Judo Blog: Mariangeles Soto-Diaz an Artist and a Judoka

Judo Blog: Mariangeles Soto-Diaz an Artist and a Judoka
On October 1, 2022 I got to see the debut of Mariangeles Soto-Diaz: Gentle Prowess Deliberations a socially engaged artist-in-residence project. This took place at the Grand Central Arts Center (GCAC) in Santa Ana, California.

Gentle Prowess Deliberations is the third project in a series in which the artist incorporate judo principles and elements into art objects, installations, performances and social practice with her judo community. This project focuses on ju, or gentle, one of the core concepts of judo. The work also grapples with the ongoing reality of violence including the violence that has led to over six million people leaving the artist’s native country of Venezuela in recent years.

How does one practice ju in a world shaped by oppressive violence?

For this project, the artist approaches ju in several ways. She asked judo colleagues and teachers from two different dojos, BunasawaKai and Sawtelle, to characterize ju in their own words, and then incorporated their answers into aspects of the performance and installation. She weaves into the performance movements from a choreographed judo form that centers around ju, called ju-no-kata, performed here by US National champions Lee Pasteris and Frederick Dagdagan. Soto-Diaz incorporates judo movements performed by two of her sensei, grand master Sensei Nori Bunasawa and Sensei Goya.

In addition to these four highly ranked master judokas, the artist is collaborating in the performance with dancer, choreographer and UCI professor Charlotte Griffin and art performer Christina Segovia. The evening will include field recordings from judo competitions at the Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo as well as the US, with live and processed sound in collaboration with musician Michael Dessen.


Mariangeles Soto-Diaz [US/VE] began her art and judo studies in her native Venezuela, the once-promising oil-and-abstraction-producing nation that has become one of the most unstable and violent countries in the world. In her recent work, Soto-Diaz has merged her judo and creative practices to explore the dynamics of power and vulnerability. Moving across traditional art categories, she creates multilayered projects that are at once political and personal, with a nomadic conceptual practice based on relational self-determination.

Soto-Diaz’s work has been exhibited at the Orange County Museum of Art, the SUR: Biennial, the Everywoman’s Biennial (London/NY), 18th Street Art Center, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, MASS MoCA, El Museo del Barrio in NYC, the Stanley Museum, the Fullerton Museum of Art, and the Wignall Museum, among other venues. She began her art studies at the Federico Brandt School of Art in Caracas, and holds a BA in Psychology and Art from Hampshire College, an MA from the California Institute of the Arts and an MFA from Claremont Graduate University. When not in lockdown, she trains at Bunasawa’s Dojo in Costa Mesa and at the Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo.

Here are some excerpts of the performance and below are a few more things the artist shared with me.

1) There’s something wonderful about the consistent meeting and engaging with Sensei and fellow judokas, the process of being involved with each other in the common, shared space (and time) on the mats. There is a kind of solidarity and camaraderie that is built slowly through being in the dojo practicing and learning. And then, there is the vulnerability that comes (in my case) from being a female judoka in a co-ed dojo of largely male judokas. I’ve had to learn to joke with them, and they’ve been responsive and caring, which I love and never take for granted.

2) For Gentle Prowess Deliberations, I engaged with my teachers and fellow judokas at both BKI and Sawtelle by asking them what the term ju means for them, not just in terms of possible translations but to give me a personal take on the concept, and I folded their answers into the sound element of the performance. The sound also involved my field audio recordings from competition at Kodokan and Nanka Winter nationals from 2019 as well as my own text in which I also talk about ju in contrast to the violence of the history of the Americas.

This process of engaging my judo community could be described in contemporary art as “socially engaged practice” which in contemporary art refers to art which involves other people, social interaction or communities which don’t usually come together but the artist brings them together for collaboration. The participatory and collaborative element is an important part of the work and it extends the meaning of the art installation I created at GCAC.

I hope you’re well. So much to talk about, I also enjoyed reading your work. I resonated with the story of the bully, since as a child I also had an experience with one and used judo to defend myself. One of my sensei mentioned to us at some point how Kano had been bullied as a child and how this experience (along with his studies of physics and various other disciplines and ingeniousness) was the catalyst for him to develop judo…

Thanks again!

Links to Soto-Diaz Exhibitions

We have confirmed a date for Saturday December 10th 2022 at 8:00 PM for a repeat performance.

Grand Central Arts Center (GCAC)

125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, CA 92701
(714) 567-7233

Thanks again for your support! This is very meaningful to me. Here’s details on my background in judo.

Growing up in Venezuela, I practiced judo at a very special place called Budo Kwai. Judo was an unusual sport compared to Karate which was more widespread. My teachers, Sensei Patti Zavarce, Sensei Amiano and Sensei Nairac were encouraging and taught me perseverance as I struggled. I wasn’t gifted for competition and had issues with balance due to tibia-femur malalignment syndrome. Even so, I did compete 3 times and received a bronze medal at a regional competition once, but I realized that by temperament I was more into the philosophy and the ideals of judo more than in winning competition.

One of my teachers, Sensei Gerald Nairac, a French immigrant who had studied Kodokan judo was always intent on transmitting the philosophical and spiritual aspects of judo. I remember being in awe when he showed us early judo films as he explained how someone the size of Jigoro Kano, or Mifune, could throw someone twice as large and heavy by understanding the laws of physics, fulcrum and timing, which is something that takes a lifetime to fully understand in practice. I made it to brown belt, but left the country to study meditation at early signs of violent unrest. I was never able to pick up judo again until four years ago when I returned to study with Bunasawa’s dojo in Costa Mesa. It has been a series of challenges but I really enjoy working through them and incorporating judo elements into my creative practice since.

I should also mention that since I picked up judo and started to work on training for my black belt again, I received an award from the Hoff family foundation which allowed me to study at Kodokan for a month.

This is something I had dreamt of my whole life, which also led me to meet Sensei Bunasawa’s brother Ryuji at Waseda University. He has an interesting connection to Latin America and many stories, as he lived and taught judo in Chile for many years during the repressive regime of Pinochet’s dictatorship.

Lastly, when I went to Kodokan I met the Museum Curator and Professor Naoki Murata, who passed away in 2020. He was always very kind and generous as I was researching in the library archives, some of which are in the same building as the museum. One time he asked me why I was so interested in judo, and I told him that my teachers had imparted a deep appreciation for the philosophical tenets and principles of judo, which I treasure to this day.

With very few words he told me that it made him very happy that I was interested in those aspects of judo. He said that whenever he is invited to international conferences or to do presentations, he emphasizes those founding principles, especially judo friendship and the principle of mutual prosperity for self and others. He said that sadly, those principles often get lost in global competitive arenas and in life in general. He believed in judo's peace-seeking ethos and general principles of dignity and respect towards one another as a way to make a better world. As he said this, tears were brought to his eyes and that was the last conversation we had.

Me at the Kodokan and with Sensei Nori’s brother Ryuji at Waseda University


November – 2022

December – 2022

I’m always looking for new subjects to write about regarding judo as well as contributions from my readers. Please send them to gary@garygoltz.com, thanks.

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