Color of my voice

Japanese artist with autism speaks through his works

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Far East Fusion
World of Hiroshi Yakabi: Quiet Artist –Talkative Artworks, plus student works from Rose Scott School, now showing at BMU 2nd-floor Public Space Gallery through May 8. Reception: Thursday, May 2, 6-8 p.m.
2nd-floor Public Space Gallery
Bell Memorial Union
Chico State

Up until a few years ago, Hiroshi Yakabi barely even spoke. The 20-year-old artist was diagnosed with autism at the age of 11. It wasn’t until he started making a name for himself as an artist in his hometown of Amami, a city located on the tropical Japanese island of Amami Oshima, that Yakabi came out of his shell.

“Since he found [art], he has found himself,” explained Masami Toku, a professor of art education at Chico State who met Yakabi three years ago while visiting Amami, where she was born. “He even started to talk, believe it or not.”

World of Hiroshi Yakabi: Quiet Artist–Talkative Artworks is part of this year’s Far East Fusion series, Toku’s popular annual program which, over the past four years, has showcased a range of Japanese cultural and artistic exhibits and events. This year, the program centers on an art exhibit of young artists facing challenges associated with autism, Asperger syndrome and ADHD. In addition to Yakabi’s work, the show will include the works of local students, ranging in age from 6 to 19, who’ve been diagnosed with disorders that affect their social interaction and/or communication. Yakabi will be in Chico for both an artist reception for the exhibit (May 2, 6 p.m., 2nd-floor Public Space in the BMU) as well as a special talk with his mother and Toku (Tuesday, April 30, 5 p.m., in Ayres 120).

Yakabi began making art at the age of 4, although it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with autism that he began to flourish. The fact that he even was diagnosed at all was a miracle. Toku says it’s only within the last decade that cases of autism were effectively being diagnosed in Japan.

“At the time no one knew why he didn’t socialize,” she said. “Hiroshi and his mother are very lucky.”

It was during his fifth-grade year that Yakabi moved to a special-education program where his art teacher would become a huge inspiration on the young artist. He’s also been strongly influenced by a fellow artistic resident of the island, renowned Japanese painter Tanaka Isson, who spent much of his life in poverty until finally being discovered after World War II. Isson moved to Amami Oshima in the late 1950s, and much of his work—which captured the exotic plant- and bird-life of the island—resides in an entire museum dedicated to the artist.

Like Isson, Yakabi has taken inspiration from the unique surroundings of the island. He’s worked in several mediums, including pen and acrylic, but in recent years, he’s gravitated toward computer graphics. One of his most striking pieces, “Universe,” depicts a silhouette of modest houses and palm trees, backed by a blue-hued sky. Above is an explosion of colors in the form of a rainbow, celestial bodies, and even flowers. Birds and flowers are the common theme in Yakabi’s work, all in vivid color.

While the exhibit is something for the viewer to behold, Quiet Artist–Talkative Artworks is as much about what art can do for these student artists, providing a means for connection for those who often have difficulty socializing with their peers. Included in the exhibit are the works of 20 students from Chico’s Rose Scott School, an open-structure private school that provides the same type of individualized learning opportunities Yakabi eventually received as a child in Japan.

Toku says Japan has come a long way in recent years. Autism has long been misunderstood in the country, and families have typically been blamed for any behavioral issues of their children (usually incorrectly attributed to “lack of education”).

In addition to Yakabi and his mother, a film crew will be coming to the States to document the trip. Toku says the United States, including Chico, has excelled in special education, and she hopes that the exhibit and its message will resonate all the way to Yakabi’s family’s home.

“We hope it will influence Japan to be more aware,” Toku said, adding, “[Hiroshi] has changed a lot over the last four or five years of showing his art. He’s popular locally [on his home island]—and hopefully all over Japan sometime soon.”