Japanese art of the people featured at Nikkei Centre

Photo by John Greenaway

Wheeled dragon toy Tatsu guruma | Photo by John Greenaway

Starting on June 20, the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre will host a vast and beautiful collection of mingei, handcrafted arts from Japan.

Mingei, meaning “arts of the people”, is handmade, inexpensive art often bought by tourists in Japan. Kokeshi dolls, Daruma dolls and Maneki-Neko, or Lucky Cat, are all mingei, and are all iconic objects from Japan.

Mingei is a fairly recent art form, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s. Considering many of Japan’s art forms trace back to the samurai age, mingei is a relative upstart on the Japanese art scene.

The objects are often things that don’t look out of place in the house, like toys, ceramics, textiles and many other functional and wearable items. Certain items are only made in certain regions, and the Japanese often buy mingei from one part of the country to take it back to their home in another.

The unknown artists

lucky cat Maneki Neko | Photo by John Greenaway

Lucky cat Maneki Neko | Photo by John Greenaway

Another important part of mingei is the idea of the unknown artist. Mingei is presented without knowing who made it; only knowing the area it came from. That and the production of the objects helps make mingei unique.

Mingei is very family based,” says Sherri Kajiwara, director-curator at the Nikkei Centre. “The way you make the objects is passed down through family, helps keep everyone different, and special in their own way.”

Each object of mingei comes from a specific craftsman or family. If the details on how to make an object aren’t passed down, then the knowledge will disappear.

“There’s a special pottery, a vessel for sake (a Japanese alcoholic drink). The man who made it was an amazing craftsman, but he died before he had someone he could pass on how to make it, so the secrets have been lost. Though certain mingei figures are instantly recognizable, every one of them is unique, all different in their own way,” says Kajiwara.

The exhibit

The exhibit at the Nikkei Centre is a collaboration with the Canadian Society for Asian Arts, showcasing the collection of Amaury Saint-Gilles, a noted mingei art collector.

Saint-Gilles worked as an art critic for a Japanese newspaper, through which he discovered mingei, and became passionate about it, collecting dozens of objects.

Wooden Kokeshi dolls | Photo by John Greenaway

Wooden Kokeshi dolls | Photo by John Greenaway

“We’ve split the exhibit into three sections,” says Kajiwara. “The first is a section to do with play, toys and such. The second is home, with textiles, ceramics and other functional and wearable objects. The third is spiritual, with religious or ceremonious objects.”

Unlike most mingei collections, where the collection focuses on a few things, and gets objects to fit that range, this collection shows everything that Saint-Gilles has.

“The scope is huge. It’s art from everyday life. It’s remarkable to see the care and artistry from so many craftsmen together in one place,” says Kajiwara.

Though hugely popular in Japan, mingei is close to unknown in many places outside of the country. There is no mingei produced outside of Japan, which doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be known.

Mingei is humble, and might seem simple, but that’s what makes it unique, what makes it beautiful,” says Kajiwara.

For more information visit centre.nikkeiplace.org