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Around 200 works by the Japanese-born painter Leiko Ikemura are currently on display in the East Asian Museum in Cologne. These are juxtaposed with 13 works by other Japanese and Chinese artists from the collection. This creates an interesting discourse.

Ikemura appears calm and reserved, short black hair, the gaze awake and interested. You can see her profession in her eyes. She was born in 1951 in post-war Japan, but for a long time she withdrew from Japanese art and culture. At first, this seems unusual, but if you take a closer look at her work, everything makes sense. Her work is round. “When I work, my identity disappears. I could also be a cat there,” Ikemura once said.

Ikemura’s way to Europe

Life in Japan after the Second World War was hard, the country was destroyed, people were worn down and art and culture were neglected. It was about rebuilding Japan. So Ikemura decided to turn to the western world. She studied Spanish literature in Osaka. In 1972 she went to Spain to deepen her studies. This was the first step towards Europe.

There she got to know her love for art better and began to sculpt parallel to her studies. Eventually she moved to painting. She studied from 1973 to 1978 at the art academy in Sevilla. Ikemura’s preference was American and European Modernism. She lived in Switzerland for a long time and was actively involved in the Zurich art scene of the 1980s. Further stations were Nuremberg, where she was employed as a city draughtswoman, and Berlin. There she was one of the first women to teach art at the University of the Arts. But Cologne is now the centre of her life.

In Japan, on the other hand, two styles developed independently of each other. At the end of the 19th century, painting influenced by the West, “yoga”, emerged, but could not be brought together with the traditional Japanese style of painting, “nihonga”. For a long time, Japan’s culture was distinct and developed its own art. Ikemura’s work is a link between the two; it picks up the Western style of painting and combines it with Japanese elements.

Ikemura’s Japanese gaze

Only in the current exhibition in the East Asian Museum did the artist realize that her Japanese roots are also recognizable in her work. Japanese poetry meets European daring and cool elegance. The current view of Ikemura stands in contrast to the conventional and traditional art of Asia. “I don’t see two different worlds, but intermediate worlds. In Japan there is only one word for writing and painting. In Germany you see it antagonistically. Where the words end, the pictures begin.”

Another exciting aspect that distinguishes this exhibition in particular. Ultimately, their origin cannot be denied. She mixes the West with the East and that’s what makes her work so original and exciting.