Crafting the Future

Yuji Akimoto discusses the return of craftsmanship

In Future Forward | Japanese Kōgei, the influential museum director and curator, Yuji Akimoto, set out to see where craft belongs in the contemporary world and free it from old stereotypes. He brought together twelve established and emerging artists working in Japan today who riff on cultural touchstones in their work such as animation, manga, art and design. These artists stand convention on its head by reimagining surface treatment, ornamentation, and narrative in terms of individual expression to create inventive new forms for the twenty-first century.

The exhibition turned the tables on time-honored techniques of artisan craft, offering works of individual expression that address questions pertaining to the world today … and tomorrow. The new generation of kōgei artists breaks from a tradition that began in the late-19th century Meiji period, which eschewed personal expression and global issues. While contemporary art is viewed as looking towards what’s next, craft is often seen as looking over its shoulder at the past. Not anymore. The new works are powerful, inventive, and future-facing.

  • Manga a tradition of Japanese comics and graphic novels, often traced back to the great artist Katsushika Hokusai, whose Hokusai Manga appeared in 1814.
  • Kogei pronounced “ko-gay,” the term has no literal English translation and refers to handcrafted art or craft objects from Japan with connections to specific locales and cultural heritage.
  • Chawan a bowl used for preparing and drinking tea.

Kōgei can be beautiful to behold, inventive as it is unexpected. Masayusa Mitsuke paints bold geometric patterns on kutani ware using the traditional aka-e technique of fine overglaze painting to create works that look like you’re peering through a kaleidoscope. The abstract patterns seem to replicate infinitely and their precision recalls computer graphics. Another artist whose work appears to morph tradition with twenty-first-century technology is Takashi Ikuri. His twisted and curved white porcelain pieces are visual poetry. To the modern eye they appear digitally fabricated, yet they are designed and carved using clay tools and knives in an intensely concentrated manufacturing process. They stand like totems to the ideas of beauty and mystery.

Kōgei can also have a dark side. Some artists express a dystopian view of a world that is rife with poverty and environmental problems, while others meditate on contemporary psychological states such as emptiness and loneliness. “There is a technical ability inherent in kōgei that has the capacity to unleash intense, future-oriented visual imagery,” says Akimoto.

Katsuyo Aoki, for example, finds inspiration in Japan’s horror subculture and creates otherworldly sculptures using skeletal forms and rococo decorative elements. Her works gleam like bone and act as talismans against feelings of alienation and anxiety in the world today. Kōhei Nakamura, too, shares a dark vision fueled by science fiction narratives and post-apocalyptic tableaux in works that aim for completeness but always seem to fall short.

Each artist falls in a different part of the spectrum that connects the contemporary with the traditional. Self-taught artist Harumi Noguchi’s clay sculptures are small in size but large in the lore of myth, demons, and sprits of an animistic past. Her work recalls a primitive world that was connected to nature, which today is more and more scarce. Takurō Kuwata, on the other hand takes the past and throws it into a contemporary time machine. Drawing inspiration from a manga about a warlord obsessed with the tea ceremony, he creates chawan whose colorful, bright surfaces crackle with a kind of joy in their “Pop” sensibility.

When organizing the exhibition Akimoto recalled incidents from his childhood that inspired his belief in a new kind of kōgei. A child of post World-War II Japan, Akimoto has what he refers to as “memories of kōgei,” recalling a time when his family ate from the same handcrafted lacquer bowls year after year and treated objects with great care. These early lessons helped to shape an aesthetic that led him on a path to kōgei and seeing that craft in Japan today mirrors many aspects, both good and bad, of contemporary society.

The dozen artists in the exhibition are linked by their use of similar materials as the starting point for their work. Kōgei stresses the use of common elements from daily life that are transformed into something beautiful. In contrast to contemporary art that often begins with an idea, kōgei always begins with the hands. It’s a form of self-expression that may sound a bit old-fashioned, but in the hands of these artists, it is transformed into something new. Their craft may be rooted in the past, but their vision is one for the future.


1. Ikura, Where Shadow Meets form 2008-01 © Takao Oya
2. Kuwata, Yellow green-slipped platinum Kairagi
Shino bowl, 2011 © Yasushi Ichikawa
3. Mitsuke, Untitled, 2016 © Ota fine arts
4. Noguchi, Yatagarasu (Great Craw), 2015
5. Aoki, Hydra, 2016 © Mareo Suemasa
6. Nakamura, Resurrection, 1993 © Kohei Nakamura