Artist found relief from postnatal depression in her craft

Creative spirit: Hiromi Tango used memories, diaries, letters and works to create "Dust Storm".
Creative spirit: Hiromi Tango used memories, diaries, letters and works to create "Dust Storm". Photo: Hiromi Tango

Like many first-time mothers, Hiromi Tango believed the birth of her first child would bring joy and a sense of fulfilment to her life. However, sleepless nights caused by a baby who cried constantly and would not eat transformed an optimistic mother into a guilt-ridden monster.

‘‘The baby was more demanding than I expected,’’ Tango says. ‘‘She just didn’t sleep and was crying.’’

Tango had waited a long time to become a mother, yet was ashamed and angered by her inability to cope with newborn daughter Kimiyo.

Tango says she was immensely happy when her baby was sleeping or calm, but was shocked by what she perceived were her inadequacies as a mother.

‘‘It was a very confronting period,’’ she says. ‘‘I felt guilty because I should have been very happy and enjoyed being a mother, but I have to be honest: I didn’t enjoy it. I felt I was not good enough for this baby.’’

Adding to her woes, Tango developed carpal tunnel syndrome caused by obsessively practising her art of weaving and wrapping fabric into intricate soft sculptures, which left her unable to hold her baby.

Her fragile mental state, later diagnosed as postnatal depression, also led to the loss of friends.

In the midst of the emotional turmoil came an environmental catastrophe in the form of massive dust storms that engulfed Brisbane and Sydney in September 2009.

As a thick blanket of dust turned the sky orange, Tango ventured out into the unbreathable air wrapped in a tangle of colourful fabrics, threads and material, which she documented in her Insanity Magnet series of photographs and video.

Five years later, those images of Tango in an apocalyptic landscape form the basis of Dust Storm at the Australian Centre for Photography.

Tango says she cried when she first looked at the images from that turbulent period.

‘‘I needed to revisit that time because I had been hiding from it,’’ she says. ‘‘I couldn’t face it before now. It was too raw and psychologically it was making me sick.’’

An immersive installation, Dust Storm features photographs, video and Tango’s fabric sculptures into which she has woven letters, photos and diary entries. A sculpture constructed from photographic light boxes and a neon sign reading ‘‘New Memory’’ are also part of the work, which is drenched in yellow.

Tango chose the colour to evoke memories of the dust cloud, but she says ‘‘yellow is uplifting, it makes you feel happy’’.

ACP curator Claire Monneraye says the work invites viewers to consider the nature of memory and how past events are constantly reshaped and reassessed by our current state of mind.

‘‘She’s suggesting that emotion and pain and memories can’t be put aside,’’ Monneraye says. ‘‘But new memories can be created by reusing and rebuilding the past.’’

Kimiyo is now five years old and a big sister to Mikiyo, 2, but motherhood has not slowed Tango’s prolific art practice, which spans the country.

An exhibition of the artist’s neon signs and fabric sculptures, Promised, is currently showing at Sullivan + Strumpf in Sydney.

Last year, she was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia to create a room for students with intellectual disabilities to experience contemporary art. 

Conducting workshops with people who have experienced mental illness has long been a part of her art practice, which explores how art may help to heal.

Tango is keen to point out she is an artist, not a health professional, but she is adamant art helps build emotional resilience.

‘‘Art has helped me to recover from certain times when I was having difficulties and has helped me cope with memories and emotions,’’ she says.

‘‘I really enjoy art, but maybe more than that, if you have art in your life, it is easier to get through any difficult time.’’

Dust Storm is at the Australian Centre for Photography from May 31 to August 17. Hiromi Tango will give a talk at the centre on May 31.