Japanese artist Hikari Shimoda paints a pretty picture in hope that viewers ultimately connect with the art’s darker themes. For example, her brightly colored visuals often include children, rainbows and stars on the same canvas as skulls, cold gazes and devilish horns. “Death and relief are the main themes for [my] new body of work,” says Shimoda of Memento Mori, a collection for which her “saviors” fight against “the destruction of the human race.” Shimoda’s artwork is clearly steeped in symbolism, and PRØHBTD spoke with her to learn more. 

Your characters have been described as symbols of hope and salvation, yet you often paint them with horns, which symbolize demons and devils in American culture. Is this an intentional contrast of symbolism, and does the contrast itself symbolize a specific idea?

In Japan, horns represent “oni,” a kind of ogre or trolls which are often seen as characters in folklore. This “oni” character derives from ancient indigenous beliefs rather than religion, which has formal dogma. In addition, there is a saying in Japan that everyone has an “oni” in their hearts. The word “oni” means something evil, scary, unknown, creepy or horrible—as well as European demons.

In my works, sometimes children’s characters have horns. Those horns represent their silent feelings that are ignored and oppressed by society. I also paint saviors, and the saviors in my works show figures of human beings, ourselves, who live in the chaos of this world. What I want to express with those horns is that all behavior of human beings make our own future.

On the topic of contrast, your work often interweaves high-concept art with cartoons, stickers and imagery that are often associated with childhood. In what ways do the different looks elevate each other artistically?

I don’t have any idea of what art should be at all. Nor do I have any rules for my art. All I do is pick up a motif and object that I think is appropriate for the context of a work. In this process, [creating] something that makes people feel uneasy, uncomfortable and strange is important. I want people to realize issues of the world by being interested in the strangeness of those two or more different, contradictory things—existing at the same time over one canvas. I’m always picking up motifs, not just to make the work look unique, but also to show the essence of things via combinations of contradicted objects.   

You seem to use cuteness as an artistic tool to communicate darker, deeper themes in a more comfortable visual context. In what ways does blending cute visuals and dark themes reflect what people generally experience in daily life?

We usually put eyes on what we like to look at. There are few people who like to see what they don’t want to look at. In addition, we like things that are understandable and reasonable for us. So I use cute pop objects to point people’s conscious towards what they always ignore and get rid of.

You named your latest series Children On The Edge. In what ways are the children interacting with the edge and the different meanings it can have?

I think that children are existing at kinds of boundaries. They are on the border between childhood and adulthood, struggling about values like sexuality and identity as they grow up. Childhood is an immature and ambiguous existence. Therefore, they have great potential to become anything they want, even if it is dangerous and evil. The word “edge” in the series title means something in-between. Children is a metaphor of existence at those boundaries, such as the border between human being and gods, boundaries between life and death, and I want to try to express the borderline of art as a philosophical challenge of my own.

The children in your artwork are often approaching adulthood. What does capturing that boundary between childhood and adulthood say about innocence and responsibility?  

I know that innocence and violence of children are an often-made controversial theme in art, but I don’t use children like that. I always pick those children characters as containers that I put my thoughts and feelings in. So I don’t choose children as my theme, but use their figures as a container or saucer of universal issues of our modern society.

You explore the juxtaposition of color and lush pop-culture visuals in ways that border on psychedelic. When people view your art, do you want them to feel as if they are on hallucinogens?

Yes, I like my art to be attractive in colors for viewers. Vivid and colorful images are sometimes look strong and even violent.For example, pink has an image of “cuteness,” but I try to shake up stereotypes and fixed ideas by evoking confusion with the aggressive images of cute colors.

You’ve said that philosophy is a major influence on your work. What would be examples of how your philosophical beliefs have evolved over the years as seen through your artwork?

I had some small influence from philosophy, to say the least. I came across Angel of History by Walter Benjamin when I studied, and I was amazed by his idea of eschatology, which can still explain today’s world enough even though it’s pointed out during the World War I era. Benjamin was inspired by a painting, Angelus Novus by Paul Klee, and wrote this book. Now I try to paint the angel that Klee and Benjamin wanted to depict on my own.

You studied at the Kyoto Saga University of Art, but cite manga and anime as major inspirations for your pieces. In what ways were you able to merge your education and inspirations?

Actually, I had not studied academic art in college. My major was contemporary, so I learned how to make art by building up concepts first. I can say that I haven’t been influenced by classical art. In addition, modern art is a kind of expression in which artists show their identities to raise questions to the world, and in that sense I expose my identity, which has had major influences from subcultures such as manga and cartoons. I always try to understand the essence or nature of things deeply when creating artworks rather than exploring aesthetic visuals. 

Was there a defining moment in your life that empowered you to take the direction you now pursue with your artwork?

I had a great shock in the Great East Japan Earthquake. I didn’t get any direct damage, but that made me realize that there are always many complicated layers or aspects existing at the same time in this world. I was safe in my house, but there were a lot of people who suffered from the earthquake—nuclear power which we believed essential and safe for our lives had turned into a thing to destroy our lives. I knew that story has been told before the earthquake, but with the shock of the earthquake, I really understood what that meant. At that time, I also understood the reason why I create artwork. I had created artwork to connect myself to the world before, but I realized that my artwork was also my voice to the world. This experience had given both myself and my art a big change, and I have been creating based on this since.

David Jenison (david@prohbtd.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.

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