Grass poets: Japanese baskets 1845-1953

I’ve written previously about a bamboo Japanese ikebana basket given to us by ESP’s parents. So last week we went to a talk organised by the Japan Society entitled “Grass poets: Japanese baskets 1845-1953” by Joe Earle.

Bamboo is very important in Japan, as an element of simplicity. Before the 16th century, most bamboo baskets were imported from China and used for ikebana in the chanoyu tea ceremony during the summer months. When the Japanese started making their own baskets they were largely copies of Chinese styles and, unlike other crafts of the time, were unsigned. So we know little about the earliest Japanese basket makers.

Hayakawa Shokusai (1815-1897) was the first Japanese basket maker to sign his work, perhaps because he started to combine twining with more open weave techniques to create a more distinctive Japanese style rather than simply copying the Chinese. One of his most unusual works was a Western-style rattan bowler hat!

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Basket making seems to run in families. Shokusai’s son also went on to become a basket maker. Tanabe Chikuunsai (1877-1937), who created an art-deco inspired Japanese style, had a son and grandson who also went on to become great basket makers.

Tanabe Chikuunsai I
Chikuunsai II
Chikuunsai II
Chikuunsai III

According to Joe Earle, probably the greatest basket maker of all was IIzuka Rokansa (1890-1958). Inspired by rustic found objects, he often used smoked bamboo from the ceiling of workers’ houses. He also named all his pieces.

“Fish” by Rokansai
“Prosperity and longevity” by Rokansai
“Spring rain” by Rokansai

Perhaps not surprisingly, Rokansai also had a son, Iizuka Shokansai (1919-2004), to carry on the tradition. Shokansai was recognised as a Living National Treasure of Japan in 1982.

Bamboo basket by Shokansai
“Mount Fuji” by Shokansai
Woven box by Shokansai
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Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic at the National Gallery

You sense that Turner Prize winner Chris Ofili has a bit of the devil in him. When the Clothworkers’ Company approached him about commissioning a tapestry for their dining room, he sent back a list of conditions – a non-wish list, if you will. He didn’t want to meet them, he didn’t want to see where the tapestry would be hung, and he didn’t want a discussion about the content.

When the livery company agreed to all his demands, Ofili came up with a new ruse. In a fascinating BBC TV documentary following the creation of the tapestry, he twinkles:

“I thought it would be funny to see if the weavers could actually weave water. So I found myself making the watercolour and trying to release the pigment even more and giggling at the fact that it was almost impossible for them to achieve it – there’s no way they’re going to be able to do this! So let’s just sit back and watch!”

And watch we do, open mouthed as, over nearly three years, an amazing team of weavers at the Dovecot Tapestry Studio in Edinburgh translate Ofili’s watery triptych of free-flowing colour and grazing charcoal into a shimmering fabrication of wool.

One of the weavers, Emma Jo Webster, explains: “The watercolour’s multilayered, so you’re often looking at the colours underneath to come up through the row as well. So rather than just a block of colour the mixing is very important….If you want to weave something that looks all the same colour but you don’t want it to look flat, like cardboard, you would make a mix of very close colours and then it will just gently look like the same colour.”

Viewing the tapestry close up at the National Gallery, you can see what they mean. Like an Impressionist painting, the flecks of individual colours dance before your eyes, before coalescing into luminous pools of colour bleeding into each other as you move further away.

The central scene could be seen as a modern-day Genesis, with Adam strumming a guitar while languid Eve’s cocktail glass is refilled by a somewhat abstract barman (based on footballer Mario Balotelli!) lurking in a palm tree. Storm clouds loom in the distance, presaging an imminent end to this paradise.

The setting is wonderfully theatrical, and not just because of the male and female figures on either side, holding back the curtains to allow us a glimpse of this intimate tableau.

Around the walls floats a chorus of grisaille dancers, their sinuous voluptuousness and billowing veils straight out of an Indian temple. But many have moustaches and goatee beards – another sign that not is all as it seems?

Chris Ofili: Weaving Magic runs at the National Gallery until 28 August. After that the tapestry will be permanently installed in the Livery Hall at Clothworkers’ Hall and will be available to view by appointment. Contact archivist@clothworkers.co.uk for more details.

Chris Ofili: The Caged Bird’s Song is available on the BBC iPlayer for a further 21 days (apologies to readers who live outside the UK, who may not be able to view it).

Henry’s star mantle and Gunther’s shroud

There’s been a bit of a radio silence as I’ve been on holiday followed by a week or so catching up with website work. And all of a sudden it feels like the run-up to the Christmas sales season, starting with Lambeth Open on 3-4 October, of which more later.

But first I want to tell you about a couple of amazing textile pieces I saw while on holiday. Bamberg, in Bavaria, southern Germany, is a beautiful medieval town that is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The cathedral has some splendid sculptures, including the tomb of its founder, Emperor Henry II, and his wife Empress Cunigunde, both saints. Among the scenes from their lives carved by Tilman Riemenschneider on the tomb, there is one of Cunigunde walking on red-hot ploughshares to prove her innocence.

st cunigunde

But it was in the adjoining Cathedral Museum that I made this wonderful discovery.  The star exhibit here is Henry II’s Star Mantle, which was given to him by Duke Ismahel of Bari and dates from 973-1024.

