A conversation with Momo Okabe: transmuting life into a beautifully coloured world

By Zippora Elders

In September and October 2015 Foam presented , an exhibition of the work of Momo Okabe (Tokyo, 1981). Okabe was chosen by an international jury as the winner of the  2015, a prize organized by Foam and awarded annually to a promising international photographer up to the age of thirty-five. Okabe won the prize for her two remarkable projects about Japanese society and her intimate relationships with two transgender lovers, whom she followed during their processes of transition.

Beyond the documentary aspect, Okabe finds these to be universal stories of sex and death. She blends tenderness with a raw intimacy, which becomes visible through her specific use of colour, the diversity of her topics and the sensitive manner in which she addresses the important and complex social issue of transsexuality – and questions one’s identity at large. Okabe operates in a wider context of the tradition of Japanese photography, which is internationally highly regarded. Yet at the same time she creates a unique aesthetic that is entirely her own. In both series the pictures are overlaid with colours that are reminiscent of the shades of the 1970s that evoke both nostalgia and alienation.

Okabe took up the camera after encountering the intimate photobook Sentimental Journey by the renowned Japanese photographer  (1940) about his marriage with his late wife. Okabe finds Japanese photography to be particularly sensitive, as it often deals with a photographer’s private life. It is through photography that she can cope with her life and perhaps even reclaim it, transmuting her daily experiences into her own beautifully coloured fantasy world.

Untitled from the series Bible 2013 C Momo Okabe (2).jpg
Untitled from the series Bible 2013 C Momo Okabe
Untitled from the series Bible 2013 C Momo Okabe.jpg
Untitled from the series Bible 2013 C Momo Okabe
Untitled from the series Dildo 2007 C Momo Okabe.jpg
Untitled from the series Dildo 2007 C Momo Okabe
Untitled from the series Dildo, 2008 C Momo Okabe, courtesy of the artist.jpg
Untitled from the series Dildo, 2008 C Momo Okabe, courtesy of the artist
Untitled from the series Dildo 2009 C Momo Okabe.jpg
Untitled from the series Dildo 2009 C Momo Okabe

the conversation

On the occasion of winning the Foam Paul Huf Award in 2015, we had a conversation about her practice, her life and her exhibition.

Zippora Elders (ZE): How did the projects and the books Bible and Dildo that are both on show in the exhibition come about?

Momo Okabe (MO): The exhibition, which comprises the series Bible and Dildo, revolves around the struggles of my lovers and friends, who are the outsiders of Japanese society. Japanese society is overly systematic, constantly imposing its restrictive views on every aspect of our lives – and some people are severely impacted by this. The people presented in both my projects, therefore, have mental disorders caused by drug overdoses and/or difficulties of achieving acceptance in society. Bible and Dildo portray their difficult yet courageous struggles against this bias in Japan.

The series Dildo opens with images of Momo Okabe’s relationship with Kaori, a woman with gender dysphoria. After her break-up with Kaori, Okabe followed the relationship with her new lover, Yoko, which eventually resulted in documenting Yoko’s trip to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery, during which Yoko’s uterus was removed.

Bible covers a selection of images made between 2008 and 2014. For Okabe it is a definitive body of work, as reflected in the title. Bible includes pictures of a former female lover of Okabe and images of male genitalia as well as her adventures with her ex-boyfriend, who lived in social isolation because of his aggression disorder. Although he could be scary, Okabe encountered beautiful landscapes when with him – in particular an amazing mountain in the blue moonlight.

ZE: Apart from these very personal experiences, there are images of environmental disasters and daily life. How would you describe the relationships between those pictures?

MO: Bible and Dildo certainly includes pictures of chaos and destruction. Especially in Bible, I include images taken in Miyagi after the Fukushima earthquake struck Japan in March 2011 – and at slams in India in 2012. These photographs are shown in this exhibition in comparison with my lovers’ and friends' struggles. I find that natural destruction or devastating feelings are not terminal to our lives, even though these experiences are extremely tough to overcome. Through traumatic experiences we can hope to reconstruct our lives – and be allowed to achieve our happiness again.

ZE: Can you elaborate on the significance of this experience?

