The 2020 Illustrators Exhibition of Bologna Children’s Book Fair opened at Tokyo’s Itabashi Art Museum on 22 August 2020. This year, the Exhibition was flanked by two special exhibitions designed to mark the Tokyo Paralympic Games scheduled for the summer of that year. This first leg of the itinerant exhibition was in fact the world premiere of the 2020 Illustrators Exhibition since the ‘in-person’ 2020 BCBF had been cancelled on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
A very special exhibition, “Beyond Sight” was a collection of carved wood tactile versions of 22 illustrations by five artists included in the 2020 Illustrators Exhibition. The translation and adaptation of the illustrations into tactile form was the work of the Education Department of Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni.
A second special exhibition, “Tactile Picture Books from Italy”, comprised a selection of 18 Italian picturebooks selected and produced by the Italian Federation of Institutes for the Blind.
This was the first time a picturebook exhibition in Japan had ever included a project for unsighted visitors. The event proved a great success right from the first leg of the travelling exhibition, arousing the interest of publishers and educators as well as blind and partially-sighted visitors, who were finally able to ‘see’ some of the Illustrators Exhibition with their hands. The weekly reservations to visit the tactile books made necessary by the strict public health measures were always fully booked out.
How the project came about
In order to commemorate the Tokyo Paralympic Games, the Japanese museums hosting the 2020 Illustrators Exhibition decided to include an appropriate exhibition project to accompany the main display.
The idea of having some of the works in the 2020 Illustrators Exhibition translated into tactile form first took shape on a visit by the Itabashi museum curators to the multisensory exhibition “Natura in tutti i sensi” (Nature in All Senses). Curated by Michela Tonelli and Antonella Veracchi, from the Art Laboratory of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, in partnership with publisher Topipittori, the exhibition included the translation onto white-wood tactile boards, or panels, of some of the illustrations in the books on show.
In addition, the tactile picturebooks of the Art Laboratory’s “Art Shelf” collection at Palaexpo triggered the idea of also having an exhibition of tactile books. Following a meeting with Pietro Vecchiarelli of Italy’s National Federation of Institutes for the Blind, the Itabashi Museum curators were eager to have an exhibition dedicated to Italian tactile picturebooks produced by the Federation. Learning about the Federation’s activities and its tactile picturebook competition “Tocca a Te!” - entered by many acclaimed artists and linked to the European project “Typhlo and Tactus” – was especially significant since tactile picturebook production in Japan has to rely largely on the activism of parents. Pietro Vecchiarelli was given the task of choosing the most artistic books to take to Japan. Two copies of each were ordered: one for the 2020 Illustrators Exhibition; the other, entirely translated into Japanese, and also in braille, for small group reading sessions. The Japanese adaptation had the valued assistance of Professor Shinji Miyasaka of Tsukuba University, a researcher specialized in sculpture as a form of tactile art for the unsighted.
Staging the exhibition at the Itabashi Art Museum
The tactile versions of the 22 illustrations were made by craft business Mamalbero - specialist in didactic objects in wood - under the supervision of Michela Tonelli and Antonella Veracchi. The tactile boards were mounted on wooden bookrests.
Legends in braille were placed under each tactile panel. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the braille descriptions could only be touched during visits booked in advance. The layout of the tactile boards varied with each hosting museum. In some cases, they were hung on the wall next to the original illustrations. The 18 tactile picturebooks were displayed open on tables under plexiglass. Each book was accompanied by an information sheet giving the title, name of the author, size and weight, technique used, a brief synopsis of the book’s content, and a short presentation of the artist. Most of the books on show had been entered for – some winning - the biennial “Tocca a Te!” competition organized by the Italian National Federation of Institutes for the Blind.
On-line audio-visual material
The resounding success of the online 2020 BCBF prompted the creation of an online version of the itinerant Illustrators Exhibition where visitors can view the illustrations selected, and watch a documentary on how the works were selected for the 2020 Illustrators Exhibition.
The “Beyond Sight” section has a video of two interviews, with consecutive translation into Japanese: one with Antonella and Michela describing how the illustrations were translated into tactile form, and how the tactile books in the Exhibition of Italian Tactile Picturebooks were made; the other with Pietro Vecchiarelli explaining the Italian Federation’s involvement in the production of tactile books and the selection criteria used.
All the wooden tactile versions of the artists selected - Andrea Antinori (Italy), Koichi Konatsu (Japan), Phoolan Matzak (Germany), Ambre Renault-Fauvre D’arcier (France), Kate Winter (United Kingdom) – can be viewed alongside the original illustrations. The Japanese versions of the tactile Italian picturebooks are also presented. Visitors can also enjoy a virtual walk-through of the exhibition at the Itabashi Art Museum.
The audio-visual material also includes a video by Palaexpo’s Art Laboratory on the tactile board project, showing how the boards were carved, and also capturing the reactions and comments of the unsighted project participants.
This material will be available online up till the end of Februrary 2021.
All the museums involved organized guided visits of the tactile books, which, on account of the pandemic, required advance booking on a weekly basis.
The tactile panels and tactile Italian picturebooks accompanying the Illustrators Exhibition at the Itabashi were consulted by both children’s publishing professionals and unsighted children and adults. Visitors included members of the Moko Moko Association of parents of unsighted children actively involved in producing a series of high-quality fabric tactile picturebooks.
The physical beauty of the tactile picturebooks, the wealth of subjects and the varying ways of conveying narrative using different materials greatly impressed the vast majority of visitors. The exhibitions underlined three factors in particular that will be important for the future of tactile picturebooks in Japan, i.e.
