Artist Satorua Aoyama stretches the limits of expression through embroidery

TOKYO – The photography book Where They Create: Japan by Paul Barbera offers insight into the environments and working processes of the most creative minds in Japan. Here, we meet embroidery artist Satorua Aoyama.

Born in 1973 in Tokyo, Aoyama graduated in textiles at Goldsmiths, University of London in 1998. After finishing his master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he returned to Tokyo where he is currently based. Aoyama uses old industrial sewing machines to explore and stretch the limits of what can be expressed through embroidery. From a distance his works look like photographs, prints or fine paintings, only when taking a closer look do the threads become visible, revealing his craftsmanship.


What made you study textiles in London? SA: I went to high school in London as my father had to go to the United Kingdom for work. I was more interested in a fine art course, but my teacher recommended that I pursue textiles. At Goldsmiths, the textile art course is not about designing textiles, but about creating art work using textiles as a material. It was founded with the intention of bringing females with needles and threads into the art world, which was previously predominantly a man’s domain. That legacy still had an impact on the course when I started there. There were very few guys. There is this preconception that embroidery is something a woman should do. If a man does embroidery, most people will raise an eyebrow.

How do you actually make your work? My embroidery work starts from researching images. An image can be taken from magazines, maps, photographs I’ve taken or something else. The subject can vary. I then trace the image over organdy fabric, which I sew with an old sewing machine from the 1940s. It used to belong to an old lady in England.

I suppose embroidery is only a medium to convey a message. When choosing the images, what are the topics you want to address? My interests are issues surrounding labour, discrepancy between the social status of men and women, the relationship between art and craft. In other words, issues that are intrinsic to a sewing machine or issues that the act of embroidery brings about.

Why do you use an industrial sewing machine to produce your rather crafty work? I am strongly influenced by Andy Warhol’s approach of using an industrial technique to create art, placing a machine between the artist and his work – which was at the time rather unheard of.

Why did you return to Japan? I lived in the United Kingdom for too long. It wasn’t a comfortable place to live anymore. Another reason is that the Mizuma Art Gallery in Tokyo started to represent my work.

What is your workshop space in Tokyo like? I live in the Oota area. There used to be many small factories here, some are still running today. The area has a feeling of both a garden and an industrial city, with a river running nearby.


Photo Josh Dickinson.

This is an extract from the book Where They Create: Japan which features the work of photographer Paul Barbera, this book documents the 32 Japanese creatives at work their studios. To read more and order your copy, go here.

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