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Photo by Joseph Ralph Fraia

Interview With Oscar Oiwa

By Kyoko Sato, August 9, 2023

To celebrate the launch of the magazine, we feature an interview with New York-based artist Oscar Oiwa by its editor-in-chief, Kyoko Sato, in this first issue. Oscar, born in Brazil to first-generation Japanese parents, currently spends his time in New York. In his late 50s, he remains eager to explore major projects worldwide. With his international background, he serves as a role model for artists based in New York, the most competitive city in the world, and offers valuable insights to younger artists arriving from abroad. As the pandemic abates, projects have resumed in full force. Oscar finds himself facing an overwhelming number of demands and projects, resulting in a scarcity of available works. His exceptional talent has earned him a place in the collections of renowned museums in Japan and Brazil, solidifying his position as a leader in the art world of both countries.

JAPAN CONTEMPORARIES: What is the secret to your survival and success in New York?


OSCAR OIWA: Over the years, I’ve seen people come from Japan on scholarship, and there are usually two things that catch them out; income and visas. You need a visa to be in the US. Need income. It is difficult if you don't have money because of the high cost of living. If you can clear those two, you can survive, but it is very difficult to clear both of them.

In my case, I started to apply for a green card six months after I came to Japan on a scholarship from the ACC (Asian Cultural Council) and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and it took me about two years to receive it in the third year. I was able to do that because I had some career. I was able to get it under the "O-1 Visa: Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement” because I had some newspaper articles and some solo exhibition history.


The income problem was solved because I had income from Brazil and Japan, although the cost of living was high and I had children, so I had to live in a proper place.

I didn't have a detailed plan, but I came here and worked hard. When my children were small, I had a lot to do at home and needed money, so my sleeping hours were short, about 6 hours.

JC: Oscar, you were born in São Paulo. When and why did your parents migrate to Brazil?

OO: I didn't really think about it that way. It was easy for me to go to Japan because I could speak the language and get a visa. So, I realized that I was a second-generation Japanese Brazilian. It didn't affect my production much, but the fact that I was able to meet and see people and create art because I was living in Japan was more significant.


JC: As a second-generation Japanese-Brazilian, how has that influenced your art-making?


OO: I didn't really think about it that way. It was easy for me to go to Japan because I could speak the language and get a visa. So, I realized that I was a second-generation Japanese Brazilian. It didn't affect my production much, but the fact that I was able to meet and see people and create art because I was living in Japan was more significant.

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Whale 1 & 2,1989, spray and oil on craft paper, 6.6 x 72ft. | 2 x 22 m each.

JC: You are working on a project related to Brazilian immigrants. Could you please tell us more about them?


In 2021, I researched the history of immigrants and painted pictures on the glass and pillars of buildings for the JICA Yokohama Renewal project. ("Traveling Around the World") In an ongoing project, the second largest animation production team in Brazil is working on a video based on the book "Nihonjin (the Japanese)," and they are creating an animation based on the scenery and colors of my old work. The story is about a child of the 3rd generation who asked questions to his grandfather, the 1st generation. It will take about another year to complete.

JC: You worked as an assistant at the São Paulo Biennale while studying architecture at university. Could you please share the story behind it?

I did assistants in 1985, 1987, and 1989. That is how I was exposed to the art world. I couldn't speak English well at the time, but I could speak Japanese, so I was exposed to Japanese art by carrying the work of Japanese artist Yoshishige Saito, doing on-site work for Tadashi Kawamata, and assisting Katsura Funakoshi.

JC: Was that what led you to become an artist rather than an architect?

OO:Not really. I had already started working as an artist since I was a student, submitting my work to art competitions and receiving awards. I assisted in three biennials, and I represented Brazil at the 21st São Paulo Biennale (1991)  presenting a work when I created when I was 23 years old. And that same year I went to Japan.

JC: You lived in Tokyo from 1991 to 2002. What was the turning point in your work during that time?

OO:I was making works at home, but I didn't know how to present it. I didn't go schools in Japan, and I didn't have any major connections. So, I began to exhibit my works in group shows and open call exhibitions in a modest way, and from there I was able to exhibit at small galleries and win awards in competitions. The first big job I had was a project called Fare Tachikawa Art for the development of the city, and the director of the project was Mr. Fram Kitagawa, who gave me a five-minute presentation opportunity and then contacted me a week later asking me to create public art (untitled, a work with 10 trilobites and paramecia on the sidewalk). It was 1994.


Urban Fossil, 1995, cast iron, bronze, 31x71 in. | 90 x 180 cm, 10 pieces, Fare Tachikawa, Tokyo

JC: Your work is now present in all major museums in Japan. When did Japanese museums start collecting your larger works? Could you also tell us about the first time a work of yours was acquired by a Japanese museum, including the specific artwork and the year it happened?

