Tsunaki Kuwashima is a unique breed among photographers. His intimate portraits of dogs, cocks and bulls―all used for fighting―capture the purity of life before the eruption of violence. Over the years, Kuwashima has followed the lives of the animals and their caretakers and the communities who still breed these indigenous creatures in small parts of Japan following the age-old tradition of animal fighting that dates back for centuries. The animals are revered and respected, and the fights are held under strict rules with honor rather than money at stake. As contradictory as this may sound, these fighting animals are in the majority of cases looked after with utmost pride and care as though they descend from a higher order.
While many humans including the Japanese condemn such cruel acts against animals and detest humans who derive pleasure from inflicting pain and suffering on sentient beings, Kuwashima confronts the issue head on by photographing some of the most intimate portraits of the battle-hardened animals. He uses his photography as an act of intervention. “I photograph them to record the tradition so that it may go extinct. My images are historic records so that people can abandon animal fighting practices knowing that its long history has been preserved safely in my images.” With these thoughts, he documents and preserves a tradition through his lens that to many has no place in contemporary [life/ways of thinking].
The focus of this exhibition is on the extraordinary rise and demise of one of the most successful fighting bulls, Fukuda Kiwamichi I (1995-2010). Considered to be the strongest in Tokunoshima island’s bull fighting history, Kiwamichi I’s glory is eternalised through Kuwashima’s lens. The bull was for many years the pride of Tokunoshima, a tiny island that sits some 500 km south of the southern tip of Japan that Kuwashima calls the ‘Bullfight Island’. The bull fighting tradition here and the surrounding Amami region has a history of some 400 years dating back to the time when the area was under the control of the powerful Satsuma clan. Tokunoshima in particular has been renowned for its strong bulls and the dedication and respect its people give to them.
Through a series of large-scale collotype prints, the images of Kiwamichi I in his prime fighting years and his later years long after leaving the ring, the transience of life and worldly successes are eternalized. The prints are the largest of their kind – each measuring 120 x 120 cm and together spanning five meters across – ever to be produced by Benrido Contemporary Collotype Atelier in Kyoto, an esteemed art print specialist. The result is a dynamic photographic installation.