Raised in the US and Japan and a graduate of the University of the Arts London and Chelsea College of Art & Design in England, Mayumi Yamase, currently a resident of Tokyo, has emerged as one of Japan’s most acclaimed female artists. With a prolific collection of shows in Japan, Europe, Singapore and the US, her abstract painting and collaborative work with iconic Japanese brand Comme des Garçons, Nike and Japanese retail giants Beams, has thrust her into the limelight. TW sat down with her before her current show at I AM gallery in the capital’s Higashi-Nagasaki neighborhood to discuss her background, intriguing collaborations and life as an artist in the 21st century.
1. You have a cosmopolitan background. Has that helped you in your life and work as an artist?
Yes, I think so. Going to university and studying art [in the UK] was strange as I went to high school in Japan and was just getting interested in art. By the time I realized I wanted to take art seriously most of my friends in school were already preparing for art school. I had an art teacher at high school and she suggested I look overseas as I already had experience when I was young in the US.
I never intentionally saw myself as international — although when I came back to Japan for junior high school and high school it never felt like home. My time as a student in the UK was never really planned either. I spent seven years there from the age of 18 to 25. I spent that period of my life in London meeting interesting friends, who I’m still in touch with. It really opened my eyes.
2. You have worked with Comme des Garçons on various collections. How was that experience and how did it come about?
A friend of mine works at Comme des Garçons and she also happened to live in London. The department she belongs to works directly with Rei Kawakubo [founder of Comme des Garçons] and she’s now in charge of bag designs there. They really like collaborations so she asked me, out of the blue, if I would be interested in doing something with them. Of course I said yes! It was quite hard at first and I learned a lot. Then I got to know the people involved more and the bag project came along and although I had no experience doing this kind of graffiti art, I gave it a go. My friend presented the idea to Kawakubo and then they asked me again and we did a few samples and then the bags became quite popular. It was only for one season, in the beginning, but now it has become one of the brand’s main handbags and I’m doing it continuously now.
3. What was it like seeing your artwork on Nike sneakers (Nike Airforce 1 Flyweather Mayumi Yamase) and how was the process of working with Nike?
This collaboration was through a good friend of mine who’s based here in Tokyo. He joined Nike maybe two years ago while Nike was going through a lot of changes. He mentioned to me about the possibility of the project (and maybe because I had already worked with Comme des Garçons) he pushed my collaboration internally through Nike. It was nothing like I had done before and working with such a big company and having weekly meetings with them over time was a real learning process. Nike still supports my work and the team there comes to my exhibitions and I did a greetings card for them last year so we’re still in touch.
4. Some of the words and phrases used on the series of Comme des Garçons bags seem, perhaps now more than ever, quite political. “Freedom,” “Live Free,” “Fight With Love” — are you a political person and artist?
I wouldn’t say that I’m a political artist. But of course I am aware, politically, and interested in what’s going on. And I have a voice. Right now I’m doing an interview with you for the media so I can use my voice. But my art is not political. But I do say what I feel like. The words for the Comme des Garçons bag project were chosen by them although because I write so much I was really getting into it and shared the sentiments.
5. Madonna was spotted wearing one of your “Fight With Love” bags that you collaborated on with Comme des Garçons. What does it feel like when you see such an icon wearing your work?
It was amazing. Nothing against Nike — that particular project was produced by them and manufactured by them. But with the bag, I’m the one who [hand] painted it. So it’s really weird to see someone wear it. It doesn’t really matter if it’s Madonna or not. I’m not really following Madonna but a lot of people DMd me about it — especially my gay friends!
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6. You have a one-month exhibition at I AM gallery in Higashi-Nagasaki. Can you tell me what the exhibition is about, what visitors can expect from it? And how did it come about?
The concept I usually begin with is simply acrylic, canvas, oil pastels. These are my comfort zones. That’s my kind of media. But I thought that maybe I should expand this a little more to shake myself a bit. I know Vaughan [founder of both I AM gallery and nearby Mia Mia coffee shop) from the days when he ran a coffee blog and we had mutual friends. He contacted me and asked if I was interested in doing something at I AM. For me, this is a new area, and the gallery is a new spot and I thought that maybe this place was good to break the ice, to do a different show. So the work is a bit different from what I’ve been doing. All the work on display is new and made specifically for the I AM exhibition.
7. What are the differences, for you, between London and Tokyo?
In general I think that it’s quite challenging here. Tokyo is so huge and it’s cosmopolitan too. Of course London is as well. It’s so different in so many ways. I was inspired by everything in London just by walking around. Of course you get that in Japan too but in terms of inspiration I don’t get it here as much.
I struggled with using the term “artist” here in Japan — since I’ve been back living here. When I was at Chelsea Art College all my teachers said when you graduate you will be an “artist” and that’s how you can define yourself. But when I came back to Tokyo I felt like I had no skills. Artists here seem to be treated differently. The first exhibition I had here was in a fashion complex and it seemed strange to me. I didn’t expect to show my work in that kind of place. But I realized it’s so common here. So that’s why I work for so many apparel companies.
In the beginning, however, I had conflicts about doing commercial work because I felt like I wanted to stay with my fine art background. But I chose to expand my work and focus, and that was my choice. The work with Comme des Garçons wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t let myself go and be more open.
8. I have to ask this question, even though you probably hear it every day. What inspires you?
I’m not the kind of person who travels, for example, to get inspiration. I like to be balanced, emotionally. To be calm. I inspire myself to be balanced and to be aware of myself. Of course I like to go to museums and see other artwork and see what my friends do and they inspire me. And as a female artist I like seeing what other female artists are doing. And I like music and seeing what female musicians are doing and what inspires them.
9. You’re also a writer and editor. Can you tell me more about your written work?
When I came back to Japan I applied to many jobs at galleries. Although I’m Japanese I felt like I wasn’t Japanese enough so I couldn’t really get the job that I wanted — in somewhere like an art gallery. But once I came back, and of course I hadn’t worked in Japan before, I managed to find work as a translator and did interviews because I could speak English. I met many friends through translation work and that led to editing and that’s how I got started. And that’s really how I made money at first. I worked and still work for Popeye and I work on the art page and also for a magazine called Subsequence and ANA’s inflight magazine. In the past, I also wrote for Studio Voice and Kinfolk.
10. What are your plans for the rest of this year? Any other exciting projects or collaborations coming up?
I actually don’t have much planned. Which I quite like! I always say yes to things so it’s nice to not have much planned. But I do have an exhibition planned which is part of a music festival called Greenroom. They are expanding to include art in the schedule so I’m going to be part of that. And that’s happening at the end of May. After that I’d love to go and travel but I’m not sure yet due to the pandemic.
Follow Mayumi Yamase on Instagram.