“When we close our eyes, what do we see?”: a simple question posed by a Japanese artist opened a door to an exquisite dialogue upon language and its power to communicate. Another Africa invited Tania Gianesin and Elena Korzhenevich from the Italian foundation lettera27, together with Megumi Matsubara, an artist based between Morocco and Japan, to a roundtable following their encounter in Milan on the occasion of Matsubara’s solo show “A proposal for a textbook to learn Braille, English, and other languages”. Questioning the dichotomy between blindness and vision, the exhibition turned into a memorable departure point that expands ways of seeing.
Megumi Matsubara | I was certainly glad to meet you.
Elena Korzhenevich | Us, too. What really spoke to us were the themes that you are tackling with your art. We saw the words ‘language’, ‘invisible’, and so many keywords that really spoke to us and said ‘Okay we have to go explore more. We have to understand who this Megumi is…’
© Megumi Matsubara, A proposal for a textbook to learn Braille, English, and other languages, 2015 (installation view).
Fonderia Artistica Battaglia, Milan, Italy. Photo by Enrico Ferrari Ardicini.
Megumi Matsubara | I was wondering what made you decide to come…
Elena Korzhenevich | The word ‘invisible’ was something that really spoke to me. lettera27 means the 27th letter in Italian. A letter that does not exist; it’s an invisible space that you fill with your imagination and meaning. We always work in a sense with the invisible, and with the concept of shadows. Our advisor, Simon Njami called Africa ‘a shadow: an invention that can be invested with emotions, ideas, preconceptions’. So us working with the continent is a lot about filling this notion and concept with multiple ideas and points of view. We are very interested in how you are tackling the invisible in your artistic practice…
Megumi Matsubara | When you saw the word ‘blindness’ did you interpret it as ‘invisible’?
Elena Korzhenevich | We saw the word ‘blindness’ but understood that it was a metaphor for some inner imaginary world that you are working with.
Tania Gianesin | If I can add something, lettera27 has always been interested in ‘language perception’. So your ‘Graphic Braille’ was something that really interested me. I was amazed by it, this way to interpret braille.
Megumi Matsubara | ‘Language perception’? Could you tell me a little bit more, is that a term that you coined?
Tania Gianesin | No not really. One of our founders, Maria Sebregondi, has taught language perception to students learning about how to enhance and discover the potentiality of the senses. It was really interesting to read about your creative process on internal images and external objects. The most interesting thing was this synesthetic approach–that is within all the senses–not just about blindness. So when we arrived at your exhibition, we discovered that it was exactly like that. You told us that you were studying internal images, asking ‘What did you dream last night?’ to blind children and that was really incredible.
© Megumi Matsubara, They are pyramids, 2015 (sculpture view). Fonderia Artistica Battaglia, Milan, Italy.
Megumi Matsubara | It’s very exciting to know about this as an entrance point. When it comes to language, quite often it is about words. Words sometimes refer to an image, or have meanings but at the same time I am very interested in the textures of words. These textures can create sensation without meaning anything, without necessarily referring to a specific image or meaning. When you talk about language as something that can create sensation, I am very curious to know further about language perception…
Tania Gianesin | I will try, just to maybe give you an image, but it is exactly what you said Megumi. We use language to communicate but languages are many. The mission of lettera27 is on access to knowledge, which in Italian is ‘accesso ai saperi’. Knowledge is ‘conoscenza’ and ‘saperi’, so in Italian it has shades of meaning; in English maybe it has just one translation, but in Italian it really is access…
Megumi Matsubara | to knowledge…that is what language could mean.
© Megumi Matsubara, It is a baby girl, 2015 (sculpture view). Fonderia Artistica Battaglia, Milan, Italy.
Tania Gianesin | Yes. Knowledge, in many different meanings. The perception of language is exactly like braille as you did but it can be music; it’s a language where you have another alphabet. When we were talking about literacy, which in Italian is ‘alfabetizzazione’, you have many different levels of literacy. You can be literate or illiterate, the point is the access to a language. Africa has so many different languages. It’s a continent that has 54 countries. When we started this idea of access, we had to look for all these different languages that were not only written but something of a culture that was implicit.
