Hiroshi Watanabe: Findings, Kabuki and Sarumawashi September 11 — October 31, 2009
I go to places that captivate and intrigue me. I am interested in what humans do. I seek to capture people, traditions, and locales that first and foremost are of personal interest. I immerse myself with information on the places prior to leaving, but I try to avoid firm, preconceived ideas. I strive for both calculation and discovery in my work, keeping my mind open for surprises. At times, I envision images I’d like to capture, but when I actually look through the viewfinder, my mind goes blank and I photograph whatever catches my eye. Photographs I return with are usually different from my original concepts. My photographs reflect both genuine interest in my subject as well as a respect for the element of serendipity, while other times I seek pure beauty. The pure enjoyment of this process drives and inspires me. I believe there’s a thread that connects all of my work -- my personal vision of the world as a whole. I make every effort to be a faithful visual recorder of the world around me, a world in flux that, at very least in my mind, deserves preservation.
Those Kabuki players you see in my photographs are not with the mainstream Kabuki companies in Tokyo. They are with localized small groups located in various parts of Japan. They are not professional actors in a sense, as they don’t get paid for their plays. They actually spend quite a lot of their own money to be in the plays. Kabuki is known for lavish make-up, costumes, and stage set-ups. As such, those who want to be in the plays must be committed and prepared. They spend their time and money because of their love for being in the theater—attention they get, pride, prestige, and joy of being part of their tradition.
One such company is based in a town called Nakatsugawa. The town is cozily nested at the foot of Japan Alps Mountains. It was situated at the halfway point between Tokyo and Kyoto of the old main road called Nakasendo in Edo era, and because of this strategic location, it flourished as a trading post about three hundred years ago. The town became rich, but had no cultures as they are away from big cities. They had to wait for Kabuki Company to arrive, which comes only once a year. Being tired of waiting, they finally decided to do Kabuki by themselves. They built a theater and hired make-up artists, costumers, and stage craftsmen from Kyoto just for themselves, and they started to play their favorite stories. Thus it became their tradition.
I believe good portraits are the ones that show the characters and personality of the subjects--their human beings. I find it a difficult task, as people are so well educated about photographs nowadays. People know how to pose, how to make impressions, and how to look good, and hardly reveal what they really are.
Those Kabuki players are also hidden in heavy make-up and wardrobes in a made-up world. But when they sit in front of my camera between plays, they are so much saturated (and worried) in their roles, that they pay very little attention to my existence. They are struck with stage fright and they repeat their lines over and over as I photograph. Remember this is not what they do everyday. On the other hand, they are not afraid of me, or of anyone else, as their faces are shielded by the heavy make-ups. They can be themselves without worrying about other people, as if they were in the masquerade. They feel that no one knows who he or she really is, or at least people know that they were in a fictional world. At those moments, they are much closer to me.
Sarumawashi, literally "monkey dancing" evolved over a 1000-year history in Japan. Ancient Japanese chronicles refer to it as a form of religious ritual designed to protect the horses of warriors. It later developed into a popular form of festival entertainment, and was performed all over Japan from temples to imperial courts. Today, Sarumawashi is ranked alongside Noh and Kabuki as one of the oldest and most traditional of Japan's performing arts. It features acrobatic stunts and comedic skits performed by highly trained macaque monkeys.
Despite its current popularity, Sarumawashi almost perished in the 1970's. The increasing urbanization of Japan and the rise of the automobile on Japan's crowded city streets threatened Sarumawashi's place in Japanese culture as a popular form of street performance. In 1977 a group of individuals throughout Japan, fearing the total demise of this ancient art form, gathered to effect the revival of Sarumawashi. They founded the Suo Sarumawashi association in present day Hikari City (also known by its ancient name of Suo) in Yamaguchi Prefecture in Western Japan. After a series of setbacks, the Suo Sarumawashi Association finally succeeded in bringing Sarumawashi back to life. Today the association in partnership with the Murasaki Corporation runs two 600 Seat Sarumawashi Theaters, one based in Kumamoto Prefecture and the other in Yamanashi Prefecture near the base of Mt. Fuji. The Suo Sarumawashi performing group also tours frequently throughout Japan.
The reason for Sarumawashi's ongoing popularity lies in the charm and agility of the Japanese macaque monkey. Sarumawashi showcases the natural physical prowess of the Japanese monkey by combining acrobatic stunts with comical skits and dances. The monkey and trainer perform as one unit to create a bond between man and primate
Since it was founded, the Suo Sarumawashi Association has been dedicated to preserving the art of Sarumawashi in Japan. In 1991, the Suo Sarumawashi Association was awarded the prestigious Arts Prize at the Japan arts Festival sponsored by the national government's Culture Agency - a first for any performing art group involving animals. In 1992, the Suo Sarumawashi Association ventured overseas for the first time. Four of Suo's star monkeys performed at New York's Lincoln Center to a sold-out crowd. The group also traveled across the United States for performances in New York's Central Park, the United States Senate, Harvard University, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
Black & white images prior to 2000 are available as 15 x 15" and 10 x 10" toned gelatin silver prints in editions of 50 and 5, respectively, with 5 AP's. Pieces range in price from $1200 to $6500, depending on size and availability.
Black & white photographs from 2000 to present are available as 15 x 15" toned gelatin silver prints and 36 x 36" pigment prints in a total edition of 35 with 5 AP's. Pieces range in price from $1200 to $6500, depending on size and availability.
Please call: (312) 266-2350 for prices of specific pieces. Prices are print only unless otherwise indicated.
Hiroshi Watanabe,Agra Fort, India, 2000
From the Findings series
10 x 10”, 14 x 14” toned gelatin silver print
Edition of 30, 15
Hiroshi Watanabe,Aikichi 2, Suo Sarumawashi , 2008