Fine Art
12:55 am
Fri August 30, 2013

Japanese bamboo art, a more than 600 year old craft

One of Shohaku Yufu's baskets
Credit Kalamazoo Institute of Arts

You might have stopped by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts this summer and seen the exhibit on contemporary Japanese bamboo art. It’ll be at the KIA until September 15th. One of the artists, Shohaku Yufu, gave a demonstration Wednesday.

As the strips of bamboo get thinner, Yufu uses his mouth and even his feet to pull the pieces of wood apart.
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

To be considered a bamboo master, you have study your craft for about ten years—and that’s just to make basic woven objects. Japanese bamboo art has been around since the middle ages. Bamboo items were used Buddhist rituals, tea ceremonies, and Japanese flower arranging. But there are less than a hundred bamboo craftsmen today. To keep bamboo art alive, the Japanese government has recognized it as a national art form. Nobuyasu Iwatake works for the prefectural government of Oita, the area best known for the ancient art. Koichiro Okada of Tai Gallery in New Mexico translates: 

“Unlike other areas in Japan, prefecture of Oita…we founded a public institution to teach bamboo craft to the other local people," says Iwatake. "This is one policy very unique to our area and the school was founded well over a hundred years ago.”

Yufu brought out one of his works in progress. It’s a basket with swirling cords of bamboo covering it like a series of ropes in different lengths and patterns. Yufu says he starts with a basic basket frame and then adds the more creative bamboo cords on top, holding them together with zip ties until he decides the look is almost finished. Then he wraps thin bamboo strands around the cords and weaves them through the basket until they almost disappear. The basket might look flowery, but when it dries, it will be hard as nails. WMU Associate Professor of Japanese Jeffrey Angles translates for Yufu.

“There’s a particular deity, Buddhist deity, that’s associated with waterfalls called Fudō Myōō. And literally his name means ‘the immovable’ and he always appears as kind of a big tough guy. He’s carrying ropes and looks really tough," says Yufu. "But you know behind that…behind the statue of Fudō Myōō there might be the water coming down, there might be the trees coming down. So quite literally you’ve got this very immovable statue here and all these kind of natural things rooted around it. He says that’s the kind of idea, that’s the kind of image I’d like to create with my own basketry."

At the KIA exhibit, there’s functional art and art for the sake of art. Yufu says he considers his work somewhere in between the two.

“The artist I respect the most. He said in his earlier days that Japanese bamboo art also have to have functionality. Functionality and beauty are the core of this art form," Yufu says. "On the other hand, another iconic artist in the area in 1956 created nonfunctional sculpture beauty. So there are two main ‘thinkings’ in this art form and depending upon which philosophy you’d like. You know, artists create type of work they do. Especially nowadays young people are attracted to non-functional sculpture work.”