Visually impaired welcomed into art conversation in Japan

Kyodo News reprinted in Japan Today

TOKYO – Opportunities for blind or visually impaired people in Japan to appreciate art are on the rise thanks to the increased use of audio descriptions, tactile methods and simple human dialogue.

Whether a person is disabled or not, conversations among patrons and staff at museums across the country are helping art lovers gain a deeper understanding of the multitude of opinions concerning the works on display.

Last September around 20 people, including some with visual and hearing disabilities, gathered at the National Art Center in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, where a Southeast Asian art exhibition was being held.

A participant with full sight described a painting that created a “pastoral impression” despite including a depiction of a bombing. The leader of the group, who is blind, then asked “Which parts make you feel this way?”

“It’s the houses on stilts and animals,” the person answered. The painter is “probably expressing the daily life of war mixed with a feeling of serenity.”

A man in his 30s, who listened to the conversation with his eyes shut, said, “I was able to get an image with the words of others and found it possible to appreciate art without relying on my eyesight.”

“Listening to other people’s opinions helped me deepen my appreciation,” added a woman in her 20s.

The event was organized by a nonprofit organization that has held more than 100 similar programs since 2012 in cooperation with art museums across Japan.

“We would like to provide opportunities for blind people to know other people’s feelings through dialogues instead of giving one-sided explanations to them,” said Kenta Hayashi, head of the NPO.

But it is also important that the blind and those with low vision interpret pieces for themselves and not solely rely on explanations from museum staff, experts argue.

Mori Art Museum, also located in Roppongi, has held some 40 events to help the blind appreciate art, attracting around 500 participants, since 2003. In 2016, the museum incorporated audio descriptions for people with and without visual impairments.

When an event is held, staff will meet participants at nearby train stations and ascertain the degree of their disabilities to customize appropriate programs.

Participants exchange their thoughts and impressions about three or four pieces of art. Staff members then explain the pieces in detail so that participants can deepen their understanding while enjoying conversations.

Artists also participated in a program in mid-October last year, sharing their own explanations of the pieces they created.

A female participant, who has a congenital form of blindness, said, “I had nothing to do with art because I was born blind, but I could relate and enjoy the pieces by touching them.”

Sumika Takashima, a staff member at the Mori museum, said, “We will cooperate with artists to offer programs that enable many people to enjoy art in their daily life.”

Outside of Japan, there are several innovative ways in which art is becoming accessible to the visually impaired community.

3D printing of art, especially famous pieces, allows blind people and those with low vision to experience iconic works through touch. Other methods include incorporating Braille into visual art, extra-textured paintings, and tactile art and tactile tours customized for the blind.

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