Nobuko Watabiki: “I” in the Here and Now

Reiko Kokatsu, Chief Curator, Tochigi Prefectural Museum of Fine Arts

Nobuko Watabiki’s paintings first capture people’s eyes with the vividness of their colors. The viewers’ gaze is drawn toward the exquisite combination of colors that arouses a sense of excited delight within them. The colors she utilizes include pink, green, blue, and charcoal gray, which may remind viewers of a type of wrapping paper that would be used at a select European confectionary shop. However, beyond the scene they have captured, viewers inevitably face an unsettling sense of apprehension, or feel as if they have thumped against something solid. This is because concealed on the other side of the nonchalant surfaces of Watabiki’s paintings, there exists a sense of incongruity, anger and outcry, feelings that derive from the life that Watabiki has led.

In her book Curious Hands: Freeing myself and becoming a painter (Shobunsha, 2008), which compiles the paintings Watabiki has created up until today along with her own writings, she stated the following: “In fact, I was so sad that I could not help but to create something.” But few pages after this comment she wrote, “In fact, I had never known real sorrow or experienced such deep regret before.”

Both of those comments probably came out of her honest feelings. She is the type of painter who has created paintings spurred by her own compelling need to paint, regardless of the fact that she has also tried to confine and ignore the raw pain and emotions deep within her mind. Her paintings seem to have some points in common with the works of so-called Outsider art, which are originated by painters who are self-taught and isolated from society. This comment would probably please Watabiki rather than offend her. The Outsider art that I am referring to here is not the type of painting that originates from an “innocent,” “pure” soul, but paintings that are considered to be positioned outside of social and artistic “standards.” Such a term can also refer to paintings that are not merely pure, but which possess a “poison” that causes people living within a world of standardized ideas to hold doubts toward what their common sense tells them and even to disillusion them.

In 1958, in the midst of the post-war recovery period in Japan, Watabiki was born in the heart of Tokyo. She grew up in a family of four: a displeased father who failed in his business; an independent, reliable mother who had a job of her own; and a sister who was a pretty “ideal child.” “My kimonos made of the same fabric as my mother’s, an amusement park we went to together, the yukatas (summer kimonos) we wore that were provided by the inn we stayed at a hot spring…”—one would think she should have had ordinary memories of a happy childhood based on this quote from her book. But in that book, she mentions that she could not remember how she felt during that period. She always felt like she was a spectator or a bystander in her family.

In order to recover the childhood that she had lost, Watabiki first began her artistic career by creating boxes made of photos from her childhood, beginning around 1984. Out of the black-and-white commemorative photos from her childhood, which were still costly in the 1960s, she found quite a number of them showing herself making poses as she stood beside her sister. These photos revealed to her the appearance of “an ideal child as desired by the parents” during that period. Around those photos, in which she repeatedly made the same pose, she, as an adult, painted and colored her box works packed with beautiful dreams. Watabiki’s box works share similarities with Joseph Cornell’s boxes, packed with his virtual, longed-for journeys, in that they serve as theaters for her memories, allowing her to re-experience her own past family trips and events.

But beginning in the early 1990s, her works, which were in a sense like healing sessions that were focused on her inner self, gradually underwent a transition. First, she began to use larger boxes and depict her present self, instead of herself in her childhood. She then created paintings with oil paints and oil pastels on such supports as a wooden panel and canvas. Via this process, she came to her current painting technique that utilizes oil pastels on Japanese paper. Using this style in her 1996 solo exhibition Spirits at the Table (Gallery Nikko), she showed about ten large-scale works, each 2100 x 1700mm in size. That exhibition undeniably marked her transition period whereby she was transfigured from a box-artist to a painter. This transition went beyond her artistic method, and assuredly had significance in the way in which the artist Watabiki shifted her vision from solely gazing at her inner self to opening her expressions toward the external world.

Since that exhibition, she has continued to fully demonstrate her artistic development through her solo exhibitions, such as those held at Galleria Chimera in Tokyo (2003) and the IBM Gallery in Kawasaki (2005), as well as through her participation in significant group exhibitions held at major art museums. Watabiki also participated in a group exhibition among Asian feminist artists, titled trauma, interrupted, held in Manila, Philippines in June 2007. This occasion allowed her the opportunity to develop her future painting by becoming aware of the fact that the tragic histories and haunting memories of different races have resulted in the casting of deep, dark shadows on people’s personal memories.

Finally, I would like to outline the distinctive characteristics of Watabiki’s oil pastel paintings. She creates a coarse, pilled texture on the surface of Japanese paper through applying layers of colors with oil pastel sticks that cover the entire surface. This unique method of depiction that Watabiki utilizes noticeably deviates from the ordinary use of oil pastels in painting. Nonetheless, the pilled surface of the Japanese paper brings out a unique softness and sense of warmth in the texture, while also placing softened veils over the thorn-like feeling that exists at the core of Watabiki’s round-headed figures that appear in all her paintings.

Though the depictions in Watabiki’s paintings contain round-headed characters that remind viewers of her own alter-ego, the poetic or epigrammatic titles of her works are those such as It would be enough just to give it some thoughts, Sorrow similar to not being able to see one’s own back, Naked Void, Determined Release, and Courage that lies beyond the reach of my hand. From these implications, one can surmise that she is putting her best effort into conveying her own inner sense of emptiness, anger, and sadness. But the characters in her paintings never shout or scream loudly. They simply open their eyes wide, at times baring and clenching their teeth as if they were listening to their internal, impulsive anger, as well as reexamining the meaning behind their reasons to live. I have no doubt that their (and Watabiki’s) silent anger will resonate within the heart of many present-day viewers who live within this world’s unceasing conflicts.

(Translated by Taeko Nanpei)