- not just parents and voluntary workers, but also professional artists should be involved in creating tactile picturebooks;
- the books are designed to be enjoyed not only by the unsighted but by everybody;
- they create and strengthen human relations.
Kiyoko Matsuoka noted how on entering the room exhibiting the tactile books, sighted visitors “gasped in awe at the beauty of the books”, their enthusiasm arousing the curiosity of the unsighted children.
The tactile picturebook the blind kids loved the most was Scufficchiando by bag designer Marilena Del Monte and Moira Diletti. Guided by the main character, an unsighted child, readers are encouraged to open the bag of every family member until they find a special message from his brother. Appropriately designed in the form of a satchel and engaging the whole family, the book is a mischievous invitation to break the rule of never looking into other people’s bags - something that amused both children and adults.
Another very popular book was Ombra (Shadow) by Michela Tonelli and Antonella Veracchi, winner of the Educational Book Award at the third edition of the “Tocca a Te!” competition, now available as part of the Federation’s Tocca a Te! Collection. One blind adult visitor remarked that finally he had a better idea of what a shadow is.
Created by artist Daniele Piga, Un mare di cose (A Sea of Things), a fabric book with objects found on the sea shore, was praised by parents for its great aesthetic appeal. Storie sulle dita (Stories on Your Fingertips), a play book where the readers themselves have to make up the stories, was commended for its innovative idea and use of real objects. Created by educators Cristina Rivoir and Federica Bertagna, the book won the “Best Italian Book” Prize at the 2019 “Tocca a Te!” edition.
Io, tu e le mani (Me, You and Hands), a book by artist Marcella Basso, winner of the 2015 “Tocca a Te!” competition and Confini (Borders) by Michela Tonelli and Antonella Veracchi were two other books that intrigued visitors for the fact that both require two readers, one in front of the other, for the story to unfold. Mitsuko Iwata, the blind founder of the Fureai Bunko Braille Library, commented that the pocket-shaped pages of Io, tu e le mani place sighted and unsighted readers “on a par”. Confini explains the concept of borders and confines clearly and simply, giving young visitors living in a country with no shared borders a better grasp of the concept of frontier.
Picturebook expert, Prof. Yoshiaki Imai, commented especially on Marcella Basso’s book where all readers can experience “a reawakening of the senses”. Along with Confini by Michela and Antonella, it goes beyond the usual act of reading, “creating communication between two people through touch and words”. For illustrator Shinya Uesugi, the 18 books and tactile panels were a source of inspiration, prompting new ideas about how to develop picturebooks in general. An in-depth illustrated analysis of all the books in the Exhibition can be found on Facebook.
For Toshimi Yoshida, author and scholar of “peep-show” format picturebooks, it was heartening to witness the delight and satisfaction of the blind children as they realized they were handling books of great beauty thanks to the comments and words of encouragement from those around them. Her two favourite books were Ombra, whose ending recalls Peter Pan’s shadow, and Schufficchiando, a book literally “stuffed with family love”. Mayumi Oono, designer of the 2020 Illustrators Exhibition’s visual identity at the Itabashi Art Museum, commented that sighted people tend to ignore their other senses on account of the fact they are able to see.
The “Beyond Sight” tactile boards of the Illustrators Exhibition:
The reaction of blind visitors as they explored the tactile boards of selected works in the Illustrators Exhibition demonstrated clearly how effectively the contours of the carved wood were able to convey the story, force or gentleness of the lines on the original illustrations, capturing the sense of volume, marvel and mystery in each drawn image. Mitsuko Iwata, herself blind, commented that she had never before had so much fun at an art museum. The wooden tactile panels, she said, took blind visitors ”into a new world” - very different from the world she knew when reading books in braille or handling tactile books – “where monsters, animals and objects never before seen suddenly appear, bringing surprise after surprise as your fingers move forward”.
That story of La Grande Battaglia (The Great Battle) by Andrea Antinori transmitted the sense of driving rain. The arrival of the bus proved the most amusing scene, and the children had fun finding strange people and animals in the illustrations.
The softer, more gentle lines of Koichi Konatsu’s My Cute Little Bird contrasted significantly with those of Antinori. The static life of a homeless person in the works by Phoolan Matzak impressed young visitors, who had fun trying to discover recurrent elements like the dog and the shopping bag. The illustrations by Kate Winter from her book Lascaux (scheduled for publication by Random House) telling the story of the discovery of the Lascaux caves, were visitors’ favourites - perhaps recalling visits by the children to similar caves near Mount Fuji. The tactile boards were able to convey the sense of mystery when visiting caves testifying to ancient civilizations.
Ambre Renault-Faivre d’arcier’s tactile panels representing the chameleon’s different colours as different-height wooden circles led many illustrators to think about different ways of representing their own ideas.
Kozue Handa, a blind researcher and specialist in inclusive art-museum projects, visited the 2020 Illustrators Exhibition accompanied by Professor Shinji Miyasaka. In the video of her visit, Kozue comments that the things she had not been able to fully understand were definitely due to the diversity of style of the five artists, adding, however, that sometimes it was perhaps more intriguing not to understand absolutely everything, whether through sight or touch.
The success of the experiment convinced all the host museums of the itinerant Illustrators Exhibition how important it was to continue projects of this kind. It was also seen that between 20 – 25 tactile boards were an appropriate number for a visit of about one and a half hours. In addition, the pinewood used - and worked by craft business Mamalbero – proved both pleasing to the touch and easy to transport. It is hoped that each year a selection of Exhibition illustrations will be translated into tactile boards, gradually building a “Beyond Sight” collection of the Illustrators Exhibition.