Inspiration can strike where you least expect it. For Japanese artist Mayuka Yamamoto, an extensive tour of the dim, cobwebbed catacombs lurking beneath glittering French and Italian cities did the trick. “I remember initially feeling I was searching for something, but didn’t know what,” she says, alluding to the labyrinthine tunnels that snake their way through the underbelly of Paris, Rome, and many other ancient European cities.
At one point Mayuka found herself deep inside the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, a Sicilian tomb established in the 1500s for Capuchin friars. The gravesite became a popular resting place for wealthy citizens after 45 friars were found perfectly preserved, naturally mummified by the dry conditions in the cave. Nestled among the rich, holy, and famous citizens of Palermo, a mystery: 163 child-size mummies, dressed in fine clothes and clutching parting toys or trinkets. “I couldn’t help but imagine the parents of those children putting a brand new, beautiful dress on their deceased child, as was customary during this period,” Mayuka says. “For me, in that moment, ‘ephemeral existence’ was the most appropriate term for those children, and I knew I found the meaning I was searching for…my journey was over.”
Armed with an idea, Mayuka set to work on a new series of oil paintings. The result, Ephemeral Existence, captures the bittersweet nature of innocence gone too soon. With teddy bear neutrals and nursery pastels, Mayuka shakes the doom and gloom of the catacombs, embracing the mystery at the heart of her series: who were these children? Why did they die? Who will mourn for them now? They reappear as boys dressed in animal hoods who wear ambiguous expressions, painted on small canvases that are “large enough to look at, but still easy to hold, like a little child.”
Washed in a powdery patina, the “animal boys” in Mayuka’s paintings exude an aura of otherworldly calm that hides their true feelings, like the “living dolls” of the Capuchin Catacombs. Very little is known about the children entombed in the world-famous crypt, but their faces rise from below to haunt and beguile us in Mayuka Yamamoto’s new series.
Ephemeral Existence runs April 22 through May 27, 2023, at Corey Helford Gallery in downtown Los Angeles. Please visit the gallery’s website for more information.
“I couldn’t help but imagine the parents of those children putting a brand new, beautiful dress on their deceased child.” — Mayuka Yamamoto
Corey Helford Gallery: Website | Instagram
All photos published with permission of the artist(s).
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