Born in 1928, in Kochi, Japan, Toshiko Okanoue grew up in Tokyo. She began to make photo collages while she was studying fashion design and drawing in Bunka Gakuin in the early 1950s. When she first began working, she had very little art historical knowledge, and knew nothing of the Surrealist movement.
In post-war Japan, a shortage of goods and materials meant the country was flooded with commodities from foreign countries. Okanoue used fragments from Western fashion magazines such as Life, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, to create radical compositions combining body parts, animals and inanimate objects in dynamic arrangements. Although the component parts of her collages originated from Western sources, Okanoue herself regarded her technique of image making as deeply rooted in Japanese tradition. She thought of her works as a form of hari-e (‘hari’ meaning pasting and ‘e’ meaning a picture in Japanese), a traditional Japanese technique of making pictures by pasting small pieces of coloured paper onto pasteboard.
It was only in 1952, upon meeting the poet and artist Shuzo Takiguchi, that Okanoue found her own place in art history. Takiguchi was a leading figure of the Surrealist movement in Japan, and introduced Okanoue to the works of the famous Surrealist, Max Ernst, whose style had a decisive influence on her. During the subsequent six years, Okanoue produced over 100 works. Her collages remained idiosyncratic and dreamlike in their juxtaposition of contradictory imagery. In 1953 and 1956, she held solo exhibitions at Takemiya Gallery, Tokyo. However, as with many Japanese women of this era, her marriage in 1957 ended her artistic career.
Okanoue returned to her hometown of Kochi, where she now lives. She is married to the painter Fujino Kazutomo. Her work faded into obscurity and was overlooked for almost 40 years. However, it was rediscovered by the curator of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in the mid 1990s, and has since gained recognition for its contribution to the Japanese avant-garde. In 1996 her works was shown in Meguro Museum of Art, and has subsequently been collected by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.