Elena Korzhenevich | We talk about music, literature, art, philosophy, education. Those are all the different languages that the continent is speaking. I think our mission is to amplify the voices, and those different languages that are varied, and the expressions that are already out there.
Tania Gianesin | Your work, art and creative process is universal. We can go through your personal artistic “language” and really say that we can speak about many different places.
Megumi Matsubara | When you say ‘places’, do you mean entities, territories or place as a location? Or different fields?
Tania Gianesin | Fields… exactly.
Elena Korzhenevich | When we speak about Africa, we don’t really know what Africa is…We try to approach it in 3D, as we say. There is Africa as a territory, there is the diaspora and then there is the whole collective perception of the continent that is out there. For us, Africa is a starting point, a metaphor, we don’t want to be tied to the geographic boundaries. With regards to your practice, as Tania was saying, you seem to be a very international person, moving between spaces. How do you perceive your identity? And what are your thoughts about borders–geographic or metaphoric?
© Megumi Matsubara, The Entrance, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Megumi Matsubara | I never believed in borders. I wouldn’t call them identity problems. I was not born in a country that no longer exists for example. But I do have my own relationship and issue with borders and boundaries, be it gender, academia, or status…In many different phases I encountered situations where my understanding of boundaries have not met other peoples’. That’s sometimes a fight probably…I studied architecture at school. I thought architecture was so holistic that I should know things outside of that field in order to maintain the motivation to complete or do architecture. I would go and meet professors in other fields. But they would say, ‘What you are talking about, your language–don’t speak to us at all!’ They didn’t like architecture students! They thought it was too abstract, or whatever else. I was not a particularly complicated student, but I realised that communication does not happen like that, and I could be refused even with my will to communicate. But if a person doesn’t like the way I speak, I have to change because I want to talk with them! I wouldn’t say that I can adapt to their language all the time, but I need to find the way, because this is my first priority–to communicate. I stick around, until it happens. In that way, I am quite used to negotiating these types of borders. Borders are not something that I need to accept. If I find them, I negotiate them: that is how I understand it.
Elena Korzhenevich | Negotiating and navigating through different languages is what we do on a daily basis as well. To cross profit and non-profit, to cross Africa and Europe. As you said, negotiating different languages and different forms but always trying to get our message out there, making those borders smooth.
Megumi Matsubara | Yes, that is a challenge, isn’t it? Even though I don’t believe in accepting borders, I do understand that people do have their territories where they feel comfortable. It’s not like I can go and invade someone sleeping in bed, it’s not like that. I do understand that we might need this kind of comfort zone for each person. But when it comes to the borders, I don’t accept them because if they exist, I believe they are movable. I rather see them as a gradation of two territories–always negotiable. Even between two people, it is always moving.
© Megumi Matsubara, Ta So Kare / Ka Wa Tare, 2015 (installation detail). Restaurant °7, Fès, Morocco.
Tania Gianesin | This is exactly why we got closer to art and say “art and culture for social transformation”. Really because of such thoughts that you have shared with us now, art is a language that is full. Our mission is on culture, information and access to knowledge. It’s not a mission on emergency, or in something that is more clear and acceptable for people. They think that culture is not the priority compared to food, health, and disease. But for us, as a lot of people take care of those so called priorities, we think that the priorities are really awareness and consciousness. You can deal with boundaries, racism, xenophobia and so on if you are aware. I do completely understand, and agree with you about architecture because it has to deal with the space where human beings live, and everything is about space and senses again. So, the only way to be close to these themes in a very concrete and pragmatic way, is to go through art. We think that this is really something we need as a specific tool for our approach.
Elena Korzhenevich | For instance some educational formats that we have, at their core, we try to develop critical thinking capacity, providing the students with tools to be aware of who they are and about the society around them. Then their artistic practice or whatever creative practice can be much more conscious and much more meaningful. It is very important to give a role to the artist, to connect it again with something that can produce a tangible change. When you were speaking about “comfort zones” earlier, I was thinking about our AtWork workshops where we try to get people out of their comfort zones.
