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

FFrom her studio in Tweed Heads, in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, artist Hiromi Tango has become famous for her rainbow creations aimed at improving her mental health and that of others. Yet for the two years leading up to the pandemic, she wore only white: her way of mourning humanity’s environmental impact, evidenced by the bleaching of reef corals.

Grieving was also personal. Tango metaphorically wanted to “cleanse” his spirituality, his genetics and his memory. So she covered herself with White paint for Bleached Genes, a photographic series that was “based on my dad being bedridden and suffering from dementia, and him not realizing who I am sometimes”.

As we speak, the 46-year-old Japanese-born artist is in Hobart to unveil her new work Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow: a bustling playground and meditation space inside a Hobart graffiti warehouse, part of the Dark Mofo festival. The rainbow panels, platforms, and human-sized mouse wheels were painted and crafted by independent Apple Island artists and artisans; they are scattered in several rooms amid projections of spinning rainbow spirals. It’s an Instagram-ready space for immersive selfies; at its peak so far there has been an hour long queue outside to get in.

Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow by Hiromi Tango, at Dark Mofo 2022 in Tasmania.  Image courtesy of the artist and Dark Mofo 2022, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Tango welcomes visitors to Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow at Dark Mofo 2022. Photography: Rosie Hastie

In a 2021 TEDx ConferenceTango coined the word “brainbow”, a portmanteau of brains and rainbows, and tells his audience that when a rainbow happens, “you can see that other people are also fascinated and look at the sky… We feel so lucky that we see the rainbows, it makes us so happy.

The morning of our interview, I tested positive for Covid-19, and was confined to a hotel room in Hobart for a week. That same morning, I saw a big rainbow across kunanyi/Mount Wellington and sent a photo to Tango, who responded with a flurry of heart and rainbow emojis. “I was sending you healing energy and rainbow energy…so…no coincidence!” she writes.

Tango grew up in a strictly conservative Buddhist family under the misty mountains of the Japanese island of Shikoku, which was then only accessible by boat from the mainland. Women in her community generally did not speak in the presence of men, she said. 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, while showing me Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow on his iPhone. “My mother and I mainly communicated with non-verbal language.”

Tango in his home studio at Tweed Heads.
“I am very talkative in English. In Japanese, a little different’ … Tango in his home studio at Tweed Heads. Photography: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

Tango developed a childhood stutter. When she was 13, a teacher suggested she learn English, believing that speaking and singing a new language could boost her speech fluency. The advice seems to have worked.

Tango today has an outgoing figure, dressed in a yellow jacket, silver scarf and pleated skirt with vertical rainbow stripes, each of her fingernails painted a different color. Although she usually wears her hair short, it has grown long during the pandemic and 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 for others. “I am very talkative in English,” she says. “In Japanese, a little different.”

Materials in Hiromi Tango's Tweed Heads studio.
Materials in the Tango workshop. Photography: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

Why doesn’t she speak as much in her mother tongue? “We don’t have the opportunity to start: in Japan, less is more. My way of speaking is not really culturally acceptable.

Tango now speaks with his 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 allowed her to make decisions”, before her cognitive abilities declined.

“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 his partner, Australian artist Craig Walsh, when he came to do an artist residency at his university in Tokyo. He is a decade her senior. “He’s an extraordinary artist,” she says. “He’s my mentor. I proposed to him for his art. I fell in love with his art. I told him, ‘I’d 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 artistic collaboration, beginning in 2010, was House, in which they criss-cross regional cities for two years, filming individuals from diverse cultures sharing their personal stories. Tango encouraged attendees to come together and hand sew clothes, exploring themes of social connection and mental health that she would return to again and again.

Tango’s mental healing journey – in her art and in her life – began with a Canadian psychiatrist Doctor Norman DoidgeThe 2007 bestseller, The Brain That Changes Itself, which argues that the brain can recalibrate itself and alter connections in response to new information, in what is known as neuroplasticity. “This book was truly mind-blowing,” she says.

Hiromi Tango performs in her installation titled Red Room, at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair in 2017.
Tango performs in his installation titled Red Room, at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair in 2017. Photograph: William West/AFP/Getty Images

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

Tango and Burrows have teamed up again, unveiling Wheel for the Science Gallery Melbourne as part of the Mental exhibit in early 2022, in which humans are encouraged to race in a rainbow human mouse wheel, complete 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 humans interact with the wheel. (The Dark Mofo exhibit includes two rainbow wheels of human mice.)

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

The collaboration prompted Burrows to write: “Rainbows are rare, and our brains are adapted to deal with the rare”, due to a mechanism that alerts us to danger. But scarcity can also be nice, Burrows tells me: “I think there’s something very beautiful about a dark gray sky suddenly transformed by light.”

So, can the rarity of rainbows positively influence our mood, as Tango suggests? “It really depends on your perspective,” Burrows says. “We’re more driven by things that make us feel good…we love food, we love warmth, we love connection, we love human touch. We love novelty. Many people seek out new things because it makes us feel good. So yes, I think there would be a strong connection between [seeing] the only rainbow dark mofoand feel good.

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Rainbows have certainly brought joy to Tango during the pandemic, living by the rivers of the north. “I had never seen so many perfect double rainbows, refracted with water, with the stillness of the day,” she says. “The colors help my heart and mind to heal, and maybe those beautiful colors also help people connect. It is my wish.

Tango’s next job is set and costume design for Dancenorth’s new show Guide, for shows in Townsville at the end of June and the Brisbane Festival in September. Does she dance herself? “All the time!” she proclaims. “I will dance for you.”

Tango’s keeper, holding a clipboard aloft, tells him “we really have to go”; further interviews are pending. But Tango is already picking up speed as she rushes to her rainbow 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 continue until June 22. Mental at Melbourne Science Gallery runs until June 18, before heading to Singapore. Steve Dow traveled to Hobart as a guest of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).

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