With the technique of steel engraving from his country, Yasutaka Kitamura exhibits calligraphic works with Islamic themes.

Artists often raise issues about spirituality in their works. We are aware that there are many artists who create works out of the initiatives of the religious institutions they belong to, or especially dedicate their faith in the form of works of art. Out of these, the market for “religious artworks” grew.

Yasutaka Kitamura enters into this area as a Japanese artist who experiments with Islamic calligraphy – despite the fact that he is a Buddhist. Using the traditional Japanese technique Choukin (steel engraving), Kitamura is exhibiting five works at the Japan Foundation from 5-22 February 2013 with the theme Trying to See the Invisible.

Spirituality combined with tradition. This is what creates an overall sense of harmony about Kitamura’s five works. Not to mention his main choice in the objects he worked with: calligraphy. In the arts, calligraphic forms have long been found coinciding with engraving and woodcut techniques. With this technique, calligraphic forms are accepted as decorative works to furnish a room, and the steel engraving technique is easier to apply when creating letterforms than human forms.

Although it may not seem extraordinary when perceived in terms of the relation between calligraphy and steel engraving technique, Kitamura nonetheless provides a new experience for the general Indonesian art enthusiast: Choukin. The steel engraving technique originates from Saudi Arabia and came to Japan in the 1800s through the silk route. Since then, the technique has continued to develop in Japan.

In Japan, not many young artists master the technique of Choukin. It may be said that at this moment there are 20 older artists who are able to create Choukin. Kitamura has the perseverance in learning the technique, one of the reasons being his family’s artistic blood. Kitamura is the fourth generation of the Japanese decorative artists Kanzashi and Netsuke (since 1893).

Although he comes from a family of decorative artists, Kitamura studied Choukin at university. “I also learnt it from a craftsman called Shigekazu Hotta for ten years,” mentions Kitamura, who has studied the technique for 12 years.

Kitamura was not only persistent in sharpening his technique, but also in creating his own tools. “He makes his own tools because there aren’t any for sale, so artists who studies Choukin also has to make their own tools,” explain Hasimoto Ayumi, Assistant Director at the Japan Foundation.

Kitamura showed us how to use the tools, explaining their names and different functions. With the round-topped chisel, he hits it against the Ke-bori, which creates engraving in pattern that he had sketched before. As with other metal-based media, Kitamura also goes through a firing process before dipping it in water.

According to Ayumi, the Choukin technique in Japan developed rapidly during the Edo period (1603-1867), for creating handicraft and decoration for hanging ornaments in kimonos. In Kitamura’s hands, this technique was used to create works with Buddhist themes. It is only when he came to Indonesia in 2010 that Kitamura began working with Islamic calligraphy.

From the five works exhibited at the Japan Foundation, Kitamura created three calligraphic works in the media Katakiri-bori (chasework), acrylic on aluminum and steel plates, as well as mixed media. The three works are titled Allah, Syahadat, and Bismillah.

Islamic references are also visible in two installation works: A Life Over Someone’s Life No. 3 and Encroachment. In the work A Life Over Someone’s Life No. 3, Kitamura used chicken feather that he painted using white acrylic paint, stacked up around the Arabic writing ruuhun, which means soul. Through this work Kitamura would like to convey that we could not perceive the soul as the source of life, and the layers of chicken feather symbolizes the layers of life.

The installation Encroachment, in the form of a goat’s heat made up of pandan leaves that he had also painted with white acrylic paint, look as if they place placed on top of an altar. The work expresses the sacrificial ritual during Idul Adha. Islamic references are also apparent on the writing of Insya Allah in the work.

Kitamura was born on 1 May 1978, and his interest in Islam was pursued by studying the Arabic language in an Islamic boarding school in the area of Karawang in the last two years. There, Kitamura taught Japanese, as he also does at the Foreign Language School JIA in Bekasi.

As he brings a traditional Japanese craft that is mostly unknown in Indonesia, it is a shame that not enough works are exhibited by the artist, who graduated from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Visitors are unable to see the extensive exploration that Kitamura had done with Choukin. If we look at his personal website, we could see that he has created works with reference to Buddhist philosophy in the form of flowers, koi fish, Zen lettering, and so forth.

Those who are unfamiliar with the combination of traditional craft techniques and spiritual themes also feel the exotic nuance. This is perhaps why it is problematic to place Kitamura’s work as contemporary. Despite this, the exhibition succeeded in showing an introduction to artistic techniques from other countries, which deserve to pose as reference for Indonesian artists in enriching their own artistic exploration.

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