‘Colors help heal my heart and mind’: Hiromi Tango, the artist who uses rainbows to brighten the world

fFrom her studio in Tweed Heads, in the Northern River Region of New South Wales, artist Hiromi Tango has become known for creating rainbow art to promote her and others’ mental health. But for the two years leading up to the pandemic, she wore only white: Her way of mourning humanity’s environmental impact is evidenced by the bleaching of reef corals.

The grief was also personal. Tango wanted to metaphorically “purify” her spirituality, genetics and memory. So she covered herself with white house paint for Bleached Genes, a photo series that was “based on the fact that my father was bedridden and demented, and sometimes he didn’t realize who I am”.

When we speak, the 46-year-old Japanese-born artist is in Hobart to unveil her new work Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow: A vibrant playground and meditation space in a graffiti-painted warehouse in Hobart, as part of the Dark Mofo festival. The human-sized rainbow panels, platforms, and mouse wheels were painted and crafted by freelance artists and craftsmen on Apple Island; they are spread across multiple rooms amid projections of rotating rainbow spirals. It’s an Instagram-ready space for immersive selfies; at its peak so far there was a one hour queue outside to get in.

Hiromi Tango's Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow, at Dark Mofo 2022 Tasmania.  Image Courtesy of the artist and Dark Mofo 2022, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Tango greets visitors at Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow, at Dark Mofo 2022. Photo: Rosie Hastie

In a 2021 TEDx talkTango coined the word “brainbow,” a portmanteau of brain and rainbow, telling her audience that when a rainbow occurs, “you might see other people who are also fascinated and look at the sky… We feel so lucky that we see the rainbows, that makes us so happy.”

On the morning of our interview, I tested positive for Covid-19 and was locked up in a hotel room in Hobart for a week. That same morning I saw a large rainbow over kunanyi/Mount Wellington and sent a photo to Tango, who replied with a fit of heart and rainbow emojis. “I sent you healing energy and rainbow energy…so…no coincidence!” she writes.

Tango grew up in a strict conservative Buddhist family under the misty mountains on the Japanese island of Shikoku, then only accessible by boat from the mainland. Women from her community usually didn’t speak in front of men, she says. Over the years, she would develop anxiety and depression, which she attributes to a mix of nature and nurture.

“I grew up with silence,” Tango says, giving me a tour of Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow on her iPhone. “My mother and I communicated mainly using non-verbal language.”

Tango in her home studio in Tweed Heads.
‘I am very talkative in English. In Japanese, a little different’… Tango in her home studio in Tweed Heads. Photo: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

Tango developed a child stutter. When she was 13, a teacher suggested learning English, arguing that speaking and singing a new language could encourage her speech to flow. The advice seems to have worked.

Tango has an outgoing figure these days, wearing a yellow jacket, silver scarf and pleated skirt in vertical rainbow stripes, with each of her fingernails a different color. Although she usually has short hair, it became long during the pandemic and she now sits on top of her head, in a bun tied by one of her daughters. It is given to abundant and deeply sincere wishes of positive energy to others. “I’m very talkative in English,” she explains. “In Japanese, a little different.”

Materials in Hiromi Tango's Tweed Heads studio.
Materials in Tango’s studio. Photo: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

Why doesn’t she speak so much in her native language? “To begin with, we have no opportunities to begin: in Japan, less is more. My way of talking is not really culturally acceptable.”

Tango now speaks with her mother, Reiko, on the phone three times a day. “She was 74 when she really started talking,” laughs Tango. Her mother started talking after her father “verbally empowered her to make decisions,” prior to the decline in his cognitive abilities.

“My mother asked [of] I, ‘Hiromi, you are the voice of many, many people; you are the dream.’ My mom thinks I’m a rainbow. ‘Just be yourself – and keep telling the truth.’”

Tango met her partner, Australian artist Craig Walsh, when he came to do an artist residency at her university in Tokyo. He is ten years older than her. “He’s an extraordinary performer,” she says. “He is my mentor. I proposed to him for his art. I fell in love with his art. I said to him, ‘I would do anything for your art’.”

When Tango was 21, the couple moved to Australia and now have two daughters, Kimiyo, 13, and Mikiyo, 11. Tango and Walsh’s first formal art collaboration, which began in 2010, was House, during which they toured regional cities for two years filming people from different cultures sharing their personal histories. Tango encouraged participants to get together and sew clothes by hand, exploring the themes of social connection and mental health that she would come back to again and again.

Tango’s journey to mental healing – in her art and in her life – began with the Canadian psychiatrist dr. Norman Doidge‘s 2007 bestselling book The Brain That Changes Itself, which claims that the brain can recalibrate and change connections in response to new information, in what’s known as neuroplasticity. “That book was really mind-boggling,” she says.

Hiromi Tango performs in her installation entitled Red Room, at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair in 2017.
Tango will perform in her installation entitled Red Room, at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair in 2017. Photo: William West/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, she began collaborating with another neuroscientist, Dr Emma Burrows of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, on a public performance inspired by Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market at night: tentacles of material suspended over a stall. Writing about the project from a neuroscience perspective, Burrows claimed that “a brain is basically a garden, and what we put into it nourishes it” — an idea central to Tango’s art.

Tango And Burrows Team Up Again And Reveal Wheel for the Science Gallery Melbourne as part of the mental exhibition in early 2022, encouraging people to run in a rainbow human mouse wheel, with sensors to measure activity. The idea is “exercise as mood medicine”, encouraging people to exercise through novelty; the data generated will be analyzed to study how people interact with the wheel. (The Dark Mofo exhibit features two rainbow wheels of human mice.)

A mouse wheel in Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow, in Dark Mofo 2022.
A Tango mouse wheel in Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow at Dark Mofo. Photo: Rosie Hastie

The partnership led Burrows to: to write: “Rainbows are rare, and our brains are geared to pay attention to the rare,” thanks to a mechanism that warns us of danger. But rarity can also be enjoyable, Burrows says: “I think there’s something really beautiful about a dark gray sky suddenly transformed by light.”

So, can the rarity of rainbows positively affect our mood, as Tango suggests? “It really depends on your perspective,” Burrows says. “We are more or less driven by things that make us feel good… we like food, we like warmth, we like connection, we like human touch. We love novelties. Many people seek out new things because it makes us feel good. So yes, I think there would be a solid link between [seeing] the only rainbow at Dark Mofoand feel good.”

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Rainbows certainly brought joy to Tango during the pandemic, living by the northern rivers. “I had never seen so many perfect double rainbows, broken with the water, with the calm day,” she says. “Colors help heal my heart and mind, and maybe those beautiful colors will allow people to connect too. That’s my wish.”

Tango’s next job is designing sets and costumes for Dancenorth’s new show wayfinder, for shows in Townsville in late June and the Brisbane Festival in September. Does she dance herself? “Always!” she proclaims. “I’ll dance for you.”

Tango’s nanny, with a clipboard in the air, tells her “we really have to go”; more interviews await. But Tango is already gaining speed as she runs to her rainbow circle podium. She rotates her hips and alternately moves each bent arm up and down, free and happy in the moment.

  • Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow and Dark Mofo will continue through June 22. Mentally at the Melbourne Science Gallery runs until June 18, before traveling to Singapore. Steve Dow traveled to Hobart as a guest of the Museum of Old and New art (MONA).

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