OO: At first it was the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art. I was invited to participate in a group exhibition, and the head of the curatorial department liked my work and purchased it. I was only 29 years old, and it was called "Asian Dragon" (1995), a large work measuring 5 meters. I was making large works from the beginning.


Asian Dragon, 1995, acrylic paint on plywood, 75 x 215 in. | 182 x 546 cm

JC: When did you start painting large mural-size works?  

OO:When I lived in Japan in my 20s, I had no money and was working in a small apartment of no more than 6 tatami mats. Even though it was small, I wanted to paint large pictures, so I painted 1-2 panels side by side, then connected them to the right or left side, and the first time I was able to see them all was when I exhibited them.

Another big event in Japan was being invited to the 2nd VOCA exhibition (1995) at the Ueno Royal Museum, sponsored by Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, where I received an Encouragement Prize. This was the first award I had ever received in the Japanese art industry.

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Aids Patient & Zero-sen Pilot, 1994, acrylic, coffee on plywood, 99x72 in. | 251x182cm each. 

JC: Are there any artists or cultures that have had a special influence on you?

OO:Not in particular, but when I was a teenager, I saw hundreds of artists at the São Paulo Biennial and helped install many of the exhibits, so I think that experience was a big influence on me.

JC: Your paintings are drawn from a bird's eye viewpoint, from above. Why?

OO:I studied architecture and saw urban development and cities from above in drawings, and now I see cities on Google Maps, but it was because I studied how cities around the world were born and built and how they came to be the way they are today.


JC: The effect of light falling on a large painting is very beautiful.  When did you start using that effect?

OO:About 1997, I was in London, England, for 10 months and visited various museums, and I started using oil paints. That is how I started to paint by turning my brush in oil. When I looked at European paintings, I noticed how artists were painting and how they were using their brushes. I noticed that some people used oil thinly, some used oil thickly, some used oil in layers, some painted in one shot, and the expression that could be achieved depended on how the brush was used. Now, I can tell how to paint with a quick glance.


JC: You created iconic Light Rabbit and Shadow Cat in 1998; tell us about them.

OO:Light Rabbit was born at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. One time I arrived at the airport in the evening, the light was horizontal and there were a lot of stray rabbits living on the runway, which happened to be full of rabbits because of the time and the time of day. When those rabbits jumped, they would suddenly light up, and I thought it was beautiful when the light hit the rabbits in the shadows. I was living in downtown Japan at the time, and at night I saw a lot of stray cats coming out of the shadows. That is how I came up with the idea of representing shadows and light.


Shadow Cat meet with Light Rabbit, 1998, oil on canvas, 90 x 88 in. | 227 x 222 cm 

JC: What made you decide to move to New York?

OO:I had lived in Tokyo for 11 years and was making a good living, but I was 36 years old and wanted to do something more with my life than just keep doing the same thing. The hard part at the time was that I was married, my oldest child was 3 years old, and my youngest was in my wife's belly. I got a scholarship, but then 911 happened and the towers collapsed, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to come, but I ended up coming to New York in June of the following year. When I arrived, things were normal. I ended up living there for a long time.


JC: It's interesting that you and I both arrived in New York around the same time. What are your thoughts on the experience of coming to New York and realizing that, despite being successful and renowned in Japan or Brazil, you are considered an ordinary and unknown person here?

OO:New York is stimulating because it attracts talent from all over the world, but it is not only art, but also finance, corporate manufacturers, and academics, not that it is good or bad, but the level of competition is high, so it is good for those who succeed, but it is also expensive, and it is a very difficult place to be from the middle class down. You have to have money to move up. Artists do different jobs for a living. But I am sure that every once in a while a star is born.

JC: What are your thoughts on the fact that you are able to sustain yourself solely through your art, without needing to engage in any other forms of work?

OO:I happened to have sprouted from seeds I planted in Brazil and Japan before coming to the U.S., and even though I am now in New York, I have had exhibitions in both countries, and money has come in from there. After more than 10 years, I had learned the language and the art of socializing, and I was able to enter the society.

JC: You exhibited at P•P•O•W, a renowned commercial gallery in New York, in 2007. It is a highly regarded gallery that currently represents Carolee Schneemann. Was it a solo exhibition?

