ROBERT VAN KOESVELD
// Robert is an Australia-based photographer with a strong interest in exploring synergies between observations, feelings and camera use, so that the images create a palpable, emotional engagement between the subject and the viewer. During many visits to Kyoto, Japan, Robert was able to capture the spirit of the geiko and maiko culture.
Prior to his photography career, Robert was a psychotherapist and educator for many years, and this influences his creative process as a photographer. In his exhibitions and performance-art installations he is most interested in exploring the liminal – the spaces between. This draws him towards aspects of the physical, personal and cultural worlds that seem to sit apart – outside of a specific place and time – and encompasses archetypes and the sacred. In addition to his work as an artist and photographer, he also leads photography tours to Japan and other Asian countries.
“This day will never come again and anyone who fails to eat and drink and taste and smell it will never have it offered to them again in all eternit … you must play your part and sing a song, one of your best.”
What draws you to art?
“I was very lucky to be exposed to a range of arts as a young person, as well as to an international perspective. Japan, of course, has long been a major influence on the painting traditions of the west and on the craft movement. I think my sense of the importance of deep cultural traditions meant that I embraced the opportunity to engage more fully in understanding and photographing the world of Geiko and Maiko. They occupy a special nexus embracing many strands of traditional Japanese music, dance, costume and other crafts along with important practices like tea ceremony and even ikebana. In many ways, tea ceremony and the concept of omotonashi is critical in beginning to understand this world.”
What impresses you most about the Geiko and Maiko culture?
“Maiko train for at least five years before some decide to become Geiko and continue on in the tradition. The quality of performance continues to rise over time because of the associated endless training and practice. My current work-in-progress aims to explore the threads of cultural continuity engendered by the ‘village’ of teachers and cultural custodians. Inside this, it is the work ethic of individuals living in this modern world that brings the unique sense of a timeless world.”
The jewels of cultural continuity are a form of immortality to be treasured. Omotenashi, the title we chose for this feature, means selfless, unobtrusive attention to a guest, for this is what geiko gracefully provide. In Kyoto, the traditional Japanese artists the West knows as “geisha” are referred to as geiko, and their apprentices are called maiko. In Robert´s photobook ‘Geiko & Maiko of Kyoto’, we learn that it takes many years and much discipline to become a fully trained geiko. In a way, the geiko is at once an artist and a work of art. She is skilled in the tea ceremony, playing traditional instruments such as the shamisen and dancing the physically demanding traditional geiko dances, as well as in polite conversation, and making a guest feel special. She is dressed in the finest silk kimonos and obis, and wears hairstyles that take hours to create with precious adornments (even if as a fully trained geiko she is allowed to use a wig and no longer has to sleep on a wooden pillow, the way the apprentice maiko have to). Geiko and maiko perform for guests in tatami rooms in special ochayas, tea houses that provide food, hospitality and performances for private guests. Nowadays you can also admire geiko and meiko performing at many cultural events in Kyoto.
Robert´s book explores the world of these artists and their supporting cultural ecosystem, both through portraits of individual geiko and maiko and through a look behind the scenes. It reveals the multi-layered, lived artistry that goes into “creating” a fully-formed geiko: from the process of applying the heavy make-up to hand-painting the glorious and very expensive kimonos, to the music teacher, to a chef who creates artful food creations for an ochaya. “Perhaps I am trying to capture the liminal facets of this cultural diamond,” says Robert.
Deep culture is more than a costume. It needs continuity and adaptation and a critical mass, so that the layers of ‘language’ are kept alive. This includes the actual language – the Kyoto dialect – alongside the other ‘languages’ of behaviour, artistry, architecture and, of course, many facets of costume.
Incidentally, the “Gei” in Geiko means art. You can see why.
Images may be cropped for layout. Click on the photos to see the full image.
ALL PHOTOS © ROBERT VAN KOESVELD
All information in this article is based on the background text in Robert´s book Geiko & Maiko of Kyoto. If you are curious about this essential part of Kyoto´s heritage, we highly recommend it.