« Universal visual », the world of Geishas is surrounded by discursive and iconographic stereotypes. They are abundantly staged by foreign writers and photographers with the same unfortunate quirks. The difficulty is real: it’s a matter of finding an original but suitable path to discover them while taking seriously the veil of appearances generated by the specific aesthetics of their universe: the flowers, the night, the rituals.
To look at a Geisha is to face a perfect illusion. On the one hand, it fascinates any observer sitting in front of her; on the other hand, it conceals the rigorous training of the body and mind, the relentless hierarchy in which she must fit or the metamorphosis she learns and experiences every time she masks her face with powder of rice. She knows how to hide flaws, fatigue and doubts that await her in this complex and strenuous process. Behind sensual gestures to please, there is a woman and an initiatic journey to our human condition.
Nothing is easy. There are the animistic origins of the seasons which they reflect in their outfits and their propitiatory dances, the Kabuki theatre with its hieraticisms and surprising dynamics, the Noh theatre and its metaphysical recitations, the adornments on their headdresses for the ephemeral beauty of flowers and a sense of courteous art they distill in their interpersonal skills. They answer most request from the Municipality of Kyoto for public events, the tourism industry for shows and the many temples for the accomplishments of the rituals. From morning until evening, they dance, play the flute and drum, rehearse at theatre, go to singing classes, practice the tea ceremony. Then, when sun sets, the guests of the tea houses await, prepared to submit to the powerful mechanics of the Maiko ( 舞妓, a Geisha apprentices) and the Geiko (芸子, word used in Kyoto). In these evenings, the guests discuss, admire, laugh at the passing of time – and a lot at themselves. Far from clichés, these living creations represent an ideal of independence through the practice of Arts, inspiring both men and women who frequent the Okiya (tea house) of the five Geisha districts in Kyoto.
The Maiko are beyond the simplistic opposition between tradition and modernity. With the renewal of the gender issue as it arises in a terribly standardized patriarchal Japan, the geisha apprentice, the Maiko, appears as a feminine ideal that is freed from social expectations and at the forefront of modernity. This singular form of feminism is transmitted without naming itself within a society of women who have always wanted to master their destiny. The Maiko and the Geiko are looked at, admired and followed. From the oldest to the youngest, they invigorate without concession this legitimate need to exist beyond a classic contradiction: for themselves, with others. It is all these values that drive these genuine artists and that make the appearances and practices of ancient Japan coexist alongside the influence and spirit of independence of young 21st century women.
(Published by Bec en l’air Editions)
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* with the support of the Takemoto Okiya, the Kaburenjo Theatre of the Miyagawacho District, Nikon Belgium, SPES Foundation, the Embassy of Japan in Belgium and the Musée du Quai Branly