The metamorphosis of clay: From Japan to Egypt

Reham El-Adawi , Sunday 1 Sep 2019

Travelling exhibition of Japanese ceramics was featured at Cairo's Mahmoud Khalil Museum


For the first time, Egyptian viewers had the opportunity to see yakishime pottery thanks to the travelling exhibition, “Yakishime: Earth Metamorphosis”, which closed on 22 August at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum Horizon One Hall, organised by the Japan Foundation Cairo Office and the Ministry of Culture’s Fine Art Sector. According to Yo Fukazawa, the Japan Foundation Cairo director, “The Japan Foundation annually organises travelling exhibitions that tour outside Japan. 

These travelling exhibitions display works of our collections and cover a wide range of fields, including crafts, painting, photography, architecture, and design. In this yakishime exhibition, we present two types of functional yakishime wares: utensils used in the tea ceremony (chanoyu), a major influence on the development of Japanese traditional culture, and tableware that have become an essential part of everyday life. This is in addition to various non-utilitarian objects created by contemporary ceramic artists working in yakishime”.

An age-old, primitive method of pottery, yakishime involves firing hand-turned pots at extremely high temperatures without glazing so that the clay vitrifies, becoming waterproof, and often taking on a “natural glaze” from the ashes falling onto the surface in the fire.

Dating back to the 4th century AD, yakishime was centred at Bizen, Tokoname and Shigaraki, and has continued uninterrupted to the present day.

The metamorphosis of clay
Objet d’art Impression of Flow by Hattori Makiko

The exhibition features pieces from the Tokyo and Kyoto National Museums, dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries, as well as contemporary work. During the Momoyama period (1568-1615), yakishime became very prominent in the context of the tea ceremony.

Both Sen no Rikyu, the foremost authority on chanyou, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi admired Bizen and Shigaraki yakishime. They patronised the creation of numerous water jars, tea bowls, tea caddies and vases as well as bowls and plates for the kaiseki meals that accompany the tea ceremony — superb pieces that a standard for future yakishime makers.

While yakishime is traditionally associated with vessel forms, contemporary artists have used it to create objets d’art. In the exhibition, works by  Ikura Takashi, Izumita Yukiya, Ohno Yoshinori, Hattori Makiko, Mihara Ken and Tokumaru Kyoko demonstrate this trend.

According to Mieko Iwai, curator at Panasonic Shiodome Museum, “While the works exhibited include examples of innovative styles that go beyond the conventional concept of yakishime, this exhibition also introduces yakishime in the context of the Japanese cuisine.

It offers visitors from other cultures, to whom these simple but profoundly tasteful ceramics may be unfamiliar, an excellent opportunity to experience a sensibility and aesthetic unique to Japan.” Ceramics artist and Helwan University professor Diaaeddin Dawoud concurs: “This show demonstrates that there is no contradiction between traditional, functional and contemporary, art pottery. Both use the same simple methods: the wheel or gypsum moulds if not bare hands, and both start with earth clay…”

Clay, Dawoud went on to explain, is especially abundant and varied in Japan (as well as Korea and China), in contrast to Egypt where only Aswani clay is well-known.

In Japan there are three types fired at 1100 ºC, 1250 ºC and (the highest quality) 1350 ºC, which produce a progressively whiter sheen. One similarity between Japanese and Egyptian pottery is that it tends to be a family trade passed down from one generation to the next, but there is a difference: “Japanese cuisine is based on the use of the ceramic wares such as bowls, plates, jars and tea utensils, it’s part of their everyday life, but in Egypt people don’t care if they drink tea in a cup made of glass or plastic and very few Egyptians are keen to use ceramics in their everyday life.”

It is worth mentioning that in December 2013, washoku, Japanese cuisine, was incorporated into the UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.

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