OO:It was a solo show ("Fire Shop") exhibiting many paintings. The big commercial galleries have one exhibition and if works are sold a lot, it goes on again, and if works are not sold enough, they pick the next artist. It is not only me who has difficulty; an artist has to have many, many exhibitions to sell. Art galleries, in general, the bigger they are, the less they wait. It was good that I tried to exhibit because I thought P.P.O.W.’s clientele was different from New York's, but it didn't take root. Not only at P.P.O.W., but I have worked with many galleries, and they all have different ways of thinking. You can tell when you work with them, and sometimes galleries go out of business, so if they don't make a profit, they stop immediately. That is understandable, especially since art fairs and such cost a lot of money.

JC: In the "A Colossal World: Japanese Artists and New York, 1950s - Present" exhibition curated by me in 2018 at WhiteBox, NY, you contributed by creating a video clip and painting a mural on the facade. I was delighted to hear that you agreed to participate in the exhibition. Can you please elaborate on what factors influenced your decision to be a part of it?

OO:I was happy to participate, but overall, I'm always busy and have a lot to do, plus it takes a lot of time and energy, so I can't do everything. I liked the context of Japanese artists and New York. But there were too many artists in that exhibition. Kyoko was working too hard by yourself. It could be much less artists. (Laughs)

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Flower Pot, 2018, on facade of WhiteBox art center in Lower East Side of Manhattan. 

JC: Your piece Black & Light  at 2019 Cadillac House (NY) was impressive. What was the response? 


OO:I started that series of works in 2010, using a large space in Setouchi, Japan. That work appeared in media around the world and was picked up by European and American media. I also did a similar project at Japan House in São Paulo. São Paulo is a minor city, but it was picked up by China News and Canada's Discovery Channel, and the news spread around the world. An art office in New York saw the news and contacted me, and I was able to create a new work, "Black and Light”. Time Out and many other media outlets in New York City also carried the story, and many people came to see the work.

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Black And Light, 2019, marker pen drawing on immersive balloon, Cadillac House Gallery, New York.

JC: In the same year, your solo exhibition titled "Oscar Oiwa: Journey to the Light" at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, attracted 150,000 visitors. This is a remarkable number for a contemporary artist. Could you please share your impressions and thoughts on such a significant turnout?

OO:Before Kanazawa, I had a large solo exhibition "Oscar Oiwa: The Dreaming World" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo in 2007, which traveled to Fukushima and Takamatsu in 2008. Ten years later, I wanted to have another major exhibition in Japan. I made proposals to several museum curators, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa raised their hands. It took two years of preparation, and we were able to realize it in 2019. 10 years of work went into creating the contents of the exhibition, so it was not something that was done in a hurry, and we spent a lot of time and energy, which I think is why great number of people came to see it. Lucky for us, we were able to make it happen in the spring and summer of 2019 before the pandemic. I think the number of visitors would have been only a tenth if it had held during Coronavirus. 

JC: When I stand in front of your large paintings, I feel as if I am enraptured and entering a dream. Do you experience a similar dream-like state when you are creating these works?

OO: It is because a bit strange person is painting! (Laugh) Part of it is my personality and part of it is my technique as I do it. It takes time to paint one work, so naturally, there are times when I think about various things and paint automatically, times when I think about it properly, and sometimes there are days when I have no inspiration. But I'm in the studio from morning until evening, and there's a lot of work around, like organizing data, publicity, dealing with people, taking pictures, and so on. I'm always busy, so I come in around 8 or 8:30 and stay until about 6:30. At night I'm at home from 8:00 to 10:00 or 11:00 to email people and work. Recently, I've been coming to the studio on Saturdays as well. It's nice here (Queens) because it's spacious and quiet and I can have my own world.

JC: You have recently held solo exhibitions at NowHere in SoHo, all located in New York City. Tell me about the show.

OO: It was my second solo show at NowHere in Soho, held in June; I had a piece called “Zeus, the God of Olympia" (2019) that I showed at House of Culture of Japan in Paris in 2019, and it was shown as a special exhibit in the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo collection exhibition during the Tokyo Olympics and the pandemic. When I thought the next step was New York, I received an offer for a solo exhibition. I measured the venue and it would fit, so I decided to have an exhibition themed on the four cities where the Olympics were held: Paris, Rio, Tokyo, and New York.


Zeus, the god of Olympia, 2019, marker pen and charcoal on paper, 3 x 6.7 m | 9.8x 21.9 ft. each (3 pieces). Exhibited in the Japan Cultural Institute in Paris (2019) and MOT -Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art (2021)

In order for foreigners, including Japanese, to survive in New York, they need a visa and income. According to Oscar, it is difficult to clear both of these requirements, but once you do, you can survive. In order to do so, someone needs to have enough experience as an artist to satisfy the immigration authorities, and to raise funds from scholarships or earn from projects in the countries where they have been working.

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