Going Beyond Boundaries: A Conversation with Hitomi Kondo

Published: 21.04.2016
Hitomi Kondo Hitomi Kondo
Makiko Akiyama
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C.A.J. Gallery front.
C.A.J. Gallery front

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Each gallery has its own personality. And that personality is created by the director. As a standing example of traditional Japanese architecture, Gallery C.A.J. blends in as a part of Kyoto's old cityscape but stands out as an exhibition space. Director Hitomi Kondo says she built this space to leave a lasting impression on its visitors. Likewise, the works she curates carry this aesthetic through the venue. In this interview she shares her background, extensive activities and views on jewelry.

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Please tell me your background.
Hitomi: In graduate school I majored in children's literature but I liked to go to museums and even worked part time as a museum receptionist. Upon graduation, I married into a family of ceramic artists with a small museum that took on apprentices. I started to help with the business. My daily work involves curating, dealing with galleries and museums, ceramics-related tasks, and training apprentices. I still do all this while operating my own gallery. 

How did you learn about contemporary jewelry and start gallery C.A.J.?
Hitomi: I learned about jewelry in 2001 when my husband was dispatched to Edinburgh College of Art through an overseas training program of the Cultural Affairs Agency. I had the chance to visit exhibitions and learn jewelry myself during a summer course. Then, I came to wonder why such an interesting field is not known to the general public in Japan.
After returning to Japan, I received an unexpected request from an NPO to help launch a gallery. I suggested them to specialize in jewelry, which prompted me to run the gallery myself. Then, I became independent from the NPO and started gallery C.A.J.

C.A.J. Gallery inside

Which aspects of contemporary jewelry intrigued you?
Hitomi: Its wearability as a small sculpture laden with the artist's ideas, as well as its position between contemporary art and applied art are both interesting aspects of this field. As mentioned on my gallery’s website, for the wearer, contemporary jewelry is interesting because it tells your story as a small device, a kind of microcosm that encapsulates the history, culture, and thoughts of your current self.

You work to educate people outside the gallery. Can you talk about the details?
Hitomi: I had guest speakers present visual lectures on jewelry three times at cultural institutions and other locations. Before that, I organized lectures for young jewelers in smaller spaces. The artists talked about their works in front of a large audience including students from both the jewelry field and other fields. Also I published a leaflet called, “What is Contemporary Jewelry.” It will take a bit longer for the second issue…

What do you look for when selecting artists?  
Hitomi: Being able to find my own language about the work is critical for me – works that allows me to develop my own stories and redefine my existing thoughts. It is also important that the craftsmanship comes out on top if the work fails to stir up a story. For Japanese jewelers, I prioritize Japaneseness. These are important factors to consider.


Emiko Suo. Bracelet: Untitled, 2013. Brass, Copper, Ceramic coating, Stainless steel. Photo by: Tomas Svab

How many artists do you deal with now?
Hitomi: There are about 10 main artists and 20 additional artists to talk to when I organize an event outside the gallery or an experimental project. I occasionally display overseas artists. I think it is important for both the audience and artists to know the diversity of jewelry by comparing various works and seeing how they differ from Japanese artists.

It sounds like you are building a close relationship with limited number of artists.
Hitomi: Running a gallery alone while adopting a mother gallery system makes it very hard to work with a lot of artists. At the same time, I need more artists to fill requests for outside projects.

Are their opportunities for artists at home and overseas who become interested in working with you after reading this interview?  
Hitomi: Sure. However, not if their taste is completely different from mine. If possible, I would like interested artists to actually see the gallery, works, and me before deciding to work together. Otherwise, it might be difficult. I think other galleries are the same, unless they are a rental space. Artists should work with a gallery whose taste is in line with their own. In the past, if an artist didn’t match C.A.J., I introduced them to other galleries.

Is there any exhibition that left a strong impression on you?  
Hitomi: I believe “Kotonoha” (March 19-April 10), the latest solo show of Fumiko Tsubo, will stay impressive in the future. She is a pioneer jeweler in western Japan as well as an organizer of the ITAMI International Craft Exhibition. Although it exhibited no new pieces, I think it is a rare for a gallery to show not only the jewelry but also the background of the jewelry, including sculptures, texts and reference materials of a single artist. I feel this show was meaningful to both young artists and the general public. During the exhibit a phrase from The Analects crossed my mind –  “Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.” It means that high virtue and ceaseless effort will always bring you supporters. The show taught me how this happens in reality.

