Interview with artists vol.1: AKIKO (previously known as Vanessa Milito Rodriguez)

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You exhibited at Sway Gallery twice in 2019, with “Bijin-ga Vague” in Paris and “Lost in Transition” in London – could you tell us a little bit about how the shows came about? Did you curate each exhibition based on each city?

AKIKO: My very first solo exhibition was held at Sway Gallery Paris in March 2019, it opened on International Women’s Day and the theme was, of course, the woman; bijin-ga is a Japanese term for the depiction of beautiful women. I exhibited about 40 different works, which were inspired by traditional ukiyo-e. It was a beautiful experience that taught me a lot and that gave me the opportunity to launch a second solo show, in London, in August of the same year. This was particularly successful and also a lot of fun. I came to London just one day before the opening of the exhibition, which was mainly based on the 90s aesthetic of the anime that I watched as a child, my vision of Japan which I had recently visited, and the prints I made at school in Japan. I have very good memories of both, especially the latest one. I’ll never forget them.

Did you already work with painting and illustration before studying Japanese techniques and aesthetics, and how did the latter change or influence your existing style?

A: All my studies focused on art, even years before focusing on Japanese culture and aesthetics. I got attached to Japanese art through tattooing, and from there I started to become interested in traditional prints, such as Hokusai’s The Great Wave of Kanagawa (water is a recurring element in the “irezumi” style of tattoo art). I continued to do in-depth research on the technique, and attended the Karuizawa Mokuhanga School in Nagano, Japan, where I studied the technical basics. Then my interest shifted to pop themes and the landscapes I saw during my journeys in Japan, eventually resulting in an interest in Japanese animation art, which I’ve been focusing on for over a year now! Japan always plays a fundamental role in my art; it’s my source of inspiration and happiness. I’m so glad I get to explore its culture and different artforms; it’s been such a beautiful journey.

The “Lost in Transition” exhibition explored any juxtaposition between what you had always envisioned about Japan versus what you actually saw when visiting, with preparation taking place in France. Do you find it easier to work from memory and photographs, or do you prefer to start in situ?

A: I’d imagined Japan for a very long time before I could actually discover it with my own eyes. For my work I draw everything from photos taken with my phone, to images captured with Google Maps, illustrated books, animated films, shin-hanga, or my own artworks from some time ago. I found that the idea I had of Japan was surprisingly very close to what I found once I got there. Of course, there are sensations, scents, shapes and colours that I try to reproduce from memory, especially in regards to the green forests that I enjoy painting. The lush, beautiful nature that I observed in Karuizawa, Nagano, where I spent one month, is definitely a huge influence.

Your work is known for celebrating both Japanese tradition and contemporary pop culture but there are also intercultural sensibilities, like in “Lost in Transition”. Does your Italian-Colombian heritage and time in France inspire your work too?

A: This is a very interesting question and after thinking about it for a bit: no. My artistic style, the subjects I depict and the materials I use are all strictly connected to Japan. I rarely choose to represent European scenery, even though lately I’ve been thinking a lot about painting some scenes from movies set in Paris! (The Moulin Rouge for example, is actually very close to my home studio).

France in particular has a longstanding cultural history with Japan, most notably as the birthplace of the Japonisme in Western Europe. Do you still feel an interest in Japanese art and culture there today?

A: Absolutely! France, in particular Paris, is a great place to explore Japanese culture in Europe. There’s a cultural centre (which has a beautiful view of the Eiffel Tower), and many events and museums dedicated to Asian art, among which the Guimet Museum, the Cernuschi Museum and the Palais de Tokyo stand out. There are always events dedicated to Japanese culture and lately(since all the museums are sadly closed), I’ve had the pleasure of discovering the Japanese food district in Paris. There, you can find real ramen, enjoy a proper melon-pan or find takoyaki. For a moment you can pretend to be in Tokyo, it’s amazing; a pit stop you can’t miss when in Paris!

Latest work by Akiko, 2021
Latest work by Akiko, inspired by “Sacred Grove” by Toshi Yoshida

The pandemic has affected the way we all work, with France in particular experiencing strict lockdowns. Can you share how you’ve been staying motivated generally?

