An animist explores old themes


Over the last few years, the traditional art form of nihonga has emerged as a player on the Japanese contemporary art scene. I can only guess why this is — something connected to nostalgia or nationalism perhaps? Or could it be that growing social and economic uncertainty has led Japanese to regard the practiced restraint informing the creation of nihonga as something of a comfort haven?

Nihonga as a term was coined in the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) following the opening up of Japan to the world, and was meant to distinguish art made here from art in the West (which was termed yoga). Nihonga is characterized by media and subject matter — quotidian scenes, flowers and landscapes typically executed with tanuki (raccoon dog tail) brushes and mineral-based pigments applied to moistened washi paper.

The most persuasive manifestation of the new interest in nihonga was the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art’s “From Nihonga to Nihonga” exhibition earlier this year. I think that had the museum organized a similar show, say, 10 years ago, critics would have bemoaned the venture as “quaint.” Now, however, nihonga has a fresh new face, with subject matter ranging from hip-hop to anime.

The new crop of nihonga artists have found favor both in Japan and abroad. Keizaburo Okamura is not one of them.

At age 48, Okamura is charting his own territory, avoiding both the traditional Japanese themes and pop-flavored contemporary stylings. An exhibition of his new work is now at the Takahashi Collection Gallery, housed in a nondescript four-story building in Shinjuku’s Nishigokencho. Outside the doorway tucked away down a little alleyway there hangs a large white banner — on which is printed absolutely nothing.

Incredibly, there are three contemporary art spaces in the same building as the Takahashi — each serving up top-flight avant-garde fare. I suppose the covertness earns the galleries a certain cache. Anyway, the other galleries don’t have signs either, so if you make it to the Okamura exhibition, remember to climb the stairs and check them out as well.

Okamura is showing two recent works, “One Body, Four Heads” (2005) and “Dragon Eye” (2006). The multipanel pieces tower to the ceiling and are up to 7 meters across. Painted on distressed cedar wood, they bring a weighty atmosphere to a room illuminated by a single light source on the floor. The panels are articulated, byobu (folding screen) style, and visitors can walk into the nooks behind them, which curiously imparts even more mystery to the installation.

Okamura soaks the wood in water, then etches designs with a mixture of mineral pigments and animal glue. I didn’t know this, but the artist told me that wood was also a traditional medium for nihonga, especially before it actually became known as nihonga.

The works involve elephants and dragons represented in scaly, muted brownish-golds, the eyes being the most striking features. There is a timelessness here, an impression that suggests both primitive art and spiritualism.

“The work represents a natural cycle,” explains Okamura. “For example — rain falls on the earth, nourishing plants in the soil which create oxygen that rises into the sky, where clouds form and make rain. I am an animist. Of course, in Tokyo we don’t really experience this because of all the concrete, but I live and work in the countryside of Yamagata Prefecture.”

Okamura says he drew the inspiration for the elephants from the Samantabhadra in Buddhism, who often appears atop an elephant.

“While I was painting it, I heard about the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean and had an image of a tourist riding an elephant which was frightened by the earthquake and so ran away into the jungle.”

Okamura stresses that he has nothing against the introduction of contemporary subject matter into nihonga.

“That’s fine,” he says, “but personally, I am just interested in and attracted to much older themes.”