Tomo Mori is a Japanese-born and New York City-based fiber artist who has been focusing on two main bodies of work: wall based collage series and sculptural
installations . In both she is working with used materials like old clothes and linens, fabrics she keeps reusing and transforming into new forms. During this 2021 Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Tomo Mori shares what brought her to art making, what role her cultural background plays in her work, and what are some of her recurrent themes and processes.
Tell me a bit about yourself and what brought you to make art.
I was born in the countryside of Osaka, and my family moved to Tokyo when I was three. I started pursuing art at a very young age. At fifteen I was accepted into a high school specializing in fine art and music run by the city of Tokyo. As a teenager, I couldn’t properly explain my discomfort with the chronic sexism in Japanese society, but it was depressing to see it in my family, my schools, and in the lives of adults around me. I quietly did my own research and managed to gain admission to an art school in Atlanta. It may seem naive, but the first reason I chose Atlanta is because it’s where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, and his messages encouraged 18-year-old me to stand up tall as a non-white person and a girl. The second reason was economic — schools in major cities were just out of my reach. After graduation I started working as a graphic designer for a news/media organization. I was broken-hearted about not pursuing an art career, as though I had to say goodbye to the love of my life. But another one of my childhood dreams was to see the world, and working in the newsroom supporting top international journalists allowed me to experience the world through the newswire every day.
A turning point came with the death of my father. He had lived with a lot of anger and frustration about his own life, and this impacted me greatly. After he died, I realized it was time to rethink my plans going forward. I made the decision to repurpose this painful, generational emotional legacy as a point of illumination, to focus on beauty transformed by healing. With this new mindset, I gave myself 18 months to see if I could pursue an art career. I had no idea how and where to start, but through friends’ introductions I started to show my work in local exhibitions. Total strangers connected to the way my work operated on a subconscious level, tapping into deeper sensibilities. I started to develop some momentum as the Harlem artists community welcomed my work, and many doors started opening. Then in 2014, MTA Arts and Design granted me a permanent public art commission. It was a great boost to my belief that there are places where my work will be valued.
Your main media recently seems to be in fiber. One of your later series is made of ropes. You say that the ropes represent your desire for the world to feel more connected. Tell me more about what is the origin for this series of work – the idea and process behind it?
In addition to my fabric collage series on canvas, I was thinking of developing an installation series using discarded materials. I did not want to buy new materials that end up creating more trash at the end of the process. The rope series came to life from the powerless feeling I had observing the rise of hate crimes against Muslims and other minorities after the 2016 election. Ropes came to mind as a symbol of connection, perhaps because I grew up seeing Shimenawa everywhere in Japan. Shimenawa marks the sacred territories, or ties the human world to nature. Replicating Shintoism’s Shimenawa as an art form is not what I wanted to do, because I have some resistance to practicing any organized religion, and I’m not interested in focusing on individual symbols from single cultures. I’m more attracted to the universality of ropes. Ropes are ancient, multi-functional tools that belong to every culture, and no one exclusively owns them. They can be used to help human lives but also take them.
Without knowing what I was going to do with ropes, I kept weaving them with donated fabrics for the next three months, as if it was a ritual. To weave a rope, you twist one thread outwards as you bring the other side inward. Two opposing forces repeat to create strength. The process became meditative, like a prayer for a divided world to come together again. I’d say it is still very much an experimental phase. I have created symbolic objects like Eve, and more abstract forms just presenting what ropes naturally do — tangling, tying, or looping. Until my mother said a few years ago, “It’s interesting that you are making ropes like you are supposed to,” I had no clue my grandmother’s family owned a rope manufacturer till the end of the second world war. I knew they owned some kind of textile company but I didn’t know it was ropes. I can’t help feeling a strange fate.
Throughout your work I see some recurrent elements at play: fragmented geometric forming amorphic, linear or larger geometric shapes, moving across a void. They make me think of cosmic, microscopic, physical phenomena like light, or at times responses to rhythm in music. Are you drawing upon any of these and if so in what way? For example, in your series Sakura (2019).
