Women in Art

‘..we were told that using the word ‘women’ in the exhibition title was not appropriate so we could not use this word in the Japanese title…’

These words are from the curator of Soaring Voices, an exhibition of women ceramic artists first held at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in 2009 and then toured internationally. They reflect the continuing difficulties for women artists in Japan to be recognized for their achievements. In this, as in other areas of Japanese art, recognition and acclaim has been strongest in the West.

Relatively free from the prejudices of the male-dominated world of Japanese art, we can freely use the word ‘women’ in our exhibition title. March 2012 celebrates International Women’s Day with the aim to mark ‘the economic, political and social achievements of women’ and is the catalyst for this exhibition which explores the role of women in Japanese art as both creator and created, as source and muse.

The social changes and increasing affluence of post-war Japan created opportunities for women in education. The introduction and development of academic institutions, particularly those dedicated to the arts, enabled women, generally prevented from entering the traditional studio apprentice system, to be trained in the technical aspects of traditional crafts. Kyoto University of Arts opened to women in 1945 and Tokyo University of the Arts in 1952. The influence of Western art historians also introduced concept and individual expression to Japanese art education.

Women as creative artists are featured in ceramics, glass, metalwork and jewellery. Kishi Eiko and Kitamura Tsuruyo are well established significant ceramic artists in Japan and internationally. Akagawa Mihori is a younger artist, recipient of the Emerging Artist’s Award at the influential Women’s Association of Ceramic Art Exhibition of 2002. Iwata Ruri continues the significant work of three generations of glass artists.  Nakano Kaoru creates unique inspiring art jewellery from Japanese paper and Kidera Yuko is a pioneer in the world of metal.

As ‘created’, women feature in the art of all times. The 11th century classic novel Tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu, a woman of the Court, highlights the life of women as objects of male fascination and desire and provides a continuing wellspring for the decorative arts. The structural changes of Edo society, the growth of merchant culture and the courtesans of the Yoshiwara continued to see women portrayed in the art of ukiyoe. The Westernization of Japan and new roles for women inspired internationally renowned print artist Ikeda Masuo to question women’s loss of identity.

It is in the work of contemporary women artists in Japan that we see the force of Japanese tradition combine with the power of creativity from a perspective freed from that very tradition.


Women in Art
Lesley Kehoe