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Art of the body

Mari Katayama, born in 1987 in Japan, is an artist of the body; her own to be exact. She celebrates the life of body and spirit in photographic self-portraits and the embroidering of objects that relate to her body.


Sean Sheehan


Exhibitions of her work have been seen in Tokyo and 2019 saw her first solo exhibition in Europe, at the White Rainbow Gallery in London. The same year brought the publication of “Gift”, a retrospective of her work since 2007 and an opportunity to appreciate her evolution as an artist.

The book’s design is as aesthetically pleasing as the 70 photographs that occupy its pages.

The mustard-coloured cover, with the feel of a fabric that you’d like to cover a wall of your house with, is centred with an embossed photo of Katayama’s hands forming a roughhewn circular shape that is as elegant as it is puzzling.

The background is black, there is nothing to see by looking into the shape, and attention is focused on the digital form – not of electronics (the word was not used in this sense until the late 1930s) but of fingers of the hand.

This emphasis on form provides the thematic and artistic centre of gravity for Katayama’s photographs. In ‘Mirror’ (2013), she is seen on a stool gazing into a reflection of her face, sitting amidst a clutter of fabrics and boxes and jars of sewing material.

Regular clothes did not fit her as a child and, learning how to sew and make garments that would, dressing became a unique expression of her bodily selfhood: “I learned to hold a needle and thread before I could hold a pencil”.

Anatomical images of physicality fall into familiar patterns – from bulging muscular males to pencil-thin females – but Katayama’s are in a category of their own and it is this sui generis quality that render them so alluring and compelling. Most are the result of staged settings, some suggesting a multitude of limbs emanating from her body; an octopus-like appearance reinforced by a beachside locale.

Others show her surrounded by, encased in, decorated with or embellished by colourful fabrics, accoutrements and painted supports.

Notions of femininity and style as defined by catwalk extravaganzas and photo shoots for vacuous fashion magazines are undogmatically and deftly deconstructed in ways that are graceful and provocative in equal measure.

Mari Katayama was born with only two fingers on her left hand and tibial hemimelia, a very rare congenital condition, and both her legs were amputated when she was a child.

It was a decision of her own making – “a choice between being bound to a wheelchair for the rest of my life – or being able to walk but losing my legs. I chose to walk.” ‘You can’t separate my body from my work,” she says, but I’m not making art out of my disabilities.’

Looking at the photographs, decorated prosthetic legs and other arrangements of hers, the truth of this becomes obvious. She is an artist and she owns her body.

“Gift”, by Mari Katayama, is published by United Vagabonds.

(Photos provided by the publisher)

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