Colouring Crises

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: August 2012

Originated in Europe, art therapy substitutes language and words with art and visuals in order to relieve one’s problems and trauma.


The faint, intermittent sound of distant ocean waves permeates the atmosphere as I write this. The beautiful ocean in indigo blue which encompasses all kinds of emotions, from the children who play in the sand building to castles in the sand and the eerie winds blowing over the sailor’s songs to dark goddess of death as she consumes everything on its way when provoked. Perhaps no other culture understands the intrepid nature of ocean better than the Japanese. Miki Wanibuchi, an artist by passion and profession, was 22 years old when she first tried to understand the power of Mother Nature. She was in Osaka, a city in the Kansai region of Japan. An intensely sensitive girl, she was always affected by the sufferings of people around her.

She went to visit the area a few years later- the devastated land of Kobe had a memorial park set up . The fury of indigo blue ocean had consumed in most of what could be called life. Wandering through a memorial, she came across an old man with his back turned towards her, talking to himself.

What was he saying? Perhaps sounds were unintelligible. But it was more of the bleak picture of age and memories trying to find peace with the loss that stunned her, as the deep yellow shades of the setting sun on the horizon whizzed past him. She painted him, complete with his despair at the wrath of the nature and the blue ocean in the background. It became her expression of the pain she felt, the pain at the spirit of her country being torn apart. She felt that the sea could observe human emotions and that sea has the power to absorb our feelings and emotions. “The sight of the old man’s back against the horizon made me feel that the sea can absorb our feelings and we can preserve our experiences in the sea”, she tells me in her soft melancholic tone. She works using acrylic paints. But unlike other artists, she adds a lot of water to her paintings. In fact, water overflows in her works.

Perhaps deep inside she feels the connection to water and needs the dynamicity of water in her paintings. As I ponder this, she says “When I use water with paint, I feel my worries and fears can be absorbed along with the paint on to the canvas.”

Japan is one of the most earthquake prone regions in the world. In comparison to earthquakes that have hit Haiti, New Zealand and Chili in the recent times, the Great East Japan earthquake last year was bigger and more destructive. Steff Gaulter, senior meteorologist at Al Jazeera explains that this is because of the location of Japan, which is situated on the joint of four different tectonic plates, the Pacific plate, Philippine plate, Eurasian plate and the North American plate.

Earthquakes, aftershocks and frequently accompanying Tsunami have played an integral role in the development of Japanese culture. In fact it can’t be ignored that one of the most innovative countries in the world was one that is constantly hit by natural disasters forcing them to rebuild and restart. One cannot but help wonder if it is this resilience to nature that has forced the Japanese people to explore the limits of science and technology.

The great east Japan earthquake in 2011 was placed as the seventh biggest earthquake in recorded history, and the fifth largest in Japan alone. Tragedies cause people to react in different ways. Sometimes violent, otherwise sublime. Often in line with the Freudian defence mechanisms, people fight a lone struggle to come to terms with loss. Loss of people, possessions, dignity or even the sense of security.

Miki’s expressions through paint are perhaps her powerful need to accept the reality of the disasters that have struck her nation. She feels strongly for the spirit of her nation; the spirit, that battles fervently against the forces of nature. “I used to consider nature as a friend, but after witnessing the devastating effects of nature, I was overwhelmed with a sudden sense of my insignificance in front of a massive phenomenon”, she says.

She created three paintings that expressed her fears during one of the most devastating earthquakes in the country. She showed them to me. Shades of earth and water overflowing the canvas. The dynamic nature of water in her paintings is unmistakable. It captivates and brings forth all the fears of helplessness in front of an obnoxious force. Interacting with her and learning about her art brings a broader picture to this issue. Art has had a significant part in societies and culture of the world. Fiety Meijer Degen, in her book Coping with Loss and Trauma through Art Therapy says that, “Through the ages, people from all cultures have given shape to what kept them occupied and the world around them with the help of art. As a result of this, even now we can often understand what was important to them. Art was and is also used in many healing rituals.”

Originated in Europe, art therapy substitutes language and words with art and visuals in order to relieve one’s problems and trauma. But as we see notice that the formal system developed in the Europe, one wonders if people like Miki intuited on the need for art in their lives. Perhaps it was natural at a point of catastrophe to turn to something like art as the most obvious outlet. There is perhaps a further need to be aware of the role of art in our daily lives, let alone its role as a medium of expression and relief. This could, in fact, serve as the medium of peace in today’s tumultuous times. Meanwhile, Miki continues her mission to present the horizon as her heart desires to. “Perhaps I should search for another way to present the horizon”, she says. I do not exactly understand what she means, not because presenting the horizon in a different light wouldn’t appeal to me, but more so because to me, the pain in her painting excruciates the audience as much as her.