Tomie Ohtake was born on 21 November 1913, in Kyoto, Japan, where she would go on to complete her studies. In 1936 she traveled to Brazil to visit one of her five brothers. When the Pacific War broke out she was prevented from returning to Japan and made a new life for herself in Brazil. She married and had two children, and would only begin to paint aged almost 40, on the encouragement of the Japanese artist Keiya Sugano.
Her career would really take off in her fifties, with several solo exhibitions and awards from almost all the Brazilian Art Salons. Over the course of her many years working as an artist, she was featured in 20 International Biennales (six in São Paulo, one of which was awarded the Itamaraty Prize, as well as in Venice, Tokyo, Havana, and Cuenca, to name but a few), had more than 120 solo exhibitions staged (in São Paulo and 20 other Brazilian capitals, as well as in New York, Washington DC, Miami, Tokyo, Rome, Milan and beyond), participated in almost 400 collective shows in Brazil and abroad, and won 28 awards.
Tomie is best known for her painting, printmaking and sculpture. She is also the author of more than 30 public artworks in several Brazilian cities, including São Paulo (Av. 23 de Maio, 1988; Anhangabaú, 1984; Cidade Universitária, 1994, 1997 and 1999; Auditório Ibirapuera, 2004; Auditório do Memorial da América Latina, 1988; Teatro Pedro II in Ribeirão Preto, 1996, among others), Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Brasilia, Araxá and Ipatinga – a rare feat for an artist in Brazil. In 2009–10, her sculptures traveled to the gardens of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo and to Okinawa, Japan. And in 2012 she was invited to create a public work for the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo’.
Ever willing to take on new challenges, Tomie also explored different mediums. She created the set for Madame Butterfly, first in 1983 for Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Municipal, and then again in 2008, for São Paulo’s. She was also regularly invited to create pieces for prizes and celebrations, such as that commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigration, in 2008. This resulted in the monumental sculptures now located in the city of Santos and at Guarulhos International Airport. Smaller pieces, such as the trophy for the São Paulo International Film Festival, a prize for Formula 1 which used rock from the pre-salt layer, posters, illustrations for books and other publications, medals, and awards for celebrated figures also form part of her wide-ranging output.
There are two books, 20 catalogues and eight films, one of which directed by Walter Salles Jr., dedicated to her work. As part of her 97th birthday celebrations, Instituto Tomie Ohtake staged an exhibition of some 25 large-scale paintings, created by Tomie in 2010, in which the artist explores the possibilities of the circle.
Her public standing led to Tomie becoming a kind of ambassador for arts and culture in Brazil: she was called upon to welcome great international figures, including Queen Elizabeth II, the Japanese Emperor, Empress and Prince, Kazuo Ohno, Pina Bausch, Yoko Ono, José Saramago, Robert Wilson, and many others.
In 2012 Tomie created a series of blue paintings that made evident her interest in self-renewal through a new type of brushstroke – with the brushstroke as form in itself – but maintained the movement and depth so singular to her work.
In 2013 Tomie Ohtake celebrated her 100th birthday, commemorated with 17 exhibitions across Brazil. Those held at the Institute were particularly noteworthy and included Gesto e Razão Geométrica (Gestures and Geometric Reason), curated by Paulo Herkenhoff and staged in the month of her centennial; and two exhibitions jointly curated by Agnaldo Farias and Paulo Miyada in February and August: Tomie Ohtake Correspondências (Tomie Ohtake Correspondences) and Influxo das Formas (Influx of Forms).
In December 2014 the filmmaker Tizuka Yamasaki premiered the documentary Tomie, which offers a delicate and affectionate portrayal of the artist’s universe. Intimate glimpses into Tomie’s life are intercut with interviews carried out with Paulo Herkenhoff, Agnaldo Farias and Miguel Chaia. Aged 100 to 101, Tomie painted around 30 new canvases, and kept working up until her death in February 2015.