On this page we interview NZ-based Japanese artists.
Though they all come under the same name “Artist”, there are endless different ways of thinking and means of expression through art. It’s fascinating to see how everyone’s experience and personal history have brought them to this place and this point in time.
１）How long have you lived in New Zealand? And when did you start your business? What made you come to New Zealand?
It has been ten years since I first moved here. I opened Ryo’s design studio in 2010. In that time I have had over one hundred works commissioned by customers from NZ, Japan, and other countries too.
I originally came here hoping to continue my work as a tour guide, crossing over from Australia after my working holiday. Eventually I wanted to work towards something I could spend my life doing, and chose to live out my childhood dream of making a living out of art.
２）Tell us about your main activities
Alongside being a mother, I make chalk art by commission. Recently I branched out into handmade goods; I create piercings and other accessories using NZ products such as sheep’s wool, alpaca fleece and paua. I also have a range of resin-based accessories inspired by Tekapo's night sky, which are sold at Earth & Sky and other souvenir shops around Lake Tekapo.
It was hard to find quality gifts that were both reasonably-priced and compact enough to send to a loved one, so I made them myself. I get to make handmade goods, which I love, and I am contributing to tourism in New Zealand too, so it has knocked out two birds with one stone for me.
３）What was life like in Japan?
I left Japan just one year after I finished University.
４）Are there any artists that inspired you?
Monique Cannon is a chalk-art teacher in the Gold Coast who makes fresh, modern artworks one after another.
Recently I returned to Japan and the quality of some of the ornaments there is fantastic. I came back to New Zealand feeling really inspired.
５）What’s in the works for you right now, at work or home?
One year ago we bought our own home in Tekapo, and we rent part of it out to travellers. Right now we are renovating the garden and general facilities. A new kindergarten opened in Tekapo recently, so I will have a lot more time during the day. I want to use that time to make an even higher standard of product and better represent NZ to the world.
６）Are there any New Zealand artists you think we should check out?
Yes, there's a pastry chef in Tekapo named Tania Kerr, who makes the most wonderful cakes. They’re extraordinarily detailed, and she has an eye for design very similar to my own. The creativity and care that goes into each cake really blows me away. They’re perfect – each one of them.
Why New Zealand?
Because it provided an environment where I could paint. In Japan I sold art materials, so I was surrounded by what I loved without being able to do it myself. I realised that I couldn’t do what I wanted to with my life while I was still in Japan. That’s when I started thinking ‘I have to get out of here.’ At first, I studied and taught art in America. I didn’t mind where I went, so long as I was in an English-speaking country. At the time there was a position advertised at an education provider in Palmerston North that had ties in Japan. My application succeeded, and I came here knowing almost nothing about New Zealand.
What is your schedule like?
I hold a solo exhibition in Palmerston North once a year, and in Wellington once every two to three years. Contests are a common way for artists to get exposure, so I submit work to those every few years too. This year I’m entered in the Waiheke Island Walker and Hall Art Award, and I’ve been selected for the Parkin Prize and Adam Award in the past. What I’m really aiming for is first prize… but we won’t know until the results come out in October. Aside from all that, I’m teaching art. There are lots of painting teachers around, so I mainly get asked to do sketching classes.
What was your life like before New Zealand?
Japan was in an economic bubble when I was a student. I was enrolled at a private university in Tokyo, but I skipped class most days to work at a record store near Kabukicho, Tokyo’s red-light district, and on the weekends I was living it up on a yacht with my friends. I wasn’t taking life very seriously.
After dropping out of university, I went to America and studied English at a language school, which was typical during the economic bubble. Soon after that I got into college in Oregon state. Everyone else majored in Business or Finance so they could get a job when they graduated, but I took art just because I liked painting.
After graduation, I went back to Japan and got a job at the ECC Foreign Language Institute teaching English, but after a year I was offered a post-graduate scholarship in Iowa, and returned to America. I completed my master’s degree, and moved to Seattle with the hopes of getting a work visa, and eventually permanent residence. I worked there for a while as a tutor at colleges and art galleries, but it didn’t work out and I went home again to Japan.
When I got back I lived in downtown Tokyo, and commuted to Chiba where I worked at an art supply store. My schedule meant that I avoided heavy traffic, and I lived close to a shopping district where I could easily go shopping and eat out. On the weekends I would take walks around the temples in Teramachi. I liked it a lot there, but I was upset that I couldn’t paint - it was already a big part of my life.
Are there any artists you consider your influences?
It’s hard to say because my influences are constantly changing, but some artists who I’ve always admired are the Renaissance painters. There are three I’m particularly fascinated by: Titian, Bronzino, and Pontormo. Then there’s Redon’s fantastical elements, and Balthus whose paintings’ there’s something a little off about.
I also take inspiration from music and film. As far as film goes, I like Seijun Suzuki’s Taisho Trilogy, and a number of surrealist films set in the Australian outback. I imagine they’ve had some influence on my work.
I once had Director Suzuki himself write a phrase for me on Washi, or Japanese paper. The phrase was ‘ichiki wa yume yo, tada kurue’, which is a line from an old collection of Japanese poems called the ‘Kanginshu’. It means something like ‘writhe madly, your life is but a dream.’
Where are your energies focused right now?
Recently I’ve taken up cycling. I tend to shut myself up in the studio, (more like a glorified sleep-out), and often that means I don’t get enough exercise.
You always hear there’s nothing to see in Palmerston North, but I can’t agree with that when I go out on the bike. The endless fields of green, the rolling hills, the beautiful Tararua Range off in the distance… it reminds me life out here isn’t so bad.
Are there any other New Zealand artists we should check out?
I really like a Kiwi artist called Lorene Taurerewa, though she’s based in New York now. Her drawings have a uniqueness that’s hard to achieve without painting. She is really outstanding among New Zealand artists.
Another one everyone should look out for is Yukari Kaihori, from Wellington. Despite being from Japan, her ventures so far have been quite un-Japanese, and I find that pretty exciting.
It’s not just that these two are good at drawing or painting. To produce a truly beautiful work, you have to really love what you do. When an artist like that creates something, you can feel it when you look at it, like a kind of aura.
From the interviewer: Naga's work is cool, serene and silent with an added touch of humour. Looking at them, you can't help but sense a passionate critique of society lingering beneath.