‘Colours help my heart and mind to heal’: Hiromi Tango, the artist using rainbows to cheer up the world | Art

From her studio in Tweed Heads, in the New South Wales northern rivers region, artist Hiromi Tango has become well-known for making rainbow art to aid her mental health and that of others. Yet for the two years prior to the pandemic, she wore only white: her way of grieving humanity’s environmental impact, evidenced in reef coral bleaching.

The grievance was also personal. Tango wanted to metaphorically “cleanse” her spirituality, genetics and memory. So, she covered herself in white housepaint for Bleached Genes, a photographic series that was “based on my father being bedbound and going through dementia, and him not realizing who I am sometimes”.

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 inside a graffitied Hobart warehouse, as part of Dark Mofo festival. The rainbow panels, platforms and human-sized mouse wheels were painted and fabricated by freelance artists and craftspeople on the apple isle; they’re scattered in multiple rooms amid projections of rotating rainbow spirals. It is an Instagram-ready space for immersive selfies; at its peak so far, there has been an hour-long queue outside to enter.

Tango greets visitors at Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow, at Dark Mofo 2022. Photograph: Rosie Hastie

In a 2021 TEDx talk, Tango coined the word “brainbow”, a portmanteau of brain and rainbow, and tells her audience that when a rainbow occurs, “you may see other people are also fascinated and looking at the sky … We feel so lucky that we see the rainbows, it makes us so happy.”

On the morning of our interview, I tested positive to Covid-19, and was confined to a Hobart hotel room for a week. That same morning, I saw a large rainbow across kunanyi/Mount Wellington and sent a photo to Tango, who replied 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 beneath the misty mountains on the Japanese island of Shikoku, which was then only accessible from the mainland by boat. Women from her community did not usually speak in the presence 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, while giving me a tour of Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow on her iPhone. “My mother and myself mainly communicated with non-verbal language.”

Tango at her home studio in Tweed Heads.
‘I am very chatty in English. In Japanese, a bit different’ … Tango at her home studio in Tweed Heads. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

Tango developed a childhood stutter. When she was 13, a teacher suggested she learn English, reasoning that speaking and singing a new language might activate her speech to flow. The advice appears to have worked.

Tango today cuts an extroverted figure, wearing a yellow jacket, silver scarf and pleated skirt in vertical rainbow stripes, each of her fingernails painted a different colour. Although she usually sports short hair, it grew long during the pandemic and now sits on top of her head, in a bun tied by one of her daughters. She is given to plentiful and deeply sincere wishes of positive energy to others. “I am very chatty in English,” she declares. “In Japanese, a bit different.”

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

Why doesn’t she talk as much in her mother tongue? “We don’t have occasions to, to start with: 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,” Tango laughs. Her mother started speaking up after her father “verbally authorized her to make decisions”, prior to the decline in his cognitive abilities.

“My mother requested [of] me, ‘Hiromi, you are the voice of many, many people; you are the dream.’ My mother thinks I’m a rainbow. ‘Just be yourself – and keep talking 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 a decade her senior. “He is an extraordinary artist,” 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, beginning in 2010, was Home, in which they toured regional towns for two years , filming individuals from diverse cultures sharing their personal histories. Tango encouraged participants to gather together and hand-stitch clothes, exploring the themes of social connectedness and mental health that she would come back to again and again.

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

Hiromi Tango performs in her installation titled Red Room, at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair in 2017.
Tango performs in her 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 work inspired by Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market at night: tentacles of material suspended above 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”– an idea central to Tango’s art.

Tango and Burrows teamed up again, unveiling Wheel for the Science Gallery Melbourne as part of the Mental exhibition in early 2022, in which humans are encouraged to run in a rainbow human mouse wheel, with sensors to measure activity. The idea is “exercise as mood medicine”, encouraging people to work out through novelty; the data generated will be analyzed to study how humans interact with the wheel. (The Dark Mofo exhibition includes two human mouse rainbow wheels.)

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

The collaboration prompted Burrows to write: “Rainbows are rare, and our brains are attuned to attending to the rare”, due to a mechanism that alerts us to danger. But rarity can also prove pleasurable, Burrows tells me: “I think there’s something quite beautiful about a dark gray sky all of a sudden transformed by light.”

So, can the rarity of rainbows positively influence our mood, as Tango suggests? “It very much depends on your perspective,” says Burrows. “We’re pretty much driven by things that make us feel good … we love food, we love warmth, we love connection, we love human touch. We do love novelty. A lot of people seek out new things because it makes us feel good. So, yep, I think there would be a solid link between [seeing] the only rainbow at Dark Mofo, and feeling good.”

Sign up to receive Guardian Australia’s weekend culture and lifestyle email

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

Tango’s next work is designing set 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? “All the time!” she proclaims. “I will dance for you.”

Tango’s minder, holding an aloft clipboard, tells her “we really need to go”; more interviews are waiting. But Tango is already gathering velocity as she dashes to step up on to her rainbow circle podium. She swivels her hips and alternately moves each bent arm up and down, free and happy in the moment.

  • Rainbow Dream Moon Rainbow and Dark Mofo continues until June 22. Mental at the Science Gallery Melbourne runs until 18 June. Steve Dow traveled to Hobart as a guest of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA).