Getting your roots crossed

by Kazuko Ide

Contemporary art on the cutting edge and traditional crafts firmly rooted in the past seem poles apart. But what if their paths crossed? One answer to the question is currently on show in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward, where various crafts — from ivory carving to hagoita battledores — have been given a new twist by a rising modern artist.

Held on the first-floor gallery of Sumida Ward Office, the exhibition is aptly titled “Takumi na Takurami (Ingenious Trick),” with a pun on takumi which also means “artisan.” It is a joint effort of Miran Fukuda and seven craftspeople residing in the ward, who took time to help the artist give form to her inspiration.

True to her reputation for creating works that challenge our preconceptions, Fukuda presents the crafts from her own angle. A lidded paper cup from a fast-food chain, complete with a striped straw, sits next to one of those small, flat spoons. A closer look tells us that the straw and spoon have been carved out of ivory by craftsman Ryoji Kitagawa. The same goes for the four Euro coins nearby and an innocent-looking switch on the wall with which one can turn one of the lights in the room on and off.

According to Fukuda, the appeal of ivory is its delicate color and soft texture, which has historically attracted, for example, aficionados of netsuke, ornamental carvings worn above the sash of the kimono to suspend pouches. “Yet today we have few chances to hold an ivory piece in our hands and appreciate its texture,” notes the artist, who incorporated the precious material into objects that we touch in our daily lives.

Kinuyo Tomura is one of the few remaining tsumami kanzashi makers, who create ornamental hairpins adorned with tiny folded squares of silk to be worn with kimono. She was asked to wield her skill to decorate a globe and a Lustroware square swing-top garbage pail, which Fukuda bought at Tokyu Hands. When the top swings open, the underside of the lid reveals a splash of color, a mosaic of silk pieces. By applying the skill on seemingly foreign objects, Fukuda hopes to broaden the existing image of the craft beyond hairpins.

Born in Tokyo in 1963, Fukuda distinguished herself early in her career, upon completing a postgraduate course in art at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music (Geidai), by becoming the youngest artist to win the prestigious Yasui Award in 1989. Other prizes, including the Gold Prize at the Triennale India in 1991 and the Vision of Contemporary Art Award in 1994 have followed.

A gifted painter, she explores a variety of motifs, from the world’s masterpieces to cartoon characters, adding twists that nudge the viewers to take a closer look. “Fukusei” (reproduction) is a recurring theme, which she has pursued at the risk of treading on copyrights. Some of her representative works, from the painting of the Holy Family with a twin Christ to a Swatch of her design, are also shown at the current exhibition.

When the representatives of Sumida Ward approached Fukuda with a plan for an exhibition, she decided to focus on the fact that the ward is home to a number of traditional craftspeople. Since she was not familiar with the “culture and aesthetics of traditional crafts,” Fukuda did research on her own before contacting the artisans whose crafts allowed her to convey her artistic intentions.

Other crafts that have been given the Fukuda touch include a tenugui towel printed with a word game, Edo kiriko cut glass, a battledore and a wooden sculpture of a folded dragon that adorns the transoms of temples and shrines. A pair of kimono-clad Ichimatsu dolls are placed next to a pair of Barbie dolls. Each pair consists of dolls that are identical except for the color of their skin.

Tortoise shell inspired the artist to make fake nails and a pair of sunglasses with tortoise-shell lenses instead of frames. Tortoise-shell frames are expensive articles often associated with senior citizens. Says the artist, “I made the sunglasses for our generation.”

Fukuda said that although explaining her intent to the seasoned craftspeople was not always easy, it was an enlightening experience to herself as well. “The traditional crafts were once part of our daily lives. Yet modern life no longer has room for them.” The artist hopes that the exhibits will prompt the viewers to “take a fresh look” at the traditional crafts.