A: Despite the fact that, initially, Italy (particularly Milan, where I come from and where my family lives) was hit very badly, and I definitely had a very stressful time, I’ve been able to live calmly. But I understood the gravity of the situation and that it would not be short-term, so I decided to redesign my routine and I created a comfortable working environment at home… expanding any space dedicated to art and supplying myself with a lot materials. I got up early every morning, started my day dressing as if I had to go out and I took my working hours seriously, dedicating the evening hours to leisure. Even if I haven’t left home for three consecutive months, this is probably the only way I could bear it; continuing to live with my normal rhythm. I allowed myself only one day off a week, the rest of the time was dedicated to creation, research, exploring new techniques, social media and taking care of my online shop. Even though the situation now is no different, it’s much more manageable as I moved into a bigger place with a bigger studio space. Human beings adapt easily, that’s what differentiates us from other species!

Many artists and creatives have had to adapt how they work, whether it’s cancelling shows, closed studio spaces, unable to travel on research trips or access to materials. What advice do you have for fellow artists facing similar challenges?

A: My advice would be to take a deep breath and approach everything philosophically. Us artists, especially painters and illustrators, are lucky enough to be able to continue our work even at home; this is a huge advantage that many people don’t have and that’s why I believe we should use this time to dedicate ourselves to perfecting techniques, gaining and sharing more knowledge, building communities and if possible, exploring new fields. I started playing with Procreate last November, and now I can do very different things I couldn’t possibly do with my paintbrushes!

You have a large following on Instagram, where fans of your work can get an insight into your processes and inspiration. Now more than ever, what role does social media play for you?

A: The online community continues to grow – despite constantly changing algorithms – and for me, it’s fun; I get to interact with a lot people, I’m asked questions about techniques, materials and work. I can also interact with other artists, curators, people approaching illustration for the first time, or simply those nostalgic about Japan (which I always understand very well). I like to be able to post content, video processes, tips and motivation for others. It motivates me too!

Do you think the art landscape will change permanently? For artists, fans, museum and gallery-goers, and many more.

A: I often wonder how we’ll approach all of this in the future. My favourite hobbies have always been visiting museums and cinemas and they’ve definitely suffered. I don’t know exactly how it will evolve, as these are activities born precisely for the community, to bring people together. So, I want to remain optimistic that we can go back to normal. The world will definitely be a different place from how we left it but with the right measures and innovation, I think we’ll be able to do enjoy all the different forms of entertainment and culture. These are perhaps not “essential” for our survival, but they enrich the mind. Culture is art; people can communicate, express themselves and so on. It’s so important to support the cultural landscape now!

Finally, as an anime fan, do you have any recommendations for those looking to find out more about little-known Japanese culture?

A: Of course! For those who love Studio Ghibli films – in the 80s, Hayao Miyazaki asked producers to make a film called Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was originally denied because there was no comic novel! Back then, having a printed manga was important before deciding to produce a film. Do you know what Miyazaki did? He wrote and drew the manga himself, and released it! It was a total success and the producers change their mind! It’s a must-watch.

If you want to listen to a great soundtrack while reading the manga series or while painting, listen to Joe Hisahishi’s concert for Studio Ghibli’s 25th anniversary (you can find it on YouTube). It’s 2 hours of dreamy, sweet and epic music that will immerse you in Miyazaki’s world.

If you’re interested in learning the basics of creating a Japanese print, there’s the Karuizawa Mokuhanga School’s online workshop, curated by Terry McKenna (he was my teacher!).

If you want to discover Japanese food through funny (and touching) stories, watch Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories; a lovely Netflix show that’ll make you very hungry. I’ve warned you.

For those curious to learn a new game, get a Hanafuda deck, a very old Japanese card game that’s still played today. It appears in several anime and it was the first game produced by Nintendo. Yes, THAT Nintendo.

For those more inclined towards social media or technology in general, join artists who hold online courses to support them. I assure you that even a message is always appreciated.

Last but not least, use this time in your favor and pick up on a project or idea that you had forgotten, somewhere… who knows what could happen?