Tomoyo Ihaya's On the Edge of Water strikes complex psychological, political, and spiritual chords
Tomoyo Ihaya’s seemingly simple imagery strikes complex psychological, political, and spiritual chords. Cooking pots and water jugs, fruit trees and flowing rivers, dogs, people, and hungry spirits caught in the cycle of life and death—all are depicted in the direct yet delicate style that is characteristic of this Vancouver-based artist. Her small show at Art Beatus features recent etchings, mixed-media drawings, and colour photographs, many of them subtly altered by collage.
Ihaya, who was born in Japan and earned a degree in German literature there before coming to Canada to study fine arts, seems to have found both her subject and herself in the culture and landscape of Ladakh, a sparsely populated region in far northern India. In the past few years, she has made seven prolonged visits to the area, which is sometimes known as “Little Tibet” because of its close cultural, linguistic, and religious ties with that country. A devotee of Tibetan Buddhism, Ihaya clearly identifies with the people who occupy this remote, beautiful, and harsh place.
Among Ihaya’s themes, enhanced by her travels through other parts of India as well as Mexico and Southeast Asia, are the everyday yet essential activities of gathering water and preparing food. Her prints, drawings, and photographs often depict heaps of ceramic pots and plastic water jugs, along with people gathered around primitive wells and cooking pits, struggling to sustain themselves.
Although juxtaposed with a modern-looking pump and a crowd of plastic water jugs, the ghostly figures in her mixed-media drawing Water Tanks suggest something of the economic disparities that exist between the privileged West, with its abundant resources, and the impoverished and often arid developing world. These figures also evoke a Buddhist theme, calling up the six realms of existence in the cycle of suffering in which the unenlightened are trapped.
A number of the figures in Ihaya’s recent work relate to friezes she encountered at a 14th-century Buddhist monastery near Leh, the largest town in Ladakh. Hungry ghosts recur in this show, standing in treetops or hovering around the periphery of daily life. With their empty, distended stomachs, their impossibly thin necks, and their incessant craving for food, they function as a timeless metaphor for human greed and compulsive overconsumption.
Emotional narratives are also threaded into Ihaya’s art. In Rivers Meet, two small figures, swimming in the confluence of two rivers, represent a troubled personal relationship. A much larger and more ambiguous figure is crouched within an oval enclosure that could be a womb, a tomb, or a fire pit. Water flows into the enclosure and mingles with this unnamed being’s tears.
As with burials in many ancient cultures around the world, the figure is accompanied by little dogs and containers of food and water, ensuring that the basic needs of this life are met in the next. Still, in other artworks here, ceramic vessels are smashed and plastic water bottles crushed—ominous markers of a dire future. It’s the combination of simplicity and complexity —the guileless chronicling of daily existence, and the investment of these images with layers of spiritual and cultural meaning—that marks Ihaya’s recent work.