Asia – Jo’s Last Week

Jo Verrent tries her hand at weaving during her trip to Japan

Jo Verrent, Senior Producer for Unlimited, wraps up her travels in Asia meeting with some incredibly inspiring artists, performers and organisations. 

The delayed update of what I did in my second week – blame jet lag for the late posting!

After leaving Tokyo I headed to Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Fukuoma then across to Busan in South Korea and up to Seoul. Lots of new places to meet lots of new people.

Taihen are possibly the oldest performance group of disabled performers working in Japan, fusing butoh and dance into a performance where disabled people are allowed to be, and the audience is allowed to watch. It’s challenging conventional norms, and the company was probably the most political of all the groups I met in Japan. Taihen, are the only group who were not in favour of involvement in Tokyo 2020 in any form, feeling that the national budget will be distorted by the costs of hosting the Olympics and that work controlled by disabled people themselves will be under threat.

Saori are a national and international group working with textiles, in particular a unique form of weaving that is open to all – there is no ‘teaching’ and no mistakes. Instead, anyone can create artwork within a very short space of time and via an extremely relaxing process. It’s immersion and inclusion in one. The project has many linked groups across Asia, and some in the West and the work produced can be displayed as weavings, made into clothes or used to create other artworks. Within 30 minutes I had produced my first ‘work’ amidst much laughter, and I went on to buy a stunning shawl designed and made by an artist with autism (luckily she happened to be working on the day I was there too so I got to meet her in person!). It’s hard to label as art, therapy, community or industry as it’s an intriguing mix of all.

Atelier Corners is a welfare facility but with a difference. Its focus is on art – and cookies – and the centre is small and modeled on traditional Japanese architectural lines, giving a series of intimate yet interlocked spaces. The difference is the quality of the art work being made by the artists who come each day. The centre is small – only a handful of learning disabled artists living in the locality use it – and it was set up by Takako Shiraiwa as a place to provide support for her daughter. I had seen work by one of the artists earlier in my visit (Ueno Yasuyuki who’s work I had seen at Spiral), but this was a chance to see many more artists and their work. Frankly the work blew me away. It was incredibly creative, varied and highly distinctive – each artist is allowed to follow their own path and supported to use materials and techniques that enhance and embellish their innate skill. No wonder so many of these artists have shown work in France, Germany, America…

In Nara I went to Hana, the centre run by Tanpopo-no-ye – in many ways the ‘grandfather’ organisation of much of the arts work undertaken by disabled people in Japan. Again, a great resource enabling people to follow their own creativity with proper artistic support – creating unique work that has huge appeal. Able Art are intractably linked to Tanpopo-no-ye, and have groups across Asia. They provide a commercial route for many of the artists – selling not only works themselves, but brokering the commercial application of designs on high end fashion and goods – providing income for both the artists and the centre along standard commercial lines.

Jo and the Saori artist who designed and weaved Jo's shawl

Jo and the Saori artist who designed and weaved Jo’s shawl

I had a chance to talk in depth with Kazuyo Morita too, whom I had briefly met in Tokyo. As a disabled performer, she was able to tell me about the opportunities and barriers she experiences. We had an interesting hour or so comparing the UK and the Japanese models and looking for solutions. I so wish I had been able to see her perform – perhaps next time?

I also spoke at length to Professor Julia Cassim at Kyoto Design Lab, Kyoto Institute of Technology and formerly lead for the Challenge workshops run by the RSA and Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design. Julia has lived in Japan – on and off – for many years and been instrumental in many of the initiatives aimed at developing audience access, particularly for visually impaired people to the visual arts sector (for example, she curated and designed award-winning exhibitions for audiences with visual impairments and learning disabilities and wrote about her experiences in ‘Into the Light – Museums and their Visually Impaired Visitors’, her book published by Shogakkan in 1998). We discussed the eastern and western approaches to access, looking for ways to ensure a positive momentum. Julia is strongly linked with Tanpopo-no-ye too, and currently brings her design specialism to bear on international projects linking creativity, inclusion and design across the world.

My time in Korea was very limited – but I still managed to meet a wide variety of people active in a number of fields. A quick meeting in the morning with Sookhee Kim, president of ASSITEJ Korea and Artistic Director of an annual festival for disabled children, to talk about inclusive performance work that might be suitable for their festival and then British Council, Korea organised a seminar to discuss arts and disability around my visit, enabling many interested parties to meet – some for the first time. Attendees included representatives from The Federation of Disability Culture and Art Association of Korea, Korea Disabilities Art Association (Visual Arts), Korean Art Association for the Blind, Welfare Network Your Way, International Disability Cultural Exchange Association, Pink Hear and Dream, Korea Culture Association for the Disabled, The International Disabled Art Organisation of Korea, Fun and Art, Heart Heart Foundation and many others including a disabled pop singer (K-pop is very big news!) Again, we had involvement from national papers, as in Tokyo and the discussions continued right up until I had to run for my train to the airport.

Now I am back in the UK I have some time to reflect – and then I have to start thinking about the potential for the future – for collaborations, for initiatives, for exploration. One thing I am sure of is that whatever happens – in both Korea and Japan – the groundwork is already there. The situation might not be as it is in the UK and that’s absolutely right and proper – neither country is anything like the UK! But both have a rich history of existing work, skilled artists, innovators, advocates and entrepreneurs who are already seeking to develop both access to the arts in general for all disabled people and develop the work of disabled artists specifically to bring it to a wider audience.

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