The Japan Art Association’s prestigious Praemium Imperiale, which recognizes the lifetime achievements of artists from all over the world, was awarded for the 31st time on Thursday, October 16.
Prince Hitachi graced the ceremony on behalf of the imperial family, while Pope Francis, former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy who is also an advisor to the Praemium Imperiale, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sent their congratulatory messages to the 2019 laureates.
The ceremony also paid tribute to former French president Jacques Chirac, a long-time international advisor for the Praemium Imperiale who died last September 26.
The 2019 Laureates
Five artists were honored during the night, beginning with South African painter William Kentridge. He is known for his artistic sense as well as for breaking conventions and experimenting with sound, animation, and theater.
Mona Hatoum, originally of Palestine but a resident of the U.K. since she was 13, won the award in the category of sculpture. She was praised for her unconventional art, where, in the words of international advisor Dini, “nothing is as it seems.”
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, who are based in the U.S., were declared laureates in the category of architecture for their thoughtful and beautiful yet practical designs.
In the category of music, the award went to Anne-Sophie Mutter, who plays a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin, and is considered — as ex-Italian Prime Minister Lamberto Dini put it — one of the greatest violinists of our time.
Finally, Japanese Kabuki actor Bando Tamasaburo won the prize in the category of theater and film. He was recognized for his legendary presentation of the female, or “onnagata,” role in kabuki theater and for his other artistic expressions.
The Young Artist Award went to the youth outreach program Démos by the Philarmonie Orchestra in Paris. The program focuses on disenfranchised children, introducing them to the world of music for free, lending instruments, and providing up to four hours of lessons a week for three years.
The Praemium Imperiale was started in 1988 by the Japan Art Association in honor of the late Prince Takamado, with the goal of promoting world peace through the arts.
Taking place in the handsome Meiji Memorial Hall in the Aoyama district of Tokyo on October 16, the laureates received a gold medal from Prince Hitachi to commemorate the occasion. The prize winners also received a testimonial letter from Prince Hitachi, and are set to receive ¥15 million JPY (c. $141,000 USD).
A Special Blessing From the Pope
Opening the ceremony before a full house, the head of the Japan Art Association, Hisashi Hieda, related the official greetings sent by Pope Francis. The Pope is set to visit Japan in November, the first official visit in 40 years.
The letter paid tribute to the Praemium Imperiale laureates, who, “by using the hidden power of sounds, words, colors and shapes, help us recognize the beauty that is in the world and point us to transcendent values.”
Hieda concluded his speech by thanking the many people involved, and the Pope himself. He reiterated “I am recognizing once more the incredible strength of art to go beyond borders and countries.”
Tribute to Former International Advisor Jacques Chirac
The ceremony also paid tribute to former French president Jacques Chirac, who was a long-time international advisor for the Praemium Imperiale. In particular, current French Praemium Imperiale international advisor and former French prime minister Jeanne Pierre Raffarin took the opportunity during the ceremony to remember Jacque Chirac’s passing on September 26. Raffarin chose to remember the former French president as a politician, but also as an assiduous lover of Japan:
As international advisor from France, I would like to pay tribute to one of my most illustrious predecessors, Jacques Chirac, who was inventive because he was cultured. He was faithful, as he was a lover of Japanese culture, and was engaged as he was a militant in the pursuit of art in the face of war. He loved being among you [Japanese].
Raffarin was minister under Chirac for 5 years, and prime minister for three.
A Call for Peace
The recurrent message many wanted to iterate during the awards ceremony, was that, in an increasingly angry world, the pursuit of the arts was more important than ever.
“Towards the threat [of wars] we build brotherhoods of culture, which is the only thing that can compensate for the tensions, as it is at the forefront for peace” said Raffarin towards the end of his speech.
International advisor from Germany and director of the Goethe-Institut Klaus-Dieter Lehmann also brought attention to art’s contribution in a world which has forgotten how to debate ideas:
Debates are increasingly short winded and just used to reinforce one’s point of view…. Art can provide emotional food for thought, point alternatives, and initiate processes, by which freedom can be made available and cultural exchange can strengthen the diversity of opinion and civil society.
Entering the New Reiwa Era
Not all messages during the ceremony reflected glumly on the past. Ultimately the recipients and those applauding their work so ought to take the impetus and push forward, which seemed especially appropriate given Japan entry into the new Reiwa era on May 1.
In a video message, international advisor and former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy conveyed her congratulations to the laureates and stressed the timeliness of the event:
As Japan ushers in the new era of the Reiwa period, it is most fitting that we celebrate the beautiful harmony created by some of the greatest artists of our time.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also echoed the sentiment to move forward in the new Reiwa Era.
Reiwa includes the meaning of culture coming into being and flourishing, when people bring their hearts and minds together in beautiful harmony…. This award recognizes you laureates who have moved people’s hearts and minds through your superb creative activities.
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Author: Arielle Busetto