Each library is a type of Tower of Babel: the literary traditions,
the languages, the images generated by diverse cultures of the world
are intermingled on the shelves where the books are squeezed together.
In between the Babel of the high bookshelves in the library of the
Instituto de Artes Graficas de Oaxaca, on the reading tables, the
artist Masako Takahashi displays before me, silently, a series of
text written on silk canvases, which speak from a writing and language
invented by her.
tongue, and the alphabet she has configured on precious fabrics
from India, Thailand and Japan, gives form to a language that to
be written requires a needle instead of a pen, a paint brush or
a pencil, embroidered writing which uses hair instead of thread.
It is about a language that is read but not pronounced, that when
it’s read, it is felt but which does not enclose a precise
and closed significance. Each word is new; each paragraph is conformed
by ideas or “phrases” which had never before been registered.
The idiomatic rules are
as simple as the elegant esthetic on display: The only “grammatical”
rule is that the terms be written with regular sized letters and
that each word has the extension reached by embroidering one hair.
So that the writing does not become disordered, the creator follows
the subtle lines, which appear on the surface weave of the fabric.
It is about a purely expressive language, not preoccupied with absolute
signifiers and sentences.
It would seem then the
language created by Masako is related to Taoism, the philosophical
current in which Lao Tse affirmed that only in emptiness resides
the truly essential. The writer Kokuso Okakura, in his celebrated
and aromatic defense of Japanese tradition titled The Book of Tea,
summarized Lao Tse’s statement about emptiness: “You
will find, for example, the reality of a room, not in the ceiling
and the walls, but in the space that these entities delimit. The
usefulness of a pitcher resides in the hollowness that contains
the water, not in the form of the vessel or the clay with which
the ceramist modeled it.
Emptiness is powerful,
because it can enclose everything. Only in emptiness is movement
possible. “That person who would be able to open herself to
the point where everyone could fit and enter, would be the lord
of all the situations.” In this way Masako, by spelling the
world with an inexistent language, empty of significances, would
be opening up her letters to all the languages in all the existent
universe, given that her “ideograms” would no more desire
than to suggest, and the reader be open to interpret or find the
ideas he would like, that is, his own imagination discreetly pulled
by the thread of the artists’ hairs.
It is inevitable not to stretch ones hand and caress between ones
fingertips those precious Asian silks which serve as support to
Masako’s artistic proposals, and while the texture of a pistachio
green sheet slips through my fingertips, I think that the artist,
born in the United States of Japanese parents, has created her work
on these silks to have a thread with her cultural origins. What
other material, if not silk, makes us immediately think of classic
China or Japan? Masako has decided to develop her creative proposal
on the canvas of tradition, even though her works are completely
contemporary, because by using her own hair as her primary material,
her works relate with body art and with dozens of contemporary artists,
specially women but also some men, as ceramist and sculptor Gerardo
Azcunaga, who have made hair part of their artistic language.
Returning to the bridge
Masako traces to her Japanese roots, one is reminded that the literature
of Japan had as a first figure the writer Lady Murasaki Shikibu
(end of the tenth century beginning of the eleventh century). History
tells us that during those years the monks, diplomats, philosophers
and scientists wrote in Chinese, because it was considered in bad
taste to write in Japanese. The monk, Kukai, had already invented
the characters for Kana (Japanese writing) to express himself in
Japanese, and the women of the court used them to write their messages.
Murasaki Shikibu was born in AD 978, an era in when women did not
receive a cultured education. But she remained in the room during
her brother’s lessons, and she learned quickly.
Widowed at a young age,
she was sent to serve the Empress Akiko. Living as a prisoner of
the courtesan world, she collected minute details of the life of
the royalty until she decided to write the novel Genji Monogatari
(in English, The Tales of Genji). In it, she relates the amorous
adventures of the hereditary prince. The book formed the foundation
of Japanese written literature, and is also fundamental to the history
of traditional Japanese attire, given that thanks to her prodigious
recording of ceremonial details and references we know the manners
of dressing used in certain rituals of the times, and which dresses
were used during what occasions or seasons of the year (then, as
now, in Asia, the textile arts were valued as highly as any other
The reference to Genji
Monogatari weaves the relationship between silks and the narrations
of the literary mother of Japan. If I have extended myself in the
passionate personality of this ancient woman, it’s to dramatize
the bond with Masako’s work. She too practices a foundational
writing, a unique visual literature on the silky fragments of vintage
kimonos gathered during her travels. Yes, not all of Masako’s
“writings” have been embroidered on Japanese silks,
but that is what makes her creative language a contemporary expression,
because if her art looks at tradition, it is the vast and varied
Asian tradition, and her link is also with Hindu, Thai, and Korean
women as well as her Japanese grandmothers. A woman of the past
wouldn’t have this international vision and would not have
been able to travel as extensively as Masako Takahashi.
In the illustrations inspired by the Genji Monogatari a century
after it was written, the women in the story and the image of the
author, are depicted dressed in beautiful multicolored garments,
and all have long loose hair. It seems they belong to a generation
before women acquired the fashion of complex hairdos kept in place
by ornamental combs and elaborated sticks. Observing the fine paintings,
one thinks about Masako’s hair. This woman’s patient
care of her long hair is an indisputable connection with the traditional
world, and it also constitutes an inextricable part of her creative
process. For Masako to brush her hair represents carding her threads.
The hairs which fall from her head and are entangled in the brush
or comb, will carefully be separated to then enter the eye of the
needle and then to write, becoming entangled in the silk.
If I have written about the links between Masako and tradition,
I also want to sketch what the essence of her embroidery suggests
to me. I wouldn’t want to finish this text without referring
to specific works of the exhibition. I’d like to mention the
circle with cuneiform marks the artist sewed on flesh colored silk.
There, the end of the hairs have been left loose, in such a way
that the perimeter of the circle vibrates and so too its inside,
truly generating a star, a palpitating sun on the fabric.
And I want to refer to a work that the artist was making when the
ominous tragedy of the twin towers in New York happened, which signaled
the beginning of a ballistic decadence which has not ceased. The
work is divided in two parts, in this work Masako decided to include
the red hair of a friend to dramatically accentuate the change that
occurred on September 11th of that year. The major section, embroidered
during the earlier months of that year with her own long black hair,
was written with very straight characters in rectangular paragraphs.
The lower section, traced in red, was written closer in a style
to hand writing, as if the artist felt the need to loosen her style,
to turn it less rigid to be able to speak from undulations of pain.
I wanted to refer to
these two works to emphasize how the artist takes advantage of her
medium, always respecting the visual and tactile qualities of the
silk supports. The fabric of the back of a kimono is always in touch
with the loose hair of the woman who wears it, and Masako with her
poetry has taken this relationship to its extreme, into weaving
both materials. I cannot help but imagine the artist in the night
of her bedroom, vigorously brushing her hair in the penumbra in
front of a mirror, searching in silence for the matter and form
of her next embroidery, while sparks fly out of her hair.
Galvez de Aguinaga
Director, Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca/Instituto de Artes Graficas
de Oaxaca (IAGO)
Translation: Adriana Larios