The tapestry of history can be literal sometimes, as the most enduring part of a civilisation is often its crafts.
To commemorate the devastation wrought by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, the Japan Foundation put together the touring Beautiful Handicrafts Of Tohoku exhibit.
The 70-odd handicraft pieces on display encompass all genres – pottery, lacquer ware, textiles, metal work and wood and bamboo craft. The exhibition also reminds people of the resilience of the culture in the face of tragedy.
The range of works also reflects Tohoku’s geographical diversity, which extends from Hokkaido to Kanto, and contains six prefectures: Aomori, Akita, Miyagi, Yamagata, Iwate and Fukushima.
Put together by curatorial supervisor Ryuichi Matsabura in 2015, the touring exhibition has travelled through Hungary, China, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia.
Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur entrusted the exhibit to locally-based Japanese curator Yuri Yamada who put together the exhibition, which is set to open at the Penang State Museum on July 1. The exhibition ends on Aug 21.
Beautiful Handicrafts Of Tohoku finished its run at Galeri Shah Alam in Selangor on June 21.
An economist and art historian by training, Yuri, 48, has several decades of art experience under her belt. However, she recalls that moving the exhibit into Galeri Shah Alam was still a surprising challenge.
She explains how eight people, herself included, had to hand-carry seven giant crates filled with antiques, with absolute care as there were no service elevators.
“We were terrified it would start raining and damage the items,” she recalls.
Yamada explains that the handicrafts were tied as much to the Tohoku region as they were to the Mingei movement.
Mingei, a Japanese folk art movement founded by Yanagi Setsu in the 1920s, held in high regard the beauty of everyday usage and utilitarian objects handcrafted by common folk.
Although the exhibition focuses on the handicrafts from the Tohoku region, some of the works featured are by travelling Mingei artisans who mastered the local techniques, like textile designer Keisuke Serizawa, potter Shoji Hamada and woodblock print-maker Shiko Munakata.
“In Malaysia too there must have been a tradition of crafting necessary things, like weaving baskets and mats. But like in Japan when such traditions are not valued, they disappear with time,” says Yuri, adding that the Industrial Revolution and invention of plastic contributed to the decline of Mingei.
She elaborates that the spirit of the Mingei movement was that even if something seemed ordinary, it did not mean it should cease to be made.
Now nearly a century on, the movement has regained momentum in Japan thanks to its accessibility.
“It’s influential because the art is affordable and something you can use everyday. A beautiful bowl or tea set is art you can feel, not like a painting hung behind thick glass,” she mentions, during a recent interview at the JFKL office in Kuala Lumpur.
The soft-spoken Yuri lights up, visibly excited as she flips through the catalogue of beautiful wood bowls, clay pottery and elaborately embroidered cloth.
She says some of the oldest pieces on display were from the Edo period, about 150 years ago.
“Though in Japan, 100 years is not that old,” she adds.
She explains that unlike Western aesthetics where art is something meant to be observed, the Japanese believe in living with their art and acknowledging the beauty and functionality of the seemingly ordinary.
She adds that the Western tradition also elevated art to become a collectible for the rich, while Mingei reminded people that the crafts had more proletariat roots among the fishermen and farmers who crafted it.
Anyone who has spent some time in a Japanese household/ lifestyle store will probably understand the peculiar degree of attention devoted to household products.
The working-class nature of the crafts also reflects the trends of the times and the challenges faced by the people then.
Yuri gives an example of Kogin embroidery, which evolved out of practical need.
“A rule from Edo (then Japan’s capital) was that only the nobility and samurai class were allowed to wear cotton. To survive the harsh northern winters, farmers would embroider many layers of linen to make their clothes cold-resistant,” she reveals.
Another case is how they would paint images of flowers and summer plants on candles, as a reminder of distant warmer days.
Even in cold times, memories and crafts have a knack for carrying the human spirit through.