Okinawan-born New York City artist Yuken Teruya depicts famous Okinawans including Namie Amuro in his Bingata-dyed portrait series “Heroes”

Okinawan-born New York City artist Yuken Teruya depicts famous Okinawans including Namie Amuro in his Bingata-dyed portrait series “Heroes”

Yuken Teurya’s “Heroes”

July 4, 2018 Ryukyu Shimpo
By Yukiyo Zaha

The Bingata dying method is one of Okinawa’s quintessential art techniques. Characterized by its colors, featuring vivid reds, yellows, indigos, and greens, as well as rhythmical patterns, it was developed during the Ryukyu Kingdom through trade with Asia and is Okinawa’s signature traditional art. Using the Bingata dying technique, Yuken Teruya, who is currently based in New York, debuted his Okinawan “Heroes” portrait series in 2009. The first portrait in the series was none other than superstar singer Namie Amuro.
Amuro, who has become an icon in Japan as the “diva of the Heisei era (1989-present),” has her likeness dyed in “Okinawan colors,” and the resulting work is breathtaking. So, why did Teruya decide to depict Amuro for his “Heroes” series? We visited the NY artist and asked him.

Yuken Teruyama in his studio, where he has made various pieces using the Bingata technique

A presence like the North Star

– Tell us why you decided to make “Heroes.” Also, why did you choose Namie Amuro as your first subject?

Looking out over the town from his studio veranda

Actually, “Heroes” is not yet complete; I am waiting for the right timing for the next piece. I started with a portrait of Namie Amuro, but I have also done portraits of Ultraman, Obama, and Geronimo. I have different reasons for taking on each work, and there is a wide gap between the reasons for depicting Amuro and depicting Emperor Showa.
The first portrait I took on was Amuro. I wanted to make Bingata into pop-art, and wanted to show the viewer a visual representation of the current state of Okinawa. I also wanted to experiment with bringing images of the modern day to life through the historical Bingata. How was I going to combine foundational Okinawan identity with a pop-art style? Of course, I was going to need a model to visually represent Okinawa’s identity.
Furthermore, when thinking of what “visual” means, based on my previous experience of artwork, I thought Bingata would show the audience that the artwork was not Chinese, not Japanese, but instead give an impression that, “This is Okinawa.” Once I had decided on the framework of a something that would be both pop-art and immediately recognizable as Okinawan, Amuro and Bingata came together.

Teruyama’s 2009 series “Heroes.” The Okinawan heroes selected for the series span generation, gender, and field of expertise. From the left: Namie Amuro, King Sho Nei, Kamejiro Senaga, Yoko Gushiken, and Emperor Showa. The pop-art colors are reminiscent of Andy Warhols portrait of Marilyn Monroe

Teruyama’s portrait of Namie Amuro

– What was your original impression of Amuro?

While I am not necessarily a big fan of her music, in a way, as someone on the outside, very far away, her constant presence is kind of like the North Star in the sky. No matter where I happen to be, she is always right there. A truly “Ninufabushi” (Okinawan for “North Star”) existence. I think that is what it means to be a “star.”
Incidentally, when I decided to start by depicting Amuro, I had no conception of what the work would look like, or that it would turn into a series, but I knew that I could not hesitate to depict Amuro.
It also allowed me the opportunity to transpose the works of Andy Warhol to something Okinawan. His silk screen prints took stars’ celebrity energy and froze it in place, and his sense of color brought them to life. He loved celebrities, and, speaking as resident of New York, he brought them together, giving energy to the city. This then led to the problem of identity, however I think the makeup of Amuro’s identity is very important, and turning her into a Bingata portrait solves the identity branding aspect of the piece. She is very beautiful.
Furthermore, while on the one hand she is pretty, there also a part of her that looks like a regular girl. “Ah, she looks like that girl I know. This part of her reminds me of my cousin, my classmate, my childhood friend.” Amuro has a natural beauty shared by many Okinawan women, while also having a prominent, star-worthy appeal. Rather than creating a fictitious person, I chose an existing person, Amuro, who has experiences that include real hardship, as my subject and combined the elements of her unifying power with her presence as a North Star of sorts, and I think I was able to combine them into one.

Not the Tokyo Namie Amuro

– What were some difficulties when creating the portrait of Amuro?

