October 9, 2016 1:00 pm JST

Artistic odyssey from Sao Paulo to Tokyo and New York

KRISTIANO ANG, Contributing writer

"In Front of Light" (Courtesy of Broadway 1602)

NEW YORK -- Lydia Okumura grew up around midcentury Sao Paulo as the offspring of Japanese laborers who had moved to Brazil to work in the coffee trade. It was an entirely different world from the multimedia artist's current studio in New York's smart Union Square neighborhood.

"Situations," a retrospective of her career that recently opened at the UB Art Galleries in Buffalo, New York, and runs through Jan. 8, traces her journey from working with discarded materials in the Brazilian city to being heralded in the American art world.

Okumura, 68, has been making art for decades. Her creations have been collected by institutions such as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Though she has lived in New York since 1974, it was only recently that she was rediscovered in the U.S., the world's largest art market.

In 2014, she signed with Broadway 1602, a New York City art gallery, and shortly after held her first major show in the U.S. in decades. "Women of Lydia's generation have been working for years but have never had the recognition," said Rachel Adams, the retrospective's curator. "She has a breadth of work with an interest in abstraction and minimalism that is fantastic and I wanted to highlight it."

Okumura's work defies easy categorization. While she came of age as an artist in Sao Paulo and received critical acclaim in Japan at the start of the 1980s, she does not directly draw on artistic practices from either country. The Brazilian artistic elite had long interacted with European masters like Marcel Duchamp and Pablo Picasso, and created a rich 20th century tradition of culture and design that culminated in architect Oscar Niemeyer's creation of Brasilia, the planned city that is now the country's capital.

Children of immigrants

At that time, however, Okumura was splitting her time between Portuguese and Japanese medium schools that did not offer a comprehensive arts education, and hanging around with poor artists at weekend markets in Sao Paulo. "We were the children of immigrants trying to figure out our world while making art," said Okumura. "The Brazilian modernist movement in Rio de Janeiro was far, far out of reach for us."

Okumura visited Japan for the first time in late 1979, after approaching a Japanese official she met at an art event in Brazil and procuring a letter of recommendation for a fellowship at Tokyo's Wako University. Critics raved over an early gallery show she held in the Japanese capital, which she parlayed into another exhibition in Osaka and then a showcase at a private gallery that was the predecessor of the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in Shibuya. She remains one of the more prominent Japanese-Brazilian artists working today.

As an adolescent, Okumura made do by reading manga and magazines imported from Japan. The latter were particularly influential. An article published in the art magazine Bijitsu Techou, about prominent Western artists such as Sol LeWitt being invited to present at the 1970 Kyoto Biennale, brought about a realization that being an artist was a plausible career.

Deeper psyche

"Even now in Brazil, they say 'If you want to be an artist, you have to be a [member of the] elite or there's no way,'" said Okumura. "[But] I would read these essays in Japanese about Duchamp that I'm sure were even denser than anything in English or French because the Japanese really go into the deeper psyche," she said.

Said Adams of Okumura: "In terms of the Japanese, I would relate her more with the contemplative spaces created by Japanese architects rather than artists." She added, "Her work deals with sight and architecture and you can see the minimal abstract qualities in it."

The approximately three dozen pieces on show across two galleries in Buffalo include everything from sculptures to works on paper, silkscreen prints and outdoor installations, some of which have never been exhibited in the U.S. Among the highlights is a remake of "Labyrinth," a 1984 spiral installation made of mesh. Viewers walk into the woven maze, roughly 2.5 meters tall, and look out via the colorfully painted material.

Another anchor piece is "In Front of Light," an installation made from glass, string, wood and graphite that explores the relationship between light and space and was created within days at the 1977 Sao Paulo Biennale. "The big installations are about looking at time and space across different dimensions," said Adams. "Walk around it and look at it from multiple perspectives of flatness and three dimensionalities. It's more than just minimal."

Okumura said she works in her seventh decade with an artistic approach that has not changed. "If you have some problem in your life, you can manage it by putting it into some form, with materials that represent what you're thinking," she said. "I use such simple materials, but it's enough for whatever you're fighting inside."

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