Megumi Matsubara | When I spent a month in the desert, almost every night, I would take out my blanket and sleep outside. One night, there was almost no moon, it was really dark. I was trying to go 100 metres straight to a small dune. I knew it was very close. After half an hour, I still hadn’t found it and I couldn’t believe that. I had a flashlight, and I could not find it at all. Eventually, I spent the night where I was. The next morning when one part of the sky became brighter, the first feeling I had was ‘Oh today, the sun rose the wrong way.’ It took me a while before I understood that I was not in the right direction, I was actually something like 90 degrees away from where I had intended to be. Very quickly before I even reached 100 metres, I had turned and ended up somewhere totally different. I realised I did not believe my eyes in the darkness. I was not patient enough, I would turn on the flashlight only lighting up the area I wanted to see. This only disturbed me and made me lose my perception of other things. Because even if I could perceive the landscape around, my brain rejected that information. I was really not conscious about my sight and my ability, and this was a very scary, interesting experience.
© Megumi Matsubara, The Bedroom, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Elena Korzhenevich | It’s a beautiful metaphor…we were discussing a lot here what it means to be aware, to be a conscious human being. Being conscious is to be a free human being. The only way that you can be completely free, is when you have the information, the tools and awareness. Then you have all the means to make aware and conscious choices, therefore to be free.
Megumi Matsubara | Also we have a big capacity to see, not only through the eyes, but ‘see’ meaning through feeling and senses. There is so much information that is available to us, that is talking to us, if we can give attention…
Elena Korzhenevich | If we are open to it.
Megumi Matsubara | Yes, exactly. This can only be achieved through our consciousness. But I can not see what another person is seeing. Our physical ability to see can be measured, but consciousness is unique to each person. If I accept that, I come back to language again, it becomes much more than the definition of it as a word. When Tania said earlier, that language could mean access to knowledge (like a key) it widens up the understanding of the world to me. Because I am a believer of higher language. If you have the pure will to communicate, any language feels somehow limited. But because it is limiting you want to charge a lot more into this tool; that is when higher language emerges, by the presence of ‘the other’. If translated verbatim, it’s not written, this extra part did not make it into the available tool of language. But if the other person who receives this message projects his or her consciousness, and if they start seeing something more, then there absolutely an entity of higher language emerges. For me this is what language can really really do. Instead of accuracy, what I believe is in this mutual effort to create a territory between us, a non-existent territory unless both of us willingly believe that it exists.
© Megumi Matsubara, Untitled, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Elena Korzhenevich | It is an alchemy born out of co-creation, and the sharing between people, and in lettera27’s case even between organisations. Whatever initiative we have, an idea only takes shape when our partners, or when people that we are working with put meaning into it, and make it their own. We are not interested in imposing our initiatives on people. It’s about co-creation with like-minded people that makes our initiatives unique.
Megumi Matsubara | I really so believe in this that I can try to communicate with non-like-minded people also! This somehow challenges my comfort zone. But I really believe we can create a way to communicate, and it will remain. You can somehow try to pretend or say that it didn’t talk to you, or the way this communication happened wasn’t enough, but you can not say that I did not exist. Any interaction that happened will remain. When I was in environments where I felt disabled, my will to communicate did not disappear, so I had to do something about it. When I encountered the blind students, I learned my fingers were not sensitive enough to read this functional language but my eyes could see these dots and it was much easier to read braille by eyesight. And because I could see, I started seeing them like music notes. Like that I created ‘Graphic Braille’ and ‘Acoustic Braille’.
© Megumi Matsubara, A room for the colour blind, 2012 (installation detail). Galleria Continua / Le Moulin, Boissy-le-Châtel, France.
Language is everything, it can be anything. To have the consciousness to understand what something could mean to you is really up to you. Your way to see and what you want to see, all come down to a desire to communicate that makes language important. If I don’t need to communicate with people in different time and space coordinates including myself, I don’t need to negotiate my borders. I can write in my diary, but even this diary I don’t need it.
