Silwex House on Quaker Street just off from Brick Lane is not the sort of place one would normally expect to find any sort of art exhibition. A run down former warehouse it was built in the late Victorian era and acted as a stables for the workhorses that would have operated in the area. Now it houses a number of different workspaces including an area sometimes used by the artist commonly known as ‘Saki & Bitches‘.
“I don’t use it all the time” says Saki “it can be freezing” she points to the drafty skylight and I get her point. The building isn’t exactly insulated and I can imagine the central heating being of little comfort in the height of winter. Saki & Bitches is Japanese, from Tokyo she moved to London 4 years ago having also previously worked a year in New York as a make up artist. This show ‘The Orchid and the White Foxes’ is her second solo show yet despite that, I was excited to learn, this was her first interview.
Saki has no formal art background but a quick glance around the art on show tells me that she is an artist of exceptional scope. Able to turn her hand to many different styles and mediums she has on display works produced on glass, stencil, pencil sketch, wood and oil. She says, it’s just a case of trying out new things. Because of the lack of a formal art education she feels free to just try whatever she is interested in “everything is a trial” she says “it’s all an experiment”.
Her works are noticeable, she has become known for her buxom and overtly sexual cartoon style women. They’ve been popping up around the East End of late as she generates interest in preparation for the show. “I just really love drawing women” she says “I love the female form”. When she first moved to London it was the calling cards for local prostitutes propped up in telephone boxes that caught her interest. “I hadn’t seen anything like that before” she says “so I started collecting them and started to practice drawing them, I just love to draw these naked girls”. From those inauspicious beginnings the entity that would become ‘Saki and Bitches’ was born.
Now her work has evolved, honed from years of drawing and experimentation ‘The Orchid and the White Foxes’ represents a new facet to her work. A series of pencil drawings they depict the Yujo, Japanese prostitutes from the 16th and 17th Century in various states of repose prior to going to work. They were often poor women often forced or even sold by their parents into the life as a means of survival only to find that once there, they were totally at the command of the brothel owner. For Saki these were “strong women in a tough situation” and the sketches she has produced seem like a tribute to them. A case of keeping their memory alive, she captures them in their youth, the prime of what would notoriously be, an all too short life.
The name of the show is inspired by the festival held to commemorate the souls of dead Yujo. Their bodies often unclaimed once they died, the unfortunate women would be taken to the Jokanji temple to the north of the notorious Yoshiwara red-light district of Edo, the forerunner of modern day Tokyo. The body, wrapped in straw matting, would be dumped at the gates of the temple earning it a reputation as a Nagekomi-dera or ‘throw away temple’. The Orchid festival held at the temple commemorated the dead Yujo. “The Orchid was a sensual flower” explains Saki.
The Yoshiwara district of old Edo is also responsible for the White Foxes of the show. A square walled area, this was the place where the brothels would be and the Yujo would work and live. Saki explains, “On each corner of the square were shrines each with pair of white foxes… Japanese people believe that white foxes are a messenger from God”. Explaining the link between the two she adds “Jujo’s would put on white make up and when they did they would look like the white foxes”. The fox god was the guardian of the Yoshiwara district could it too have been looking out for the Yujo?
The show itself is unlike most. Hidden away on Quaker Street a sign on the door of Silwex House invites you to call a number in order for someone to let you in. Once inside you are guided to the studio with all the work inside, haphazardly arranged but there is so much of it and the quality is evident. Saki is a delightful host, eager to show visitors the art and to talk about the inspirations, in the short time I was there she had many visitors and managed to engage with them all. Her latest work, the pencil sketches, are pieces of real quality and beauty. She has evolved into yet another medium and the scope of what she could produce in the future is breathtaking.
Finally given the subject matter I ask what other women think about her work “I really don’t get many comments” she says “not even about the bondage stuff”. “Although because of what I draw many people do often think I’m a man” she laughs, and I suppose, we should just leave it at that!
Saki & Bitches was interviewed on 15th September 2013 at her studio in Silwex House on Quaker Street in Shoreditch. She was hosting her solo show ‘The Orchid and White Foxes’ there from 12th to 22nd September.
For more pictures from the show ‘The Orchid and White Foxes’ check out the gallery below
A number of other sources were also consulted in the writing of this article and these were:
Yoshiwara – The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan
Japan Times – A ride of the darker side of Tokyo’s History
Tokyo Photo Gallery – Jokanji Temple
Gina Collia Suzuki – The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan?
And for more Inspiring City links featuring Saki & Bitches try: