The present work has been generously donated by the artist in support of The Future is Unwritten: Healing Arts Initiative. All proceeds will benefit the WHO Foundation, supporting the urgently needed mental health response to the Covid-19 pandemic through the applied use of arts in health-giving and recovery; and The Future is Unwritten’s Artist Response Fund, supporting artist-led projects that directly facilitate community healing and healthcare messaging in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Drawn in coloured oilstick on a found envelope, Empty Handed (2020) exemplifies Yoshitomo Nara’s playful, childlike imagination. Aagainst a sky-blue backdrop, a little girl is outlined in the artist’s distinctive cartoonish mode. She raises her hands in defensive stance, as if facing an off-screen opponent. Nara brings her to life with watchful, cat-like green eyes, shocking her white hair with bright strokes of yellow. The title ‘????’ (‘Toshukuken’) refers to the ‘empty-handed’ fighting style known as karate.
Nara’s art blends heartfelt nostalgia for the media that defined his youth in rural Japan—record-sleeves, comic books, and martial arts movies—with echoes of the luminous, graphic style of pre-Renaissance painters like Giotto and Piero Della Francesca. Less slick than some of his anime-inspired contemporaries, Nara displays a considered, retro sensibility; Empty Handed, transforming an envelope into an enchanted pictorial space, reflects his meditative focus on specific objects. ‘Of course, if you think back to the ’70s,’ he says, ‘information moved very differently … all you have is the music itself and you have the album cover, twelve inches square. I would just sit there, listen to the music, look at the art on the cover and I think I really developed my imagination through that’ (N. Hegert, ‘Interview with Yoshitomo Nara, ’Artslant, 18 September 2010).