che Stall at MANGARO

Artwork by Hamadaraka

Original artwork by Maruo Suehiro

Original artwork by Hanawa Kuzuichi

New mural painted by Nemoto

MANGARO wall of fluorescent lights

Entrance to HETA-UMA

Entrance stand with Eyeball

New mural by Kotobuki Shiriagari

King Terry Set

King Terry Folding Screen

Women Wrestlers Banner

Monster Statue

Exterior Shrine

Installation by Imiri Sakabashira

Inside Nemoto’s Installation

Nemoto Mural

Tokyo Zombie set by Hanakuma Yusaku

Godzilla Mirror

Posted: January 23, 2015

This Article originally appeared in ArtReview Asia magazine.


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