Japanese Art in Lahore / Artful Diplomacy

A recent exhibition of Japanese paintings brought the restrained artistry of the orient to Lahore.
Review by Raza Rumi

Stormy Sea off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by the artist Hokusai (c 1830)

A recently held exhibition at Alhamra Arts Council brought the subtleties of classical Japanese art to Lahore. The two cultures met and interacted with each other. I was lucky to get a quick preview of the exhibition thanks to the dynamic Sabah Hussain who has untiringly promoted this inter-cultural dialogue in Lahore.

The Actor Ichikawa Ebizo as Takemura Sadanoshin by the artist Sharaku (c 1794) Ebizo was a leading actor of his time

Sabah is also the founder and director of Lahore Arts Foundation and a renowned artist. A Lahori and a distinguished graduate of the National College of Arts, Sabah specialized in the preservation & conservation of works on paper at the College of Arts, London. Later she was trained at the Kyoto Institute of Technology Japan and in those rich environs she also studied the art of papermaking and printmaking. As a student of National College of Arts and Kyoto National University of Fine Arts & Music in Japan we have a rather curious artist-activist whom Lahore can only be proud of.

Two decades ago Sabah set up the Lahore Arts Foundation Trust (LAFT) a unique platform that has contributed in multiple ways to the promotion and preservation of our artistic heritage. The exhibition entitled Evolving imagery- Ukiyo-e and contemporary prints from Japan marked the twentieth anniversary of LAFT.

Ukiyo-e literally means pictures of the floating world

The prints on display were mellow and profoundly etched as is the case with Japanese art. As I found out from Sabah, Ukiyo-e literally means pictures of the floating world and refers to woodblock prints prepared during the Edo period [1615-1867]. The Edo era in Japan is known for artistic innovation and evolution especially the development of classical techniques of Japanese woodblock prints, and its famous exponents, Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusei, Ichizyusei Hiroshigei and Shahraku.

Horizon. Woodblock print (1999)

Ukiyo-e invariably represented the key interests and concerns of the population at large. Artists were commissioned and patronized by the emerging bourgeoisie to paint and create prints of genre subjects, related to festivals, theatrical performances, portraits of courtesans, kabuki actors and landscapes. Such was the technical finesse of these works the impressionists in the West were influenced by the strokes and treatment of subjects by this growing crew of Japanese artists and their deft handling of the medium.

The Edo period refers to the pre-modern Tokugawa period in Japanese History, from 1603 to 1868. Tokugawa shogunate (i.e a feudal Japanese military dictatorship headed by a shogun from the Tokugawa clan) and powerful territorial lords who reigned from their vast hereditary land holdings comprised the ruling class. Edo is the former name for Tokyo. This was the final period of traditional Japan known as a time of internal peace, political stability, economic growth, an isolationist foreign policy and the popular enjoyment of arts and culture. The changing economy led to a growth in demand for images of popular life that focused on ‘commoners’.

Sounds of Trees, Whispering People. Lithograph (1992)

In the words of John Fiorillo, “Ordinary life became the extraordinary focus, and before long several essential themes emerged.” Ukiyo-e artists chose subjects that were at variance with the high tastes of the ruling elites of that time. Portraits of actors, dramatic renditions of legends and tales gave much material to the printmakers. This artistic movement also gave a formidable expression to the lives of the commoners. Fiorillo sums it up well: “Ukiyo-e represent one of the notable achievements of the Edo and Meiji periods, and at its best, there was no finer graphic art ever produced in the woodblock medium anywhere in the world.”

Nigai Kenji Lithograph 2005

Like other parts of the world, contemporary visual vocabulary and aesthetics have been influenced by the legacies of old Japan, Sabah told me. The concept of austere and restrained aesthetic is all-pervasive in Japanese arts. In the Alhamra exhibition, prints from the Ukiyo-e school have been displayed alongside contemporary works so as to emphasise the commonalities of the technique and its evolution overtime. Viewing the exhibition therefore gives a broad scope and manner in which the concept and imagery of Japanese printmaking evolved from the traditional to the contemporary.

Water of Mt. Fuji. Woodblock print (2002)

The colours used in Ukiyo-e prints were water-based pigments. This tradition has continued as contemporary printmakers also employ water-based pigments, and sometimes combine oil colours to enhance the effect and texture of the prints. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints used handmade paper, long fibered and made from particular plants, such as Kozo [paper mulberry]. The widespread use of Kozo for prints somewhat explains the subtlety that Japanese prints of that era convey.

Diary July 14th, 01 Woodcut, silkscreen (2001)

Similarly, hard wood from cherry trees was used for blocks as it enabled artists to carve fine lines and produce large editions. A civilization connects various industries and professions to achieve excellence and makes them interdependent. So the artists would create the image and its details and the artisans undertook carving and printing while the publishers were responsible for marketing the work. The absence of publishers and the press in Mughal India has been cited as a major flaw of the Mughal Empire during the same time period. The Chinese and the Japanese cultures were much advanced in this respect.

The contemporary prints on display indicate how tradition informs the technique even today and yet the espousal of modern materials and skills reshape the aesthetic. Since the 1950s, contemporary print artists in Japan, heirs to a grand artistic legacy, have also explored and experimented with western technique and concepts arriving at new mutations. The overwhelming impact of this exhibition is how ultra-simplified forms, a refined involvement with structure, two dimensional picture plane[s] and an economy of means define the Japanese aesthetic even in modern times. This is the ultimate beauty of Japanese art: its seeming simplicity, hiding the layers of effort and meaning creates intimate spaces that can haunt even an uninitiated viewer.

Girl Blowing Poppin, A Glass Toy by the artist Utamaro

Sabah’s commendable work for the promotion of the arts has not been confined to her primary oeuvre i.e. Japanese art. The trust (LAFT) she runs has also organised exhibitions of Pakistani artists in collaboration with the Lahore museum. A major exhibition Artisans At Work curated an ensemble of crafts that celebrates the rich heritage of Pakistan’s indigenous crafts coinciding with the third International Conference on Islamic Arts and Architecture. LAFT also celebrated the eminent Pushto poet and artist Ghani khan through a major exhibition.

Sabah is a recipient of several national and international awards that include the 2004 Japan Foundation Fellowship Award; the 1996 April National Excellence Award, 7th National Exhibition of Visual Arts Islamabad; 1988 distinction for the MFA degree from Kyoto City Art College. Kyoto Japan; 1987 Kyoto Museum Exhibition Kyoten received the Murasaki Award, Japan; and 1985-1988 Awarded Yoneyama Rotary Scholarship Kyoto, Japan. Hussain’s works are in collection of the British Museum, London, Okinawa Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan, and in notable museums in Islamabad and Lahore. Besides, she has held successful solo exhibitions in different countries, such as Japan and UK. Currently, Sabah works as Adjunct Faculty, Department of Fine Arts at the National College of Arts, Lahore.

Sabah Hussain with the major Pushto artist and poet Ghani Khan

It was good to know that the Lahore’s exhibition of Japanese prints will be travelling to other cities. There is much that Pakistani art lovers can find in these prints and the art faculties across the country can enrich their learning techniques. We are, after all, a part of the larger Asian mosaic of cultures and artistic legacies. For Pakistan to prosper and find its course, it will have to accept the multiple identities and shun the narrow vision of statehood and faith-based identity imposed by its state since the 1950s. This is why Sabah’s work and her trust are most relevant to the shifting contours of contemporary Pakistan.

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