Tania Gianesin | Yes, to me these are the keywords for education because I do believe that we really have to go into all these ways of understanding and exploring these key points that you have said now. What is your relation with education? If you could define with two or three keywords, what are these key words for you?
Megumi Matsubara | ‘Question’ is the first word that comes to mind… yes, definitely ‘question’.
Tania Gianesin | That is so interesting because of course to make it a critical debate, you need to first of all make a question, much more than an answer. And in science, it is said that no scientific discovery would be done without doubt.
Megumi Matsubara | Well (laughs) questions can be very problematic too. When somebody asked me what was my link to blindness and dreams, I realised before intellectualising anything, when I was three years old I was very afraid of sleeping, and of seeing someone with their eyes closed–especially my mother. When she’d try to put me to sleep, she would fall asleep before me. Looking at her eyes closed I kept wondering ‘What if she never opened her eyes?’, ‘What if she never saw me again?’, ‘What if I closed my eyes, and never saw her again? Is that death?’ It was a horrifying question: my biggest, first question during my childhood. But it also gave me the impulse to know more. ‘Why do I want to see her again?’ ‘What does it mean to be dead?’
So many of the things that I learned, or educated myself with are linked to very personal surroundings–somehow unique to myself and my time and space coordinates. My mother is an ophthalmologist. I grew up helping her collage ophthalmic photographs in her notebooks. I didn’t plan to work with the blind. I studied many things and met all different kinds of people but…why do I still stick to eyes, why do eyes still fascinate me?
© Megumi Matsubara, Walk Straight, 2014 (solo show, film documentation). Voice Gallery, Marrakech, Morocco.
Film by Fabrice Gino, music by Ilpo Jauhiainen.
I realised the question that you ask with a very pure manner, will remain. This power of the question is enough to look at other things or everything, to pursue this question. What I am saying is that I do also know the power of academic understanding of things, but what has been real essential for me is to learn how to eventually turn the vector the other way around, instead of finding truth in the external world: to go inward and understand how your questions can be pursued. Because this question, if purely questioned, is very unique to yourself. And because it is unique to you (like consciousness itself) it can be important not only to you but to others. That is the power of education to me.
Elena Korzhenevich | It’s interesting that ‘questioning’ was the first thing that you mentioned… For instance in AtWork Kampala, the workshop theme was ‘Should I take off my shoes?’, a metaphor about exploring new spaces. One girl made this beautiful book. She had written very personal and intimate things in the notebook, and sealed it with razors that represented pain and sharpness, so if someone wanted to learn about her real identity they had to take the chance with the razors. She said it is a time capsule that she would like to open when she is 50. AtWork is first and foremost about questioning your identity, and putting your gaze internally. It’s not about knowledge acquisition, it’s an equal dialogue starting from the leader, to the facilitator and the students themselves, it is all about exchanging, sharing and starting the process that hopefully will never end.
Megumi Matsubara | Yes, it will never end because neither you nor I are the center of the world; the world exists between us. I am so happy that we met. Meeting is a real experience and I really believe in this. To meet, and to share the time and space with another being is extremely important to me. That is the only way that my body can know the temperature of your body, and I will not forget it. My brain can pretend that I forgot it, but I know that I can never forget it. This can be remembered again, as it stays in my memory, it will come back. And this remembrance creates the next sensation and consciousness that is unique to me. By knowing the temperature of your body, I will see things differently, I will interact with you differently or deeper.
Elena Korzhenevich | That is a beautiful conclusion. It circles to the meaning of this encounter and I think both of us, coming out of this enriched and this alchemy happening. Well you definitely provoked a lot of inspiration and thought on our side. We hope we left something with you…
Tania Gianesin | I am going to quote Megumi, because I am completely in love with your book The Tale of the Japanese and the Mosquito. I would really like to share this piece because, it’s something very very special. Quoting Megumi for us, and for we, you say at one point ‘…Then the mosquito said, “Therefore, I am Them, Them are We, We is You, You are I.”’ and this is something a–m–a–z–i–n–g, it is much longer than this, but at one point of the same passage the mosquito answers, ‘Because I am Japan, you are Africa. You are the first, you are the last, you are the one I know, and the one unknown. You are my external, and you are my internal. You are my place, and you are the virgin land.’
