Her name may not sound stereotypically Japanese, but the activist/artist BuBu de la Madeleine was born in Osaka and presently lives in Nara. She studied Concept and Media Planning at Kyoto City University of Arts. A former member of Dumb Type, she has collaborated on performances and videos and also writes, in addition to painting as a solo artist. Through May 28 Ota Fine Arts in Roppongi is showing A Mermaid’s Territory—Flags and Internal Organs, BuBu's first solo exhibition at the gallery since 2006.
Dainty shades of blue and dream-like sketches of mermaids in an underwater world are imbued with profundity and sensitivity, especially in relation to the artist’s harsh struggles in life. BuBu has been a sex worker and advocate for people living with HIV and AIDS, as well as for sexual minorities and for health and human rights. She developed chronic psoriasis that caused skin dryness and peeling, which gave her the idea of creating art in the image of a mermaid that similarly molts its scales. BuBu envisions the surface of the mermaid’s body as a terrain on which villages and towns stand with various things living, breeding, invading, exploiting, and developing. The concept of a “mermaid’s territory” has been her ongoing project since 2004, after the death of her best friend. BuBu examines the mermaid’s existence—its resistance against turbulent waves and the world of the dead. While working as a caregiver, she gained awareness of the human body’s physical boundaries, which react to affection and defense at the same time. On a larger scale, the act of trespassing physical and personal boundaries extends to ethnic groups, genders, and hierarchies in the workplace. BuBu, therefore, relates the body of water to the mermaid’s fragile domain that protects itself from unwanted infiltration.
The artist also had her ovaries and uterus removed in 2020 due to cysts and fibroids. The surgery inflicted much physical pain, but BuBu was able to recuperate. She realized that the ovaries and the uterus were simply “colleagues” to other internal organs that worked together within her. This understanding is expressed in three versions of A Mermaid’s Territory—Flags and Internal Organs (2022). The central installation in the gallery is made from wire netting cotton gauze, recycled cloth, and kite strings. Inspired by her severe surgical experience, it is developed from her 2019 piece A Mermaid’s Territory and Shedding of Old Skin. In this work presented at Arts Maebashi in Gunma Prefecture, pieces of fabric that BuBu had worn for years and the costumes of drag queens represent the mermaid’s scales after molting. For BuBu, the internal and external boundaries of the body make up our physical territory and absorb memories of bodily experiences, just like the mermaid. Scales are shed and seem to transform into a line of flags that fly up to the sky, as depicted in “A Mermaid’s Territory—Parade” (2022).
While gazing at the gently painted mermaid images, one may ponder processes of self-regeneration amid life and death and their impacts on gender roles and procreation. The artist hopes to impart a message of revitalizing oneself to become a greater person, despite the hardships and complexities of life.