From Geisha to Diva opens at Audain Art Museum

New exhibit set for Oct. 22 to feature kimono of renowned Ichimaru

If you think you know everything about geishas, think again.

The Audain Art Museum’s newest exhibition From Geisha to Diva: The Kimono of Ichimaru opens on Oct. 22 and aims to reveal the complexities of geishas.

“These women were not one dimensional characters,” said the museum’s chief curator Darrin Martens. “There is a depth to these women and the role they played within Japanese society.”

That role, which has been sensationalized through stereotypes and Hollywood portrayals, was pivotal in Japanese culture from the late-1700s onwards.

They were not, despite movie depictions, prostitutes.

“(Being a geisha) was considered a profession,” said Martens, adding that many of the girls started their training very young. “On one level it was about entertainment because these women would have been highly trained in playing musical instruments as well as singing.”

Geishas also had to be masters of the art of conversation, and worldly in their knowledge of art and politics.

One geisha in particular rose to popularity in the early 1930s. Ichimaru trained hard and became the geisha renowned for her “nightingale-like” voice.

She was discovered by The Victor Recording company and recorded her first song in 1933. It became an instant hit and Ichimaru left the profession of geisha to become a performing diva, although she always performed in full geisha regalia.

Twenty of her kimono and one wig will be on display at the Audain Art Museum as part of the travelling collection from the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

The Audain Art Museum’s founders, Michael Audain and Yoshi Karasawa, funded the initial exhibit of the kimono at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Karasawa is long-friends with the executor of Ichimaru’s estate, Mrs. Suzuki.

An upside to this relationship is that Karasawa brought four extra kimono back with her from Japan last week, adding to the collection.

“This is something that brings a new dimension to this show,” said Martens.

The fine silken fabrics do more than garb the famous geisha; they tell a story.

“The kimono is an extension of the geisha herself,” said Martens. “Everything about (a geisha) was extremely purposeful.”

Some of the kimono in the collection reveal the boldness of Ichimaru’s style, others depict the sights around where she lived and worked. Still others exhibit extraordinary dyeing and hand-stitching techniques.

“Part of what people will be able to experience is they will be able to read some of these stories that are associated with these kimono and what stories that they do tell,” said Martens. “From an art historical standpoint these things are priceless,” he said, adding that many geisha spent an exorbitant amount of money on their kimono since it was a key part of their business.

Collectively, the kimono weaves an intimate understanding of who this impressive geisha was.

“It’s something very, very different that not a lot of people would have an opportunity to experience and see this type of work and this type of material,” said Martens. “I hope people learn that geisha are very complex.”

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