MO: I achieved this affirmation – that horrible destruction is not necessarily terminal – from my own experience on the day when that earthquake occurred. Confused by what was happening, I was somehow awakened by it too – as I had the powerful realization that, without choice, I was now actually alive when many people died in the disaster. I noticed that both terror and desire for life were aroused inside of me, and both feelings were equally powerful. It is hard to describe but I truly wanted to destroy everything I had. Only through this horrible incident did I regain real emotion. The Japanese people were very confused when the disaster happened and out of that they became truer to themselves as human beings.

ZE: Is this particular to Japanese society?

MO: Yes, I think we tend to lose our sense of “real emotion”: compassion, intimacy, and camaraderie among people, in this intensely systematic and censored society – and with society’s tendency to lump people into uniform categories. I feel this is dangerous to both our creativity and our sensitivity. Therefore I avoid making photographs in a conceptual way – I always make work of my actual experiences and strong emotions.

ZE: Although your practice is very personal, it seems characteristic of Japanese photography. Do you see a parallel there?

MO: I began Bible and Dildo from my personal experiences. But I was also inspired by the Japanese photographic I-novel (shishashin), an important part of Japanese tradition. However, I also hope that my exhibition at Foam successfully conveys the possibility of regeneration and makes a real connection with people from all over the world.

ZE: Yet the titles Bible and Dildo are quite bold and they undoubtedly evoke strong associations and references. How did you come up with them?

MO: I wanted to name my exhibition Dildo and Bible, referring to my books published by Session Press.

ZE: A dildo is a very specific tool…

MO: I guess a dildo is an object that those with gender-identity dysphoria (i.e., female to male: FTM) can easily get from stores and yet, it is also the thing that they can’t ever actually possess for real. FTM people use dildos when they make love. People may laugh at them; if so, I feel very sad about such reactions. FTM and I don’t want “proper guidance” to “fix us” in any way. We simply want to be what is true to us – and we want to be just who we are.

ZE: And the Bible?

MO: For Bible, I selected that title because I wanted to make it very special, final, and definitive for myself. When I was making the book I realized that the project – coping with my experiences through photography and rearranging my memories – was saving me, just like the Bible. And so I thought that that title perfectly suited the book.

ZE: Bible was published last year. What are you currently doing from day to day?

I still take pictures every day. However, I never make any plan or conceive of various ideas before taking a photo. I only realize later what I am trying to say, through the process of making my books.

ZE: Do you have plans for the future?

As my photography is based on shishosetsu, the Japanese I-novel, it is always made up out of my own, actual, experiences. I don’t decide in advance what I am going to photograph. And while I work from my private life, I hope that my work shares its power with many other people – and that it continues to positively resonate within them as part of their lives, too.

view the works in the Foam Collection

about the artist and author

Momo Okabe received her BFA in Photography from Nihon University of Art in 2004. In 1999 her work was selected by Nobuyoshi Araki for the prestigious New Cosmos of Photography Award, and in 2009 she was selected by Masafumi Sanai for the Color Imaging Contest of EPSON. Her photobook Dildo, published by Session Press, was selected by Hisako Motoo for the Photoeye Best Photobook award in 2013. Bible was published last year, also by Session Press. Raised in France, she now lives and works in Tokyo.

Momo Okabe’s Japanese answers were translated with the kind assistance of Miwa Susuda.

Zippora Elders curated the exhibition . She studied art history and heritage studies at the University of Amsterdam and the VU University, where she specialized in visual art of the 20th and 21st centuries and museum curating. She has worked and written for various Dutch art institutions, including the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, the Sandberg Instituut, the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten and Nieuw Dakota.

about the Foam Paul Huf Award

The Foam Paul Huf Award is an internationally acclaimed photography prize, initiated by Foam, to support upcoming talents and provide a platform for photographers under the age of 35 from across the world. This prize has been organised by Foam every year since 2007 and is awarded to young photographers by an international independent professional jury. The Foam Paul Huf Award consists of a cash prize of €20.000,- and a solo exhibition at Foam. Additionally, the work of the winner will be published in the prestigious annual Talent issue of Foam Magazine. Above all, the winner will see their name added to an impressive list of alumni.

Foam is supported by the VriendenLoterij, Foam Members, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, the VandenEnde Foundation and the City of Amsterdam.

In 2021 Foam receives additional support from the Mondriaan Fund and Kickstart Cultuurfonds.

A conversation with Momo Okabe: transmuting life into a beautifully coloured world

By Zippora Elders [...]
7 min

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A conversation with Momo Okabe: transmuting life into a beautifully coloured world