[Exclusive] Mayu Kanamori, telling stories through art

The first time I saw Mayu Kanamori was while watching a documentary called Tokyo Revealed. She was doing commentary on the city’s lifestyle and a brief description of her expertise appeared on the screen. The word that caught my eyes was ‘art’ so I just had to research more about Mayu. What I discovered was a creative, philosophical, and passionate woman dedicated to telling stories through art, in which her work will help others become more aware of important issues in society.

I was so fascinated that I immediately sought out getting in contact with the artist to have her on EY so that our readers can discover such a remarkable talent if they haven’t already. Now, I ask that you take some time to carefully go through this interview and Mayu’s very thorough answers. You might learn something.

Welcome Mayu. Tell us what inspired you to become an artist?

Thank you for inviting me to your magazine. My father was an artist, a theatre designer, and as a child I grew up surrounded by artists of all kinds, not only in the world of performing arts, but with artists of various disciplines such as sculptors, film makers, poets and novelists. My parents encouraged my creativity, but as I was growing up I became more interested in sociology, politics and current affairs, although I always continued to wish that I could express myself creatively. Eventually I found a career that merged these two strands in my life – documentary photography. It is only when I began my work on The Heart of the Journey that I found myself unable to express what I wanted to express without the use of sound that I began venturing into mediums other than photography. This is when I met my friend and collaborator Malcolm Blaylock who led me into (back into?) the world of theatre and performing arts. With Malcolm I was able to create works that combined documentary and art.

For those not quite familiar with your work, what sort of art are you involved in exactly?

My work mostly involves story telling with photography. Many of my works involve mediums other than photography, including stage productions where I tell a story whilst showing my photographs. In CHIKA: A Documentary Performance we combined documentary story telling with photographs, archival video, live narration, music and dance.

In Repose also involved a musician, sound designer, a dancer and myself. We worked site-specifically in various old Japanese cemeteries in remote regions of Australia, where we worked with local communities. We eventually combined our experiences with these communities, and created a photographic installation and a performance, which told the story of our travels.

There are other types of work I do also, which can be classified as a video work or straight prints-on-walls exhibitions.

“I think now I more value the process of art making than the art itself.”

Is there one that you feel more drawn to than the rest?

I think I am happiest when I am collaborating with other artists and that is why I tend to be drawn to collaborative work like making performances. Naturally, I am drawn mostly to the work I am creating now, which is a project called Murakami, a performance work inspired by the life and work of Yasukichi Murakami, a Japanese photographer who came to live in Australia back in 1897.  This work is however still in its early stages and I have yet to begin my collaborations with other artists.

Your earlier works portray themes relating to subculture and minority groups within Japan and Australia. Could you explain your decision for taking that route?

I began my career as a documentary photographer. I think documentary photography has its tradition in working with subject matter to do with subcultures and minority groups, especially in order to shed light on groups of people and their plight little known in the main stream. When I began taking photographs I was inspired by works of documentary photographers like Mary Ellen Mark, W. Eugene Smith and Dorothea Lange, who were instrumental in exposing a part of our world that needed attention so to make our world a better place to live; having worked in newspapers lead me to want to be part of this tradition.

How have you evolved, in terms of what you depicted in your art then, and how does it differ from what you focus on now?

I think now I more value the process of art making than the art itself. That is not to say that what I depict is less important. I think I still like to work with lesser-known subjects, however I think less of its social implications and how the art can make a difference, and more about how my individual relationships with the people I work with – who I depict and who I collaborate with – could deepen in the process and become more meaningful.

I must say that out of all your projects Chika is my favorite. What inspired you to work on that?