Bingata books on the windowsill of his studio

Making sure it looked like her was difficult (laughs). Actually, even though I was “Bingatifying” an actual photograph, it was incredibly difficult. To “Bingatify” something, you need to make a pattern paper. However, that does not simply mean just tracing the photograph, if you do not make the trace paper look good, the Bingata will not work. It is a bit difficult to explain, but I have an idea of what shape the Bingata should take inside my head. How I was going to apply that to the Bingata image of Namie Amuro was difficult.
The Namie Amuro in the original image is definitely the “Tokyo Namie Amuro.” This is different than the Namie Amuro that shares a resemblance with my cousin, classmate, or childhood friend; the Tokyo Namie Amuro has a polished image and made-up face. What I eventually did was take the eyes and the mouth and other parts and split them up, changing the sizes, and pieced them together like the fukuwarai face making game. I did this until I finally arrived at a configuration I liked. This system was also very difficult.
As I made the piece with help from Bingata artist Hiroji Kinjo, I had to do it over and over again until it, “had that Bingata style,” and, “has a structure that you can comfortably call Bingata.” Since it was the first work, there were many ups and downs, but Amuro’s face was the first thing to be completed as a Bingata. The three-dimensional feel is somewhat unique. I think that this has become a new thing entirely, rather than a reproduction or recreation of the original photo.

How was the reception of the piece?

The Amuro portrait was well received. However, that may be only due to the fact that there was nothing to compare it with. With all the portraits, once I lined up Kamejiro Senaga, Sho Nei, and Yoko Gushiken, everyone started asking, “If these are Okinawa’s Heroes, where is Jana Ueekata?” and, “Why isn’t Masahide Ota included?” over and over again (laughs). But, I thought that as each person who saw the collection debated this, it created a place where people could advocate for their own personal heroes. While I think this happened organically to some extent, debating one another, poking and prodding, will be important.
I searched for “Okinawan faces,” from start to finish. I looked for something that everyone would be satisfied with as “Okinawan faces.” They are all foundational, and while they share one thing, they were vibrant, they were powerful, their image became formative to our identity, and I think they are all definitely vital to Okinawa. That foundational existence was there throughout, it created a common image, broke it apart, and formed it again in a cycle. I gradually presented this, creating a portrait that everyone could connect with. This kind of “place” I created, and I feel strongly that at the same time it created a stage for people to have discussions.

The “Heroes” portrait series

The reason for pursuing “Okinawan Faces”

– Why did you want to base this on “Okinawan Faces” and identity?

Probably, and this will tie back to Warhol but, in the way he did, I think if faces were presented one after the other they would stick in people’s mind, from the prototype many could be made, and it has a visual power. There were many people who came to the exhibit to see Kamejiro Senaga specifically, and if it was not exactly like him it was OK, but it was important that looking at the image would remind the viewer of them. If it did not have that, it would quickly change in the viewers mind to become something more abstract, but I can confirm that as a visual it offers this recognition。
Some people may disagree with that, but I think that opposition is also a confirmation. Certainly, I can visualize, I strongly felt the importance of the meaning of choosing the power of Okinawan Bingata as a methodology. By doing that, and by furthering the debate, it strengthens the “Okinawan image.”
Why was it important to have a strong “Okinawan image?” While Okinawa has time and again been manipulated to exhaustion by the government, the action of properly preserving the images of various leaders from the past, I think it can build up a visual history.
Of course, just about everything burning down in the war over 70 years ago is extremely painful. Due to this, my own sense of self is still lacking, and I feel it as a loss. Now, with all the buildings lining the streets it looks as if the loss was never there but, I think the lack of images of the people who supported Okinawa throughout history leave the soul hollow.
With my eyes I can see the buildings that have accumulated on the islands, however, I want to also be able to visualize the accumulated structure of our identity. I think it is important to show visually the process of accumulation and structure of our identity. I think that the lack of this is a type of unbalance occurring in Okinawa. So, it is something that we must do now.

– After the war, the infrastructure was repaired, and Okinawan towns and buildings line the streets.

I think that now is the era when we are finally beginning to notice the trap of the buildings and construction. Certainly, directly after the war, we had to build, the infrastructure was essential. However, now that the infrastructure has been rebuilt, after 70 years it is finally our chance to turn our attention to the other things, the things we have lost, and the things we have neglected. I have a sense that this era has come. Simultaneously, I think that it will also take some time.