Henry II's star mantle

According to the Worshipful Company of Broiderers, “The original 11th century mantle was made of silk twill with medallions of the life of Christ and celestial bodies worked in couched gold thread, with some details in coloured silk in stem stitch.  In the 15th century the embroidered elements were cut away and remounted on the current Italian silk damask, so the original placement of the motifs is not known.”

The condition and detail are superb – you can clearly make out signs of the zodiac and other constellations among the medallions.

henry II's star mantle

In the adjoining room was another equally compelling piece of silk, known as Gunther’s shroud. This was given to or bought by Gunther von Bamberg, Bishop of Bamberg, during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1064-65, and was buried with him when he died. It was rediscovered in 1830.

Although there is some damage to the piece, the colours are exquisitely preserved, and the figures are in classic Byzantine style, reminiscent of the famous mosaics in Ravenna.

gunthertuch gunthertuch2

Clearly the best way to preserve textiles is to bury them in a cathedral for 1,000 years!

On a lighter note, here’s a photo of some lace Lederhosen I spied in a shop window – rather more delicate than the real thing. 🙂

lace lederhosen

Basketry workshop with Mary Crabb

When I was at West Dean in February there was an exhibition of work by some of the college tutors, including some exquisite woven pods by Mary Crabb. So when a textile friend announced that she had contacted Mary about running a workshop, I jumped at the chance!

Peacock Pod by Mary Crabb Image: Mary Crabb
Peacock Pod by Mary Crabb
Image: Mary Crabb, http://www.marycrabb.co.uk/photos/index.html

This friend Barbara, along with dachshund Bertie, hosted the workshop in her beautiful house and garden in Hove. I wasn’t surprised to learn that she regularly opens her garden to the public as part of the National Gardens Scheme – it’s a multi-layered, multi-textured sensory delight, perfect for such a creative workshop.

Mary arrived with boxes of wonderful goodies, particularly paper threads in luscious colours, and books to inspire us all. Along with the mix of fabrics, wool and thread we had brought ourselves, we were certainly spoilt for choice!

basketry1 basketry2

We started by learning how to twine on a paper cup cut into strips. This helped us to maintain the shape without worrying too much about tension. We explored different threads and created coloured patterns, as well as learning how to introduce new threads when the old ones ran out.

We then moved on to an exercise intended to create a flat motif, to get used to working with warp threads in the round. However, we all decided that we wanted to go straight into making vessels, resulting in an array of teeny pods!

basketry vessels

The combination of a glorious pot-luck lunch in the garden and lots of gossip to catch up on meant that most of us managed only to make a start on creating a larger vessel in the afternoon. The exception was Chrissie, who made a wonderful bag with Indian trimmings.

chrissie vessel
Image: Chrissie Messenger

However, with Mary’s very useful handouts, we will hopefully be able to finish what we started. 🙂

Image: Carol Grantham
Image: Carol Grantham

All in all, it was a very inspiring day in gorgeous surroundings. Many thanks to Barbara for hosting, despite the electrical problems!

basketry group

Some of Mary’s work can currently be seen in Back to the Beach, an exhibition at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, which runs until 22 August 2015.

Indian craft films

Every so often I get requests from people telling me about their work and/or asking if I can feature their work on my blog. Last week I had two such emails, but I reacted very differently to them both. I will discuss one here, and the other in another post.

The first email was from Nidhi Kamath, a graduate from the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design in Jaipur. She, along with her friend Keya Vaswani, had studied craft product design but for their final graduation project had made a film on craft called Threads of Banaras, about silk weaving in Banaras.

 

Nidhi says: “This inspired us to make more films on crafts, as films as a medium for crafts was not explored much. Films are a strong and quick audio visual medium to connect with people. Also we feel that if we lose a craft, we lose a culture, so we try to capture the story of craft, its people and the culture.”

She sent me a link to Threads of Banaras and to two other films they have made since – one on block printing and one on thathera (metal sheet beating) – and asked me what I thought of them.

 

Well, I was charmed, especially by the one on block printing (of course!). Nidhi explained that the film is part of a project to make 10 films on craft for a design studio called Anantaya in Jaipur: “This would promote craft and bring its people and process forward so that people can know more about it and also contribute towards its preservation in their own way.”

 

Anantaya is run by designer Ayush Kasliwal and his wife Geetanjali, and their aim is to sustainably create “an interesting mix of luxury objects by engaging artisanal skills rooted in age old crafts culture and tradition”.

India certainly has no shortage of crafts culture and tradition, and I think it’s an admirable project to show the work of the artisans who produce such “luxury objects”.

And good luck to Nidhi and Keya – your films are lovely, and I look forward to seeing the rest of the series!

nidhi