SAKI & Bitches returns with Hana Machi an exhibition focusing on the lives of the Yujo of Imperial Japan

It’s been a while since popular London based street artist SAKI & Bitches has put on a solo exhibition in her adopted home city. The last time was in 2013. Turning her studio into a makeshift exhibition. That work introduced us to the Yujo, the Japanese sex workers of Imperial Japan whose lives, in this latest body of work, she seems to be ever more keen on exploring.

We’ve been working with SAKI to put together some of the words for the show. A kind of narrative to bring the work to life and to shine a light on the lives of the Yujo.


WHO WERE THE YUJO?

Plucked from their families at a young age, the Yujo were poor women often forced and even sold by their families to live lives of servitude. Their only means of survival to prostitute themselves, obeying the will of the brothel owner to whom they now belonged. Working to pay off the debt they owed. It was the cost of the purchase from their families in the first place. Accumulating over time as costs of board, food and clothing were added. It became a debt that would never be repaid.

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HANA MACHI – THE FLOWER TOWN

Hana Machi was the red light district or the ‘flower town’. A lovely name but with the darkest of meanings. The flowers were the Yujo and they would go there to be plucked. To sell the flowers would be to sell sex! Yoshiwara was the name of the area where SAKI’s Yujo would live and where the Hana Machi was based. A historical place, it sat on the outskirts of Edo, modern day Tokyo. The area itself, more of a prison. Enclosed on all sides the flowers would wait, their faces painted white, with only one way in and out.

The Yujo’s lives were often short.Their only means of escape either to be bought or to die within the Hana Machi. Their families long since abandoning thoughts that their daughters would ever return. Even death though would not be an outlet for some! Those who had broken the rules of the Yoshiwara might find their bodies dumped unceremoniously at the entrance to the infamous Jokanji temple. Known as the Nagekomi-Dera, it translates as the ‘Throw Away Temple’. Their lifeless bodies wrapped in cheap straw matting and given a name in death which would make their journey through the afterlife difficult.

THE LIFE OF THE OIRAN

A contrast to the life of the Yujo was the Oiran! The highest ranking Yujo they would have their choice of customer. Often not even permitting the customer to speak on the first meeting, the Oiran would herself exude grace and intelligence. She would be the highest ranking yet despite this would still not be permitted to leave the Hana Machi. Dignity being her most important asset and the key thing that she could own.

SAKI captures the Yujo and in particular the Oiran in their prime! Sensuous and using the only asset they have in order to survive a life of servitude. She sees them as strong women in a tough situation. She empathises with them and portrays women doing what it takes to survive.They are bold and alluring. Their beauty betraying a dark history, yet still they peer out, daring us to challenge them or for us to pass judgment.

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LINKS WITH THE YUJO OF TODAY

In the lives of the Yujo, SAKI sees parallels in the modern world. She makes links with the sex industry of today where women and indeed men still suffer from exploitation. She also speaks of  the connection that, in places around the world, women are still not free in their own body. Where people, just like the Yujo, try to strive for what might pass as a normal life in circumstances that they did not and nor would ever choose.

For SAKI, this exhibition is about supporting the Yujo of today whilst looking through the lens of the past. Her chosen charity, the ‘National Ugly Mugs’ (NUM) will receive a donation from the sales. Campaigning to end violence towards sex workers, it offers greater access to justice and protection for those who might well find themselves targeted by dangerous individuals on the streets.

A NEW BEGINNING

In Hana Machi, this new ‘flower town’ SAKI’s Yujo are given new life! They represent a celebration of the female form, beauty and empowerment. Behind her images sit the women of the past and the women of the future. They pay tribute to the sex workers of today and remember those of the past.

Showing paintings on wood, the randomness of its texture helps to give each Yujo a personality and character of her own. Finding beauty in its surface, the wood allows SAKI to connect with nature as well as with her own Japanese culture. Its randomness linking in with the environment in which it grew. Just like the Yujo, the wood would have no choice where it entered the world and the circumstances in which it would live within it.

Hana Machi the exhibition from SAKI & Bitches is showing at the Sway Gallery on Old Street from 13-28 September 2018. The words used in this post were written for the exhibition to tell the story of the Yujo and the Oiran. For previous posts about the work of SAKI & Bitches have a look at some of her street art from 2013 here. Also have a look at her first London show ‘The Orchid and the Wild Foxes‘ here.

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