Artist Q&A: Toshihiko Okuya

There’s this myth in the west that some hold sacred. In the story the Babylonians supposedly built a city and in this city there would be this tower that allowed all the languages of the world to communicate. Pardon me for not getting all the details 100% correct, but you get the gist. At some point in the story our creator got concerned that humans had blasphemed by building the tower (he presumed was built to avoid a second flood). So in response to this blasphemous act the creator brought into existence multiple languages. People were then divided into linguistic groups, unable to understand one another. By doing this our vengeful creator put things in order, and reasserted himself to his rightful place I guess. If you choose to subscribe to these tales, I would imagine some part of the story is hard to explain. None the less one’s faith is important and stories like these ultimately helped shape our society and culture into what it is today.

I on the other hand feel that maybe the creator did not fully condemn mankind to being unable to communicate with one another. I mean to me creative expression is also a method of communication that transcends culture and language. Art is so subtly nuanced that there is room for many interpretations & understandings. No matter the language one speaks art in particular and expression in general “speaks” to us.

I was thinking about this story when I first reached out to Toshihiko Okuya. In a sense his work spoke to me. Even though we are both from two completely different parts of the world, I was still able to connect with him to some degree through his art. I would of course later connect with him via social media, but that’s a story for perhaps another day. His art (like other works of art), to me is in a sense universal. Images bring out emotion and everyone feels emotion. We are in a way united again through this emotion. So it would seem that in spite of our creators attempts to separate us we found a way. If you really have studied that book you’d notice that mankind usually finds a way. We usually always find… A way to unite.

So here we are. In spite of it all we have figured out a way to connect and perhaps understand each other. Our inner beauty, individuality, and intelligence all seen in works of art. I hope that like me you try to understand Toshihiko and his work that he has created. We truly enjoy it and hope you do as well, but enough about us. Let’s let the man speak a bit for himself.

Who were your biggest influences in your art, and what about these people had the greatest impact?

→ This is a difficult question. I think a lot of things, and people have influenced me.
Is there a coherence in what I’ve been crazy about in the course of my life? I will ask myself.
I was crazy about science fiction when I was in high school, and for a while I was also attracted to German Expressionism and Surrealism. I also read Georges Bataille‘s book even though I didn’t understand it very well. It’s kind of messy, and miscellaneous things are flowing into me, and I always feel confused.

Japan has a very rich culture and history. Do you try to highlight that richness in your work, or is it more introspective?

→ Rather, I take Japanese culture critically. Recently, racist and nationalist people have become more powerful. They support the war of aggression and colonialism of the Japanese Empire since the Meiji era and are trying to modify historical facts for their convenience. Although Japan was devastated by the defeat in 1945, it still advocates a Japan-centric, irreverent and exclusive way of thinking. Some Japanese culture is highly sophisticated, but I suspect that some are childish and distorted. If you can feel Japanese culture in my work, I think it’s because I lived in this country for a long time and learned naturally from an early age.

When I look at some of your portraits I feel as though I’m perhaps on a bench at a park watching people. Is it your intention to give us a glimpse of your subjects, or is more for us to get a glimpse of yourself? 

→ Sometimes I make it with some intention, and sometimes I draw it unintentionally. I welcome the viewer to receive any intent from the work. Whatever it is, it belongs to the recipient. I just want to keep drawing. I don’t feel like aiming for something or having any purpose, I just feel like I’m wandering around. And I think of the following. Why do I always think “I’m right and the other person is wrong”? Isn’t it necessary for me to think “I’m always wrong”? Do I maintain my dignity by hating or despising the other person? I seem to have multiple layers of myself.

What does art mean to you, or maybe I should ask what is the theme that you try to convey in your work? Is there even a theme? 

→ Of course art has an important meaning to me. But it’s hard to say what that means.
Henry Miller says “draw as you like and die happily”, and I feel that too.

I really enjoy the rawness of your works. To me they seem almost like sketches, but not. If that makes sense. Is there a deeper message in that rawness or is it just your style?

→ I think “the rawness” is important to me. I am more attracted to the underground roots than the flowers. The flowers are something of an idea and feel like a lie, but the roots seem to make me feel real and force me to see this world where I am.

Do you have a preferred medium to create in?

→ For now, the personal computer is my medium. From the viewpoint of “the rawness”, I think it is more appropriate to draw on canvas or paper, but for now, I am making works on a personal computer.

Art can be a very personal thing, both the art appreciators as well as the artist. What does it mean to you?

→ My eyeball and the brain connected to it currently occupy this space in the universe, and I can never give this space to anyone else. No one can occupy this place on my behalf. The viewpoint of this eyeball is unique to me. Everyone occupies such an irreplaceable place. No one can rob the place. So what kind of space does art occupy? I think from time to time.

 2020 has proven to be a tough year for a lot of people. How has your art helped you cope with it all?

→ COVID-19 has digged out the problems that the world is facing. The world is divided and growing inequality has emerged as a serious problem. Wealth is concentrated in the few rich and the poor are expanding. I think we’re already stuck, but if we want more economic growth, not only climate change, but also war and hunger will spread. I hope people move away from their obsession with “growth” and move towards the redistribution of wealth. Drawing has helped me for a long time. It prevents us from being (voluntarily) dominated by anything, rushing to occupy a higher position in the hierarchy, or getting caught up in the desire to gain greater power. I recently watched Jim Jarmusch‘s movie “Patterson”. What is depicted in the movie is similar to what I draw and live every day.

Has it been an inspiration or a hindrance to your work, and what should we expect from you in 2021?

→ I may have got some inspiration from COVID-19, but since I’m just painting at home, it’s not that much of a problem so far, except for the spiritual ones. Don’t expect too much. If possible, I would like to draw a different work each time.

Any advice for other artists? 

→ I think it’s about drawing as you like without following anything.

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