Teruyama in the process of depicting Central Park in New York using monopoly money

Digging for the center of the soul

Up until now, politicians have only stressed “buildings,” and that “buildings = economy.” We are quickly losing our chance to talk about “returning” to the culture of the spiritual world, the things we have lost, and the things we have brought with us. This may seem paradoxical but, while our priorities may be money, the economy, and achieving a financial surplus, we need to simultaneously work together to find a way to put distance between ourselves and the money-driven world that we find ourselves drowning in.
At the time, I returned to Okinawa and spontaneously felt that there was a chance this might happen, and allowed me hit upon the idea for the portrait series. I think had I been in Okinawa the whole time, I would not have been able to make these portraits. If I am in that same world, I cannot look at it objectively. By being in New York, I was able to understand, and much as one could, as well as experience the culture made by New Yorkers and see what they considered powerful, and I think that actively led me to creating this.
What the Okinawan people have, which of course includes myself, is a situation where we are overly swayed by “Toyko-centrism,” and our spirits are being swept along in this way. We are facing a problem with having to fill the “center” of our souls with what we are given. The Amuro portrait is my attempt to fill that “center.”
I think that our identity exists even without a portrait, and even without a similar face or a photograph to relate to, people have their thoughts, and this identity is filled through conversation and discussion. From there, a solid feeling of, “We are us,” arises. At the time I made this series these thoughts were prominent.
For example, when making the Bingata dye of the American president, Obama, the result was not, “Obama’s (America) judging Okinawa,” but rather, “Bingata‘s judging Obama,” with Bingata playing the role as judge. As a result, it built up Okinawa’s branding and Bingata, and “centered” it on Okinawa’s evaluation of something. I was thinking strategically to be conscious of being the protagonist that was evaluating, and giving us the power to decide for ourselves.

I want to ask Amuro about Okinawa

– Amuro also has a song titled, “Hero”

Teruyama standing on his veranda

Actually, there has been a shadow cast over my mood for some time. I constantly watched YouTube videos of the protests at the crossing intersection at Shibuya for the protests demanding the repeal and rejection of the anti-conspiracy and state secrets laws in Japan. Right next to that was a big billboard of Amuro, and the contrasting it created has always stuck with me. I wondered what the Namie Amuro photographed on that giant billboard was thinking.
I like to imagine that artists, craftsmen, and designers pick out and transmit, whether consciously or unconsciously, a certain era’s powerful thing, the weak things, and the forgotten things. It goes without saying the influence and voice Amuro has had as a singer and a dancer. But, in that YouTube video, there is a big schism between the college students vigorously squaring off and protesting with the image of her on the billboard. Since it makes me think of Okinawa, the memory of this shadow cast by the schism in this image has been cast over my mood for a long time.
The music video for “Hero” also gives me a strong sense of a video game world disconnected from reality. It reaffirms the appeal of Amuro, and the fact that it does come just from her beauty, but I cannot shake the uneasiness caused by that billboard in Shibuya. I want to ask Amuro about Okinawa.
I began to think that a music video with Amuro as a “Hero” in the real world, and not a “Hero” in a video game or fictitious world would have more impact.
With Bingata, I grasp traditional aesthetics, a respect for the sense of one’s self, and also my leadership by my words. I dyed the cloth to print our heroes in Bingata, objectively to leave behind an item representing our experience, and also to leave behind something for the things that were burned and lost. The first step was to one by one put it to a shape, and lead the discussion. One step in that journey through the dark was Namie Amuro.
From making this art series, I am reflecting on the existence of a childhood friend, the first time I took note of the appeal of Bingata, the simplicity and strength of Okinawa, noticing the dignified things, the real Okinawa, and the larger-than-life heroes of Okinawa that anchor it.

What is your message for the soon-to-retire Amuro, who will celebrate her debut on September 16?

For that era, an era we both lived all the way through together, not forgetting to mention it was 25 years, where “We existed together all throughout.” She may be viewed as an icon, but I think surely Namie Amuro has some “time as a person” as well. I want to tell her thank you for all your hard work. I also look forward to seeing what you will do next.
I think her absolute professionalism throughout transcends age and generation. While she may be retiring, I do not thinks society’s need of Namie Amuro will change, and if it is in a form that fills a different need, not to put pressure on her, but I greatly look forward to seeing it. Now, this person who had, “an existence like a star,” may start to grow together with us. The questions “What will she do now?” is a life-size chance in the best way.

Profile: Yuken Teruya – Born 1973 in Haebaru, Okinawa. Graduated from the Tama Art University, before receiving his Master’s form the New York School of Visual Arts. Currently based out of New York and Berlin

(English translation by T&CT and Sam Grieb)

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