The Senninbari Project workshop, Zou-no-Hana Terrace, July 2016. Photo: ArtsPeople
‘Senninbari’ – literally a 1,000-stitch belt – were amulets made by Japanese women during wartime for departing soldiers. Created as an act of devotion, it was believed the love and strength of the thousand women protected the wearer of the belt. Now the ‘senninbari’ – mostly forgotten or totally unknown by young Japanese women – are being given a new life through the work of Sydney artist Michelle Belgiorno.
Through The Senninbari Project, Belgiorno brings together Japanese and Australian women in an open-ended conversation exploring reconciliation and Australian-Japanese history. As a communal sewing project she hopes to explore women’s concerns for the future in both countries, and consider how enemies can become friends.
Not afraid to engage with sensitive topics, and comfortable working with themes often considered taboo, Belgiorno explains:
“The starting point for the project was to commemorate 75 years since three Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney Harbour. Today our two countries are great friends. I am curious to understand how that transition to friendship was achieved. Do acts of reconciliation, like returning submariner Matsuo’s ‘senninbari’ to his family, contribute to the friendship? Can women build mutual understanding and friendship through conversations about the past and stitching together? Sewing and conversation are something that women from all cultures have been doing since time immemorial.”
ArtsPeople recently worked with the artist to run two workshops in the Japanese port city of Yokohama at the Engawanoie Community Centre and Zou-no-Hana Terrace. Japanese women (and some men) of all ages gathered to add their stitches and stories to Belgiorno’s ‘senninbari’. Many participants had fascinating personal stories about the war, expressed with a solemn and quiet enthusiasm, mixed with a sad relief. Belgiorno’s workshops were met with gratitude – she had created the opportunity to talk about a topic that is rarely discussed socially. “No sewing skills are necessary, just an open mind and an open heart” said Belgiorno.
Now back in Sydney, Belgiorno will create a large sculptural installation comprised of 75 ‘senninbari’ sewn by both Australians and Japanese. The work will be shown as part of Mosman Art Gallery’s exhibition commemorating 75 years since the Japanese submarine attacks on Sydney Harbour.