Ceramic artist Yuji Obata intends to take his sakura love beyond Japan
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Ceramic artist Yuji Obata intends to take his sakura love beyond Japan

Yuji Obata, an exponent of the dying craft of Arita Yaki, or porcelain ware created and painted by hand in the Arita town of Japan, wants to take it to markets outside Japan, including India.

art and culture Updated: Jul 12, 2018 18:45 IST
Hindustan Times
Yuji Obata,Ceramic Artist,Porcelain
Japanese ceramic artist Yuji Obata wants to teach porcelain-making to Indian artisans.

Walking into ceramic artist Yuji Obata’s hotel room, one can sense the tender beauty of fragility and transience as the mind thinks only of cherry blossoms — a branch full of them in full bloom. Towards the right, lies a selection of the finest of his work, including a half-open incense container, cups and saucers inked in eclectic patterns and styles, and a large pentagonal plate. As my mind tries to shake off the sakura — the Japanese word for a flowering cherry blossom tree — Obata appears, dressed in a blue tie-dye jacket.

Sakura, a recurring motif in Japanese art, is a way for Obata to assert his individuality.

“My favourite flower is the cherry blossom,” says Obata, who represents a 400-year-old legacy. He speaks through his associate, Mina Omura, who has doubled as his interpreter, explaining the frequent appearance of the cherry blossom motif in his work. “In the porcelain industry, the pink colour is a very expensive ingredient, and very difficult for the artists to use. That was why I decided to master using it, and chose sakura,” he says.

Was there a philosophical reason for his love for sakura? Obata replies, “In the Arita porcelain industry, red is a very traditional choice for painting. I wanted to break through, to add new [styles] to traditional work. And that’s where the philosophy — ‘make it new’ — came in.”

Just as Omura adds that Obata paints other motifs, too, my gaze wanders off to the little incense container spotted earlier. It has wisteria painted on it. Obata also has a thing for fishes — one of his large porcelain plates is a canvas for elaborately drawn and painted marine life specimens, with distinctive scale and fin patterns; and another, a vase, has a shoal swimming through a cluster of spiky underwater plants.

Not just flower motifs, but marine life also makes frequent appearances in Obata’s work.

Obata was born in 1961 in the Japanese town of Arita, the cradle of Japanese porcelain manufacturing and the birthplace of its highly regarded Arita ware, which has been made for four centuries now. His father had founded his own kiln, which young Yuji would later take over, along with the former’s legacy, after he graduated from Tokyo, and completed professional training in Arita.

“I learned painting from my father. But my style is to undertake all of the process myself, from shooting clay to moulding and firing it, and painting the final product,” he says. “Creating the shape comes first. Painting is just part of the process. And the shaping techniques, I developed on my own.”

Japan’s unique culture of regional strongholds when it comes to crafts as these, is a remarkable phenomenon. But what differentiates Arita and its ware from those of the other Japanese regions famous for their pottery, explain both Obata and Omura, is the hardness and glassiness of the porcelain found here. “The cities of Mino and Mashiko deal with pottery. Kutani, on the other hand, boasts products formed from porcelain that’s mixed with clay. The ingredients of Arita ware, however, come from a very distinctive stone from the place,” he says, describing in vivid detail the much more intensive process of firing and moulding these objects of intrigue.

“The stone is cut out and crushed into powder, which I have to mix with water to get clay. This is now kneaded well and positioned on a spinning wheel. Spinning is a particularly difficult process,” he explains. The piece is then fired at a fairly high temperature (≈ 900 degrees Celsius), followed by underglaze decoration — an initial round of drawing the patterns on the surface, and another, more intense phase of firing. It is only after an overglaze decoration and a third round of firing, that the brilliant colours of the porcelain emerge, says Obata.

But even as Japan, as Obata rues, hurtles towards a technological future, and interest in handcrafted arts drops, why did the artist choose to pursue something that would take so much time to make? “I wanted to forge my own identity through it. I wanted to come up with something that no one could imitate,” he says.

It took Obata a month to make this cup and saucer, and two weeks went into painting it.

Obata, who exhibited his creations in New York in 2017, intends to take the craft beyond Japan. “I’m not very keen about people in Japan. I want to take it to India and other receptive markets,” he says, adding that cultural and artistic exchanges can be a force for better international relations. Asked if he has had the chance to interact with enthusiasts in Delhi or to explore the city, Obata laughs — he had only just arrived in the Capital when we met him. “I’ve been to a few galleries. I will visit the country again later this year, and plan to teach my skill and passion to interested artisans in India, too,” he says.

First Published: Jul 12, 2018 18:45 IST