Currently on show in the Brunei Gallery is the lacquer work of Koyanagi Tanekuni. One word describes it: exquisite.
Lacquer is the sap of a tree, which is ‘tapped’ carefully because it is poisonous to the touch (its name hints as much: Toxicodendron vernicifluum). It is layered onto different surfaces – wood, bamboo, earthenware, and textiles – multiple times over, to achieve a shiny protective coating.
Everyday items – trays, utensils, cups, saucers, and tea caddies – are transformed into beautiful art objects, worthy of contemplation during a tea ceremony. They are decorated with elements from nature, such as migratory snipes in marsh, chrysanthemum petals, butterflies, geese, or stylised depictions of stars at night. The chrysanthemum is a prominent motif, ‘one of the four noble flowers, traditionally called the Four Gentlemen (Plum blossom, Orchid, Bamboo, and Chrysanthemum) in Chinese painting since the Song dynasty.’ The decorative additions ‘float’ on the surface. It is a surprise to discover that the white fragments across the lid of one chest derive from eggshells, crushed into careful patterns. The lacquer objects not only shine but also glitter (from the gold and silver particles known as maki-e, which were first introduced in the 8th century).
Koyanagi Tanekuni, the lacquer artist, learnt his art “under three holders of the title Ningen Kokuhō (Living National Treasure)”. His bust (by Mrs Koyanagi – sculptress Kinjo Yasuko) overlooks the exhibition on the entrance floor of the Brunei Gallery.
A Secret Beauty: The Spirit of Japanese Maki-e. The Lacquer Work of Koyanagi Tanekuni (11 July – 21 September 2019), The Brunei Gallery, SOAS.
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See also: Dr Kristin Surak, Making Tea, Making Japan: Cultural Nationalism in Practice (Stanford University Press, 2013) – winner of ‘Outstanding Book Award American Sociological Association’s Section on Asia’. She is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Japanese Politics at SOAS.