“A painting is a mirror and a reflection of your feelings.” Beneath this seemingly-inspiring quote, there’s far more to Tokyo-based artist Suzume Uchida than meets the eye. An Art and Design graduate from the prestigious University of Tsukuba, Uchida is best known for her female portraits. But these aren’t your everyday “lace-and-light" portraits; instead, it’s pretty common for the women in Uchida’s portraits to sport additional limbs, horns, or even a disembodied head.
If anything, “morbid monster art” is Uchida’s signature style. There’s something about her artwork that draws you in with its delicate, fluid strokes, yet clutches at your innermost insecurities with razor-sharp claws. Pencil, Japanese ink, watercolours and oil colours are her preferred mediums, as she skilfully plays with light and shadow, straddling the fragile line between reality and fantasy.
Take Pinky Swear for example. You lock eyes with the girl in Uchida’s paintings. She stares back, a manic smile decorating her angelic face. You try to avert your gaze, but to your horror, you just can’t look away. She approaches slowly and deliberately, as your heart pounds with trepidation.
Uchida wrote a chilling accompanying note for Pinky Swear: A pinky promise; I’ll kill you if you lie, and take you down with me.
“WOMEN ARE GENTLE AND LOVING, YET TERRIFYING AND MELANCHOLIC CREATURES.”
Whether in the form of self-portraits or creative expressions, Uchida’s rendition of the female character presents two sides: the charming public image well-loved by all, and the sad, haunted inner being that stays hidden. These are very real emotional projections for her; channelling these feelings into the manifestations of her “monsters” helps her manage her feelings.
“My work revolves mainly around drawing women. I feel that it is my mission to share their feelings – the social and physical joys, as well as the sufferings – with people all over the world,” expresses Uchida.
Twins, one of Uchida’s pieces for Yohji Yamamoto’s AW 20/21 collection.
“In order to capture the madness we hide within ourselves, I sometimes borrow the form of a “ghost” character. In some cases, it's easier for me to project my emotions through these demons, rather than through a flesh-and-blood person. The women in my paintings are all my alter egos. I want to be a documentarian, because it is authentic experience that move people the most. That’s why I am honest about the good and bad sides of life. That honesty is probably the reason why I stay away from the sweet and soft female image.”
At a glance, it’s hard to make the connection between Uchida and her art. But she reveals that most of her paintings are based on what she sees when she looks at herself in the mirror. One of her notable pieces, Anorexia and Destruction, is based on her personal experience with an eating disorder. It depicts an extremely thin woman, with her abdomen spliced open as she gnaws on her intestines, a maniacal grin on her face.
Anorexia and Destruction is one of Uchida’s most notable pieces of work.
“Once you enter the spiral of anorexia, no matter how hungry you are, you dare not eat a single thing. I found myself thinking about consuming my internal organs so that I could feed myself without being afraid of gaining weight. If I’d really stopped eating, I guess I would have ended up looking like the woman in my drawing,” muses Uchida.
She refers to this as a “modern disease”, living while being bound by the invisible but tangible pressure of ideal weight measurements and society’s expectations. She says that not only women suffer from this, but men do, too. We simply care too much about what other people think about us, especially on social media where anonymous voices and opinions have grown rampant.
While she was hesitant at first to share her experience of her eating disorder, Uchida eventually chose to be true to herself as well as those around her, and this was how Anorexia and Destruction was born. “Authentic experiences make authentic paintings. I confess in my paintings that I was happy, sad, or in pain. If we are still humans after 100 years, I believe that this kind of authenticity will continue to move people’s hearts. That’s why I’m willing to disclose these experiences,” she says.
Ultimately, Uchida stepped out from the void of ED thanks to a jarring wake-up call: “When I say my friend crying over my emaciated body, I realised that there were people who cared about me. In that moment, I was able to decide that I needed to heal myself, and I was the only one who could do it. If there is anyone reading this who has a mental illness, I want to be there for you. From a far away place, I pray that you will get well.”
WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES, ANOTHER DOOR OPENS
Having lived in Tokyo since she was a child, it was always Uchida’s dream to become an artist. However, between the age of 17 to 27, she quit painting. “During that period, I suddenly became afraid that my work would be compared with others. In retrospect, I think I was more afraid of the harm I would inflict upon myself after being compared and criticized, rather than the comparison itself.”
It was until much later that she saw other artists around the same age as her, who were still working hard to make new art. This re-ignited her spark, and she picked up her paintbrushes yet again. Not long after that, her work began to gain momentum, and caught the eye of Japanese fashion legend Yohji Yamamoto.
“Draw me some monsters, Suzume-san.” Yohji Yamamoto has featured Uchida’s artwork in his designs for three years in a row.
Uchida’s first collaboration with Yamamoto was for his SS/18 menswear collection, which featured some of her earlier self-portraits like Anorexia and Destruction, Pinky Swear and Red Fruit. The artwork was showcased on top of Yamamoto’s signature avant-garde designs in black, creating a spooky yet enthralling contrast. Watching these almost life-sized prints of morbid artwork subtly draped across the bodies of male models, Uchida said, “Somehow I got the feeling that the women in my paintings were slowly taking over the physical forms of the men...” Truth be told, this isn’t too far off from Yamamoto’s vision either, who has devoted his entire career to developing unisex fashion that can be enjoyed by all genders and people.
Though Uchida’s paintings might evoke a sense of fear at first, she says some pieces feature an underlying positive tone, offering a ray of light amidst darkness. Righteousness for Each shows a mother cradling her baby, both at peace and enjoying the moment despite the horns on their heads. Through this, Uchida wants to remind everyone that empathy is any living being’s most precious quality, especially in the divided society of today.
“We are all someone’s beloved child, and someday, we’ll become mothers [and fathers] too. I hope we can be more tolerant of other people, even if we have different values. It’s inevitable that there will be friction, like diplomatic issues, age gaps or gender inequality. In everyone’s mind, justice bears a different meaning at different points in time, from different points in life. But I think the first step to a peaceful coexistence is to understand and imagine how it’s like from the other person’s perspective,” she explains.
Uchida dedicated Righteousness for Each to Kanshinji Temple in Osaka, Japan. Built in the year 701, this historical temple is a sacred place where numerous cultural properties and treasures remain protected. She hopes that her drawing will be kept safe for centuries to come, so that her message lives on.
Cradle is another example of Uchida’s interpretation of silver linings: a woman with a gaping hole where her face should have been is seen giving birth to a head with a perfect face. When asked about the meaning of the drawing, she says: “In the beginning, her face has been burnt away. This symbolises that the old her has been reduced to ashes, as she welcomes a new version of herself. The hands that support the new face cradle the head gently, as a sign of safety, cultivation and growth. I want people to know that even in dire circumstances, you need to allow yourself to be reborn safely. I believe that we don’t have to take or lose our own lives in order to get a chance to live again.”
ART TRANSCENDS THE LIMITATIONS OF SPACE AND TIME
As a fan of J-pop, music has given Uchida a lot of inspiration. So, what’s currently on her playlist? “’The Lost Sheep’ by Kenshi Yonezu. It’s always served as a healing balm whenever I feel like I’m losing my way in my work. It’s a wonderful song that encourages us to believe that our expression will save the hearts of people, even hundreds of years from now.”
In the future / A thousand years from now / We no longer live
So my friends / Know that I love you no matter when
Someone out there is waiting for our story
“The Lost Sheep”, Kenshi Yonezu
Uchida often thinks beyond herself; her ruminations concern the current state of the world, and also about what we will become in future. For her, development, whether on a personal or societal scale, comes with self-expression. She says art has the ability to heal people’s hearts, and so does music. “I think there are some deep, dark impulses inside us that cannot be expressed with words or images alone. I believe that since ancient times, our world has always been full of music. In the field of expression, painting and music differ only in their methods, but there should be no difference in the amount of passion each wants to convey. I guess this is the healing power of art. No matter when it was made, it still retains the original creator’s message, transcending the limitations of space and time to give strength and hope. I hope my paintings have the power to inspire others. I want to be someone’s courage.”