YOSHITOMO NARA

An artist drawing on peace

by Setsuko Kamiya

Yoshitomo Nara is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary artists, with admirers not only in Japan but also in Europe and the United States.

The 43-year-old, whose work consists mainly of cute yet quirky drawings of impish girls, openly proclaims himself a pacifist.

In late September, Nara traveled to Afghanistan. There he produced works that appeared in the Jan. 30 launch issue of Foil, a new quarterly magazine of the visual arts published by Little More. The theme of that issue was “no war.”

Nara’s aim, like that of photographer Rinko Kawauchi, who also participated in the project, was to capture the everyday life of the Afghan people, who have endured more than 20 years of conflict and civil war.

Though busy working on new projects, Nara made time for an e-mail interview with The Japan Times and shared his experiences in Afghanistan as well as his views on the current international situation.

What were your thoughts on Afghanistan before you visited and what impressions did you form while you were there? Were things as you had expected?

To be honest, I just went to Afghanistan as I would travel to anywhere else. I didn’t think about the political situation. I tried to picture the climate and scenery there by recalling what I learned in high-school geography classes.

Since I’ve traveled to the neighboring country of Pakistan twice, in 1981 and 1983, I imagined that Afghan culture and traditions would be similar to what I saw there, since the same Pashtun people inhabit both countries. But generally, I try not to have any preconceptions about the places I visit.

Was there something constantly on your mind, or something in particular you were looking for when you were in Afghanistan?

Whether I am in Japan or elsewhere, the basic things on my mind or what I seek never change. It’s something very personal that I can’t describe in words. Nor do I feel that I’ve been able to express them fully through my drawings.

Your work for Foil is mainly photography rather than drawing. Is there any reason for this?

I guess drawings would have been best, but I just didn’t have enough time to sublimate my experiences into pictures. Drawing is my primary means of expression, and I am not able to draw anything unless I have grasped my feelings firmly.

Photographs allow me to show clearly what my eyes captured at that particular instant. In Afghanistan, I had to rely on the realism of photography.

You took a lot of photographs of children. What was your impression of them and the lives they and their families lead?

Children don’t differ no matter which country they live in. The small world around them is everything for them, and they are very honest in expressing their emotions about whatever they encounter.

The lives of the Afghans are close to nature. For example, whatever was in season was on sale at the market. Supermarkets in developed countries disregard seasons and sell everything, year round. We take that for granted, and never feel awkward about buying things that are supposed to be out of season.

The atmosphere I sensed in Afghanistan felt a little similar to that of Japan in the 1960s to mid-’70s, when I was growing up.

Similar in what ways?

In those days, the media didn’t have as much influence as it does now. What was significant for most people was the small society they lived in; the main source of information was conversation with neighbors. Friendly exchanges took place naturally on trains or buses, even between total strangers. In Afghanistan, I sensed that kind of ease we used to have.

But then, I can also experience that atmosphere in the markets of European countries today. Bakers make bread every day and people go and buy it at their nearest bakery. It’s that kind of atmosphere.

My stay in Afghanistan also made me think about something else. There are countries where children cannot go to school even though they want to, while there are others where kids are spoiled and overprotected. Some of these children even develop problems that stop them from going to school, while parents and teachers point the finger of blame at each other.

Also, I’ve always thought that being healthy has nothing to do with being affluent or highly educated, but I was reminded of the connections between these things when I encountered the Afghans.

In the diary published on your Web site, you said you had tears in your eyes when you saw the ruins of a museum. Can you tell us about that?

I could see that the museum had once been magnificent, but it was completely destroyed in the war and all the artworks it had contained were gone. This was a place where people came to appreciate pictures, and it belonged to everyone, but it was in ruins. I hardly ever cry in front of people, but this time I couldn’t help it.

The theme of Foil’s launch issue was “no war.” What does that mean to you?

The message “no war” is always in my heart. Now, drawing is a personal thing, and I believe it has to stay that way. However, if a pacifist draws a picture, I think his beliefs will naturally be reflected in his art.

For example, I’ve made several drawings with the title “MIA (Missing in Action),” though they have no direct relation to the current world situation. I’ve also produced several works titled “Sprout the Ambassador.” The sprout is actually the symbol of the U.N. and is also the symbol of hope.

But I’m not an antiwar artist. I’m simply an individual who believes that any war should be avoided.

How do you view the war in Iraq right now?

I think that the United States and Great Britain, which claim to be democratic nations, are acting against the consensus that was democratically mandated in the U.N. It looks as if the United States considers military force to be something that overrides the opinion of the global community. But the notion that military power is superior to intellectual power is a big step backward in human history.

I have high hopes that the people all over the world — including Americans, British and Japanese — who are now bound together in opposition to war, will one day become a major counterbalance to the exercise of military might.