I had read in the newspapers at the time of Chika Honda’s arrest and I remember being embarrassed as a Japanese in Australia that Japanese mafia had been arrested by attempting to smuggle drugs into the country. Many years later I read an investigative report by a Japanese journalist Jun Hamana who reported that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that Chika and others were insisting on their innocence. At the time I informed investigative journalists in Australia about the story in hope that someone will write about it. Unfortunately at the time there was no journalistic “hook” which made the story unworthy in its timing for a newspaper.  Several months later a human rights activist who had lived in Melbourne at the time, Hideko Nakamura happened to see my previous work The Heart of the Journey. Hideko had been visiting Chika in prison as a supporter since her arrest. Hideko asked me if I wanted to meet Chika with the view to creating a work based on her story.

What were you hoping to achieve by documenting Chika Honda’s story?

As an artist I cannot prove Chika Honda’s innocence nor can I tell a story effectively like television current affairs programs can in terms of audience numbers. However I thought that as a team of performing artists, especially in a theatre context with live audience and artists coming together to share Chika Honda’s story, we can appeal to a part of us that could be deeper – an emotional understanding of Chika as a fellow human being.

As it turns out, every time CHIKA: A Documentary Performance was performed, the wider media wrote about the performance work along with Chika Honda’s story itself, and in a way it kept the Chika Honda’s story out in the Australian public longer, until eventually she became known in Australia as the woman who was wrongfully convicted. When I started working on her story, very few people believed she was innocent.

We are presenting CHIKA: A Documentary Performance again in October this year as part of Festival Salihara in Jakarta. I am pleased that Chika Honda’s story will travel to another part of the world. I saw Chika only last week during my visit to Japan to let her know the good news about Festival Salihara’s invitation. She hopes that other festival curators around the world may come to Jakarta to see the work with the view to show it in their respective festivals. Both Chika and I would very much like the performance to be presented in Japan.

You’ve received a commendation for United Nations Association Media Peace Award along with several other awards. How do you feel when your work is recognized in such a positive manner and does it ever get overwhelming?

I feel honoured when the work receives an award and the best part about it is how my collaborators and I can rejoice together.

“Once you are making art, you will know you are an artist. Then you may feel that you would like to be recognized by others as an artist.”

Are there any other projects you’re involved in that you can mention?

Murakami right now. The project blog can be found on


In several years to come when people are looking back on your work, what would you like for them to take away from it?

I do not have a specific thing or an effect that I would like people to take away from my work. I think everyone takes away what they need at the time and it is different for everyone at any given time of their lives. However I do know that good art is that which brings about some sort of change within a person who comes in contact with the artwork. The art becomes great when that change is brought on by the artwork touching the person’s soul in some sort of way. So if each of my artworks can facilitate some sort of change, preferably by touching someone’s soul, then I have done what I am meant to do.

In several years’ time, those people who came in contact with my work hopefully would have come in contact with many other artworks that touched their soul, and brought about some sort of a change each time, making my work / works a tiny change in a string of changes for them. I am happy with that as long as my work does facilitate change and I can continue to create that kind of work. I don’t need anymore than being part of that equation. I am simply honored that I am given the opportunity to be part of this creative chain.

Thank you for sparing some time for us. Do you have any encouraging words for aspiring artists?

I think the difference between an artist and an aspiring artist is whether you are making art or not. If someone is making art, then that person is an artist. So to the aspiring artist, I encourage you to make art by following your heart. That is all it takes.

Once you are making art, you will know you are an artist. Then you may feel that you would like to be recognized by others as an artist. The recognition comes by continuously showing your newest artwork to the public over a period of time. This requires time, effort and persistence. Much of that is best spent on cultivating and nurturing a sustainable and supportive environment for your self in which to continuously create and show over a long period of time.

Cultivate your virtues in daily life. This will assist your art and your art making.

Find more information by visiting the following links:

mayu.com.au | @mayukanamorifacebook.com/PhilosohersPhotos


*Photo of Mayu with Indian make up by Rakini Devi 
*Photo of Yumi Umiumare in CHIKA: A Documentary Performance; created by Mayu Kanamori Photo by Michele Mossop

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