Kimonos tell the geisha story 

From Geisha to Diva: The Kimono of Ichimaru first of two new shows at the Audain Art Museum

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRYN ATKINSON - Wearable art Some of the 40 kimonos belonging to 20th-century Japanese geisha, entertainer and singer Ichimaru on show at the Audain Art Museum.
  • Photo by Cathryn Atkinson
  • Wearable art Some of the 40 kimonos belonging to 20th-century Japanese geisha, entertainer and singer Ichimaru on show at the Audain Art Museum.

The docents had already done a lot of homework.

Barry Till was taking the Audain Art Museum's guides and volunteers through the museum's latest show — From Geisha to Diva: The Kimono of Ichimaru.

Till, the curator of Asian art at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, brought the collection to the Audain as its latest visiting exhibition.

Ichimaru (1906 - 1997) was the best-known geisha — Japan's highest class of hostess courtesan — in the 20th century.

Renowned for her beauty and singing ability, she was sold into sex slavery at 14, but became famous and rich enough to buy her freedom in 1933. She went on to become a professional singer, a troop entertainer in the Second World War, and had her own post-war radio and TV shows.

She performed well into the 1990s.

Although outlawed in the 1950s, geishas are considered of national historical importance, living keepers of history and events such as the Japanese tea ceremony.

The docents, of course, knew much of this and were taken around the displays of 40 kimonos worn by Ichimaru, and display cases with her effects, including shoes, combs, a wig and her instruments.

Till explained that this wasn't the full collection, which came to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria via a confidant of Ichimaru's following her death.

"We always let people edit the collection as they see fit. There are some pieces missing but there also some pieces that were not in our show but are here, thanks to Mrs. Suzuki, who had the collection and has sent four more kimonos over," Till explains, adding that the collection was split between his museum and another in Nagoya, Japan, where the geisha lived.

Audain Art Museum co-founder Yoshi Karasawa also knew Suzuki and was able to be a part of the creation of the show.

Till adds: "When I heard the news about the collection being offered to us, I jumped at it. I said this was a travelling show, very popular, just by the fact that this was related to geisha.

"We were offered the collection around the time the movie Memoirs of a Geisha came out and Steven Spielberg's production team called me up to see if they could borrow (the kimonos). They couldn't because the collection was booked to go to San Francisco."

The docents' tour continued for an hour, with Till explaining individual pieces — the kimonos were made and worn between the late 1930s and the 1970s, many for specific important events.

"What makes me proud and excited about this collection is the fact that it is about someone who moved from geisha to diva. Ichimaru continued to live the geisha lifestyle until her death," Till says.

"Geishas were a living artform. They were curator and conservators of the past. They kept the old costumes, the old way of talking. The whole attitude was based on many centuries earlier. They did provide sex, but it would be a very costly evening."

Till said the collection has been shown at 16 museums across North America, including the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., but it was nice to have it showing "closer to home."

"It hasn't been shown much in B.C.," Till says.

"It's great for a museum our size to have a touring show. It gets our name out there and helps with donations. We are a small museum, but we have the best collection of Japanese art in Canada."

The Audain Art Museum's curator Darrin Martens says docents are trained for every special exhibition.

"It's a critical component for our program to be a success that we have active and engaged docents. What I have witnessed and encountered so far (with our volunteers) is that these individuals are so excited. They are keenly interested in what we are doing and it fuels their knowledge," he says.

He says the Audain is always looking for new people to join the docent and general volunteer program.

Martens says the Ichimaru show was a nice opportunity to bring an exhibition to Whistler that was completely different than what has been previously shown.

"A visitor may have been through the permanent collection, they may have been through (last spring's) Mexican show, or the (recently closed) Beaverbrook collection. Textiles couldn't be further away from this," Martens says.

From Geisha to Diva: The Kimono of Ichimaru is in the upstairs temporary gallery at the Audain Art Museum until Jan. 9, 2017.

A second temporary exhibition opens on Saturday, Oct. 29.

Intersections: Contemporary Artist Films is the first contemporary art show organized by the Audain Art Museum.

Martens says he has created seven temporary screening rooms in the downstairs gallery to show films by eight interdisciplinary artists, including Matilda Aslizadeh, Patrick Bernatchez, Stan Douglas, Pascal Grandmaison and Marie-Claire Blais, Lisa Jackson, Fiona Tan and Althea Thauberger.

The films range in length from three minutes to many hours, he says.

"This show is so different (from the Ichimaru kimono show)," says Martens.

"It was created by myself. I was interested in exploring artists today who use film or video to look at the world around them. It was to look at what they are seeing, what issues are they concerned with and how does it resonate to a larger audience."

Issues include First Nations concerns of violence and forgiveness, explored by Jackson's piece Snare, Thauberger's vision of the environment.

"Another one explores what isolation is," Martens says.

"We have artists from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal."

On Friday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. there will be an interactive evening — Intersecting Visions: The Art of the Moving Image — in collaboration with the Whistler Film Festival.

Aslizadeh, Bernatchez, Grandmaison, Jackson, Tan and Thauberger will take part in a roundtable discussion on the ideas, motivations and content found in modern video art.

Time, space, place and larger global social narratives related to the environment and the migration of peoples and ideas will be explored.

The following week there will be a talk stemming from the Audain's permanent collection.

Kathryn Bridge, curator of history and art at the Royal BC Museum, will speak on the life and inspirations of painter Emily Carr. The talk takes place on Saturday, Dec. 10, at 2 p.m.

A future talk on the Ichimaru collection takes place in early January.

Access to both exhibitions and all talks is included in the regular admission price to the museum.

Tickets are $18 for adults, youth 16 and under are free.

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