The initial image often comes to my mind in the process of waking up. In the ten minutes of snoozing, I may still be resisting re-entering reality, and my mind composes an image. Since that is driven by my subconsciousness, I’m not sure why and what are creating these images, but I think it’s fragments of my memories and perhaps ancestral memories embedded in my DNA. Sakura Sanctuary is a place I’m often transported to. It’s a blurry view of cherry blossom trees, as if I’m seeing through tears in my eyes, but warm, sparkly and feeling safe. I do find people’s mind or memory is similar to the microcosm. Zooming in and out of cells is like time travel. Squares are the digital pixels, the current instrument used to record visual memories, and the system is embedded into my brain after 20+ years working as a graphic designer. But I’m not a computer or a software program. I use them freely with the emotion of the moment, yes, like music, and I dance to it.
It’s interesting that you mention the rhythm of music. Many musicians have made similar comments. I have no musical talent, (I was a piano school drop-out at the age of six), but since I was very young, I always internalized music. I often cried so hard listening to my parent’s records, mostly classical piano or orchestra, and in my 20s and 30s, I learned to respond to music through dancing, mainly the rhythm of the African diaspora. I spent some time of my life in Mali, Senegal, Cuba and Colombia to find the unknown reasons for the attraction. I never found the link, but the rhythm became more vivid in my senses by those journeys.
I would like to retract and still dwell on the void in your work. It seems to me as an important element. I am looking at No Regret (2018) – what is your take on void in this painting?
I have this sense of darkness dwelling in me, and it’s the reason I can paint what I paint. Working as a graphic designer in a newsroom for 11 years exposed me to a constant stream of news about conflict, suffering and inequity. Filtering through that for such a long period of time created an accumulation of challenging energy that I’ve redirected into my creative process.
The crevasse is a point of origin, out of which darkness and light emanates, so condensed and packed, and then there’s the void. The void is this empty landscape that is filled with infinite possibility — the endless eternal all, ready to be filled with whatever the viewer wants to fill it. The concept of the void is paradoxical, empty and full of emptiness, which is magnificent in its own way. My paintings begin with the void, moving through darkness in search of the light, like a recovery process. The found energy diffuses in pieces and illuminates over the void.
Tell me about your project in Governors Island.
This Life Given was a 360-degree indoor mural I worked on as a part of the 2019 summer program curated by West Harlem Art Fund. It’s a continuation of the mural I did for Columbia University in 2016, but I wanted to execute it in a more literal approach by imagining an actual person’s ancestry. The curly haired toddler in the kimono is my daughter, who has African, Asian, Caribbean, European, Native American and Middle Eastern ancestry within five generations. The mural was composed with five portraits of her great (great) grandmothers. My heart fills up to imagine their survival brought to this life.
Hundreds of small, mosaic-like fabric squares create a waterfall image vertically, progressing horizontally to symbolize time, and coming full circle. Each square is a life moment and you as a viewer are a time traveler. I used fabric patterns from all over the world. Clothes were made to protect our bodies, but patterns were created for pleasure and pride, to enrich our lives. While I was at the site, I had great conversations with visitors sharing where their grandparents and great parents came from. Those stories were all very different, but one thing they had in common — without our ancestors’ survival, none of us would be here today.
What are you working on in your studio these days?
I’m currently working on a 21-foot-wide painting for a hotel as a commission, a very blue, waterfall-like abstract piece. It’s a perfect project during this pandemic, focusing on the concept of detoxing and healing.
Also, a few months ago I started another series focusing on ports. When I worked on the first image Filling the Gap, I started to see geographical lines that reminded me of a port. The first port I tackled was Cartagena, Colombia, where I stayed for three weeks in 2010. I was shocked at how the city and its people are culturally so different from the capital city of Bogota. One day a man I had coffee with on a bench told me it’s because many people in Cartagena came from Panama. My mind was transported to imagine the migration of people and Panamanian independence from Colombia. After Cartagena and Panama, I worked on Himeji port in Japan, where my grandfather landed from a small island of Shodo-Shima to work for a factory. Was he excited? Was he sad? He passed away when my father was nine years old by an injury at the factory and poverty caused by the war. The emotion around his life journey is forever a mystery, but through the process of painting, I feel like I’m having a conversation with it.
The series will be several sets of two ports as a pair, places with some personal connections. For this, I’m designing and painting my own patterns instead of using printed pattern fabrics. I’m not a historian. These images start with the actual geographical lines, but the emotions created are all from my imagination, so I want to unleash my own reactions and subconscious memories instead of trying to explain the history from textbooks. It’s like feeling and dancing to foreign songs without understanding the lyrics.
All photos courtesy of the artist
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com