Thank you so much for this.
© Megumi Matsubara, Undress, 2015 (installation detail). ifa-Galerie Stuttgart, Germany.
Notes (in order of appearance)
This conversation was hosted by Another Africa and arranged by Missla Libsekal. It took place over skype on June 9, 2015 between Tokyo and Milan. The three speakers first met in Milan on May 28, 2015.
* Megumi Matsubara is a Japanese artist whose practice spans from static architecture to ephemeral situations, including installation, sound, photography and text. She reconfigures existing environments and composes spatial narratives to question the balance between presence and absence. Matsubara lives and works between Fès and Tokyo since 2012.
* lettera27 (Lettera Ventisette) foundation supports the right to literacy and education, and promotes access to knowledge, with a specific focus on the African continent. Areas of intervention include art and culture for social transformation, innovative education and sustainable culture. Established in 2006, the not-for-profit is based in Milan, Italy and Tania Gianesin is the Executive Director and Elena Korzhenevich, the Communication Manager.
* A proposal for a textbook to learn Braille, English, and other languages exhibited in Milan at Fonderia Artistica Battaglia from April 11 to May 30, 2015. Matsubara’s solo show presented, a series of thirty bronze sculptures. Cast in 2014, they constitute replicas of delicate clay figures sculpted by blind students during pottery workshops arranged by Matsubara in Morocco and Egypt in 2012.
* Njami, Simon. “The mother of all dances.” Why Africa? Doppiozero. lettera27, 13 Nov. 2014. Web. 5 July, 2015 article was accessed.
* Matsubara’s Graphic Braille is braille printed or pencil-drawn as smooth black dots. Following encounters with visually impaired students, Matsubara described its genesis as “my eyes learnt quicker than my fingers how to read braille”. It was first shown in the homonymous work A proposal for a textbook to learn Braille, English, and other languages (Galleria Continua / Le Moulin, France, 2012).
* Università dell’Immagine was a post-secondary institution offering an experimental, two-year certificate program on the five senses in Milan, Italy, between 1998 and 2005.
* Conoscenza in Italian translates to mean: knowledge, cognition, acquaintance, consciousness.
* AtWork is an educational format, designed to stimulate critical thinking and debate. Developed by lettera27 and Simon Njami, its key element is a workshop led by an artist/curator on a specific theme. The creative process culminates with each student personalizing a notebook.
* Matsubara’s Acoustic Braille is an innovative way to hear braille: each character is mechanically transcribed into six-line music scores. Her compositions from Arabic braille text exploring the colour red, have been played by lute players and electronic musicians, including at the Institut Mohamed 5 pour la sauvegarde des aveugles, Fès, 2012.
* AtWork Kampala 03 Chapter was hosted by Makerere Art Gallery, Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts and Maisha Foundation from 9 – 13 February, 2015. Exploring the theme ‘Should I take off my shoes? twenty individuals, including Immy Mali who created her razor-sealed notebook, participated in the workshop and subsequent exhibition at Makerere Art Gallery.
* Learn more about Graphic and Acoustic Braille by listening to scholar Kenneth Brown and Matsubara discussing Blindness and Dreams, within the context of Moroccan and Islamic cultures, and in relation to memory and internal vision. The joint lecture was held at the American Language Center, Fès, February 2015.
* The Tale of the Japanese and the Mosquito is written by Megumi Matsubara with an afterword by Nástio Mosquito. An artist’s edition of 500, the bilingual (English, Japanese) book is the last chapter of an 8-part series, and the first volume published.
* Matsubara, Megumi. The Tale of the Japanese and the Mosquito. Fès: Published by Anamnesis, 2014. 29 – 31. Print.