Speaking of Fumiko Tsubo, you deal with a lot of Japanese artists. Do you find common aspects or characteristics in them?
Hitomi: Art institutions in Japan didn’t teach how to develop a concept for your work until after WWII. Craft is a long-established market that Japan excels in. However, the market for modern art is practically nonexistent despite its popularity. Given the situation, it is inevitable that I present works that have a sense of craft. The way materials are treated, a discreet loveliness that urges the viewer to pick up the object, a receptive culture—these are the advantages of works by Japanese jewelers.

Fumiko Tsubo. Brooch: Untitled, 1982. Stainless steel. 7.2 x 7.2 x 0.8 cm. Photo by: Hitomi Kondo

I think ‘craft’ characterizes you, given your work as a gallery director and activity in the field. Do you think jewelry can learn something from other fields of crafts?
Hitomi: Jewelry is more open than other crafts so the latter should get rid of the stereotype that “jewelry is for women” and learn from the jewelry field. However, they have the same problems as jewelry and need to open up and to cross boundaries. Fine art would be a good partner. When it comes to how crafts and applied art relate to fine art, there is a hierarchy and relationships are parallel or one-sided. I wonder why this is? This year I plan to discuss jewelry with fine art galleries to learn more about this issue.

Kyoto is a city of traditional culture. Do you think this background affects the artists and customers?
Hitomi: Culturally speaking, Kyoto shares a very keen appreciation for objects. An object cannot simply be superficial. Artists and customers try to assess the craftsmanship, playfulness and skill of the maker. It is quite nerve-wracking. They look at every single aspect and angle the way you might examine the base of a tea bowl used for a tea ceremony. Also, people appreciate something new as much as something old. Being original is also important so maybe that’s why people create and appreciate works that stem from culture and technique, unique and interesting ideas, and new elements. 

C.A.J. Gallery inside

What does contemporary jewelry need for greater recognition?
Hitomi: Personally I think the field will spread if more artists go outside applied art to be recognized as more general art.
As for my gallery, since it specializes in jewelry, visitors are mostly from the same field or jewelry fans. While the exclusivity may work well, it is problem that the field is small and closed. That’s why when I organize educational exhibitions at the request of other institutions. At the same time, I don’t think it is necessarily good to head for a mass market.

What do you think is the problem of going to the mass market?
Hitomi: Most collectors of art and contemporary art jewelry want a unique piece. In addition, the value increases if the artist has a certain level of popularity. Collectors’ psychology is complex – the maker should not be completely unknown, but be popular to the extent that a viewer easily recognizes who made it. However, if everybody has identical pieces, the work begins to bear the quality of a product and its value as art is called into question.
An artist needs to be prolific to establish oneself as an artist. A limited edition of 100 pieces is not considered prolific. However, in the jewelry market, 100 pieces is too many. We need to draw a line between works that serve as a sort of name card and a real piece of art. Also, I wonder if the work can be still art if it is mass market… Each artist probably has their own opinion.

Fumiki Taguchi. Brooch: The Expression of White, 2013. Silver, rhodium coating. Photo by: Tomas Svab

Tell us about this year’s upcoming exhibitions and events.
Hitomi: Tenmanya department store in Fukuyama (Hiroshima), GALLERY TOGENDO in Sendai (Miyagi), and Ginza Mitsukoshi department store (Tokyo). There will be about four exhibitions at the gallery though the dates are not fixed. Likely we will do solo shows for Fumiki Taguchi and Akihiro Ikeyama. In addition, I am trying to provide an opportunity for craft and art artists and gallerists from Kyoto to gather and exchange ideas.
Thank you very much.

About Hitomi Kondo:

Founder/director of gallery C.A.J. Born in Sendai, Miyagi in Japan. Earned her Master’s in Children’s Literature at Shirayuri University. Launched gallery C.A.J. in Kyoko in 2006 to specialize in contemporary art. Organized over 50 solo/group shows and participated in Art Fair Kyoto in 2011 and Art Fair Tokyo in 2014. Regularly shows works in other cities in Japan such as Okayama and Tokyo.
URL: (Japanese only)
Editing: David Kracker

About the author

Makiko Akiyama
. Writer and translator. Born in 1979 in Osaka, Japan. In 2013 launched a newsletter for Japanese readers featuring translated articles about art jewelry. Contributing writer for klimt02, Current Obsession, Art Jewelry Forum, and Norwegian Crafts.