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Mari Katayama
courtesy of Instagram/@marikatayama

How one artist used photography to come to terms with her disability

“One thing I know for sure is that beauty is not something good-looking or clean,” says Japanese artist Mari Katayama

Mari Katayama’s self-portraits usually depict her in the centre of painstakingly arranged objects, either in intimate bedroom spaces or in vast and awe-inspiring landscapes. The objects vary in each piece; however, specific motifs continuously pop up, in particular, crabs, paying homage amongst other things to her star sign (cancer). You will also see handmade pillow-like objects in the shape of limbs and mannequins. But regardless of where she is, or what she surrounds herself with, the main subject of her work is her, most notably her body. 

Well, that’s how you are made to feel anyway, but Mari explains her work is all about experiences. “It is not about the body itself, but more about the gap of the “experiences” throughout my body that I am interested in. Things such as memories,” she says.

Raised in Gunma Prefecture, an industrial area in Japan a few hours outside Tokyo, Katayama was born with tibial hemimelia – a rare disease that in Katayama’s case has prevented growth in the lower legs as well as causing a cleft left hand that resembles a crab’s pincers – hence the dual meaning underscoring the crab motifs. Katayama’s battle with this illness is something that inspired creativity in her at a young age and is something that still heavily influences her work today.

Spending most of her pre-educational years in hospital, it was only when she went to elementary school that her perceived differences set her apart. “It was the very first time I felt different or isolated,” she shares. Her disability meant that Katayama could not wear regular clothes like the other pupils at her school, which accentuated her differences. Encouraged by the women in her family to make her own clothes, DIY became a cornerstone in Katayama’s outlook on life. “[My mother] always taught me if anything is missing, I should be responsible for making them by myself,” she says. “I grew up in that kind of environment where the DIY mentality is treated as common sense.” And this shines through in her work, what with her heavy DIY aesthetic. Take You’re Mine #002, for example, where she makes a plaster cast mould of her body, then covers it in a hand-sewn patchwork leather ‘skin’, as well as fashioning a wig for the mannequin out of her own hair.

At nine years old Katayama had her legs amputated – a decision that enabled her to walk with a prosthetic leg which meant she could wear regular clothes. However, she was still bullied. Despite this, she started using her body as a canvas, painting tattoo-like designs on her prosthetics. Seeking solace in art and beginning to perceive it as a viable career, Mari won first place in the Gunma Biennale for Young Artists at the age of 16, catching the eye of Takashi Azumaya, a renowned art curator in Japan. Since this, Mari has gone on to win the Tokyo Marunouchi Grand Prize Art Award, participated in the Aichi Triennale, have two critically acclaimed retrospective shows, modelled and appeared in TV shows and dramas.

With a lot of her work taking cues and inspiration from art history, such as Botticelli’s Venus and John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, Mari’s work continuously scrutinises our traditional perceptions of beauty in romantic and nuanced ways. Mari’s conversation with the body through her art is beautifully apparent. But her intention is not to be beautiful, it is to show the body in all its purity, in its idiosyncratic deformations, and in its appealing rawness. “One thing I know for sure is that beauty is not something good-looking or clean,” she says. “I personally feel that anything that is alive is beautiful...I do not intend to create something beautiful in the first place.”