Athol Fugard at the 26th Praemium Imperiale Awards Ceremony

27 October 2014
©️ The Japan Art Association / The Sankei Shimbun

On Wednesday, October 15th, HIH Prince Hitachi, honorary patron of the Japan Art Association, presented the Praemium Imperiale Awards at a formal ceremony in Tokyo to this year’s Laureates; internationally renowned artists who have shown extraordinary achievements in the fields of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Music, and Theater/Film.

Among the five laureates was STIAS Fellow Athol Fugard who also gave a speech of thanks on behalf of the laureates in which he quoted from the Japanese author Daisetz Suzuki’s definition of Wabi, “To be poor, that is, not to be dependent on things wordly – wealth, power, and reputation – and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position: this is what essentially constitutes Wabi.”

Athol Fugard can be seen giving this presentation here and the full text is given below:


Message of Thanks at the 26th Praemium Imperiale Awards Ceremony

Athol Fugard

Your Imperial Highnesses, Prince and Princess Hitachi, Chairman of the Japan Arts Association, Excellencies, International Advisers, Distinguished Members of the Selection Committees, Ladies and Gentlemen, I have the honour, by reason of age of thanking you all on behalf of the other Laureates and myself for this highly prestigious Award. It is rightly regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious artistic awards, and to be the recipients of it this year is indeed humbling and challenging. Speaking as an 82 year old man, I know that the Award is not only for what lies behind us Laureates, but also a challenge for the years that still lie ahead. It is a reminder that our work is not yet done.

I know that all the recipients of this award, past, present and future, share a commitment to the fundamental belief at the core of The Praemium Imperiale, namely that in any society, old or new, prosperous or impoverished, troubled or at peace, the living arts play a vital role in shaping and sustaining that society. I know from personal experience that they can play an even more dramatic role than that; they can help bring about a radical change in that society. In the case of my own country, an amazing change occurred when it turned its back on its shameful history of violence, discrimination and rank injustice, and started its journey to a fledgeling democracy, an event that has rightly been labelled ‘The South African Miracle’. This was brought about not by one outstanding individual, political party or intervention by an outside country, it was the result of a broad front of pressures from outside and inside the country, not the least of which was the writing, the painting, the sculpting and the music of South African artists. Many of them, as is the case with artists all over the world, have paid very heavy prices for raising their voices in protest. It is for this reason that The Praemium Imperiale, an award that honors the creators in society, those of us whose orders are to, at all cost, make something beautiful from the raw stuff of living, is so vitally important and will continue to be so.

My conscience has demanded that I insert a very personal note before I end, and that is to acknowledge my truly profound debt to Japanese Culture. It was as a young twenty-one year old sailor that I first encountered this country. The old tramp steamer on which I was a sailor had loaded up a cargo of salt in Port Sudan and taken it to the port of Niigata. It was the year 1953 and Japan was still in the process of rebuilding itself after the ravages of a terrible war. Despite this, enough of the traditional culture was still intact for me to realize that I had encountered something that was going to have a profound influence on my life. Although I never returned to Japan after that visit, I have spent much of my adult life exploring this culture through books and films. Three encounters in particular stand out in my memory. The first, Kon Ichikawa’s, film, The Burmese Harp and then two books – Matsuo Basho‘s Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Zen and Japanese Culture by Daisetz Suzuki.

Suzuki’s greatest gift to me has been those two amazing words, Wabi and Sabi. They have been a guiding light in my life and writing. Tonight, I believe much can be gained from invoking Suzuki’s definition of Wabi, “To be poor, that is, not to be dependent on things wordly – wealth, power, and reputation – and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position: this is what essentially constitutes Wabi.” I believe, your Imperial Highness, Prince Hitachi, that all five of us Laureates honoured here tonight will leave Japan inspired by this occasion and energized for new work, but always remembering that no matter how high the accolade, to always look inwardly for strength to follow our own personal visions.

Thank you.


After the ceremony Athol Fugard returned to STIAS where he is currently working on the play The painted rocks at Revolver Creek which tells the story of South African outsider artist Nukain Mabusa.


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