Asahi Shimbun - Bamboo artist Tanabe follows family lineage to win global acclaim

Masanori Sako
02/11/2015

At an exhibition in Tokyo last fall,world-renowned artist Shouchiku Tanabe told an audience that his life long experience of working with bamboo resonates within him and helps him craft the material into avant-garde art objects.

“I try to have a conversation with bamboo, feel its pulse and create objects with concerted efforts. It is a theme of my art,” Tanabe told a packed gallery in October at the Wako department store in the capital's Ginza district.

Coming from a distinguished family of bamboo artists in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, Tanabe’s name is known by collectors of Asian art around the world, and his works are displayed in London's British Museum and other prominent museums.

“Tanabe has successfully created a new world of stereoscopic bamboo objects, expanding the horizons for expression of bamboo art,” said Masanori Moroyama, chief curator at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. “He is a rising star, and the future of Japanese bamboo art depends on him.”

Despite his success, Tanabe says his life has been marked by constant struggles from the pressure he felt from having noble parentage in the world of bamboo art.

Tanabe was born in 1973 to Tanabe Chikuunsai III as the second son of the respected master of bamboo art in Sakai, a historic center of bamboo artisans in the Kansai region.

When he became old enough to split and cut bamboo, Tanabe was made to weave bamboo, often being scolded by his strict father.

While he attended a polytechnic high school in Osaka, he discovered the joy of crafts-making for the first time and enrolled in the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts.

That was when his soul-searching began.His classmates all appeared to have high aspirations and talents for the arts that seemed to elude him. An inferiority complex soon set in, and Tanabe became reluctant to attend school.

During this time, he took up various part-time jobs. He did odd jobs at restaurants and a karaoke establishment. He worked on a construction crew and later traveled around Japan on his motorcycle.

“He was simply an underachiever,” said Takashi Fukai, a professor of sculpture at the school who was Tanabe’s supervisor. “He didn’t come to school in the first place, and did not craft anywork either.”

He once told his father on phone that he wanted to become an English teacher, only to be rebuked.

“Anyone from any family could do that job," his father told him. “You must craft bamboo because you are born to a family of bamboo art.”

While he continued to devote his time to part-time jobs and volunteered to teach English to children, he began feeling a growing agony inside and a sense of identity crisis. He soon came to realize that he could never run away from his artistic lineage, which stretched back in time more than 120 years.

When he turned 22, Tanabe apologized to his parents and promised that he would never give up pursuing bamboo art.

In the following six weeks, he dedicated all his efforts to his first artwork, titled “Connection,” which he dedicated to his parents. His dissertation work at the art school also impressed Fukai, who told Tanabe that he would be a master of the art one day.

But another ordeal befell him after he became his father's apprentice at the family’s workshop.

Bamboo art requires extremely delicate craftsmanship because, for instance, 0.01 millimeter of difference in the thickness of a bamboo piece can deform the final object.

It was often the case that he was ordered by his father to disassemble a work he spent two weeks to weave to restart from scratch.

“I almost made up my mind to quit every week,” Tanabe said.

But he eventually learned that it was the last thing his father wanted him to do.

In 2001, he was surprised to receive an offer to exhibit his work at a craft exhibition in Philadelphia. He learned that the offer was the result of his his father having sent pictures of Tanabe's art to museums around the world.

After the exhibition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art offered to purchase one of Tanabe's creations to add to its permanent collection.

The experience motivated Tanabe to bring his works to the world. He organized his first personal overseas exhibition in New York the following year, although the exhibition incurred a loss because he sold very few of his pieces.

A decade later, Tanabe has risen to fame around the world and has contracts with four prominent galleries in London, Paris, Brussels and Santa Fe in the U.S. state of New Mexico to display his work. He has also organized personal exhibitions each year in different locations around the world.

Last March, Tanabe Chikuunsai III died of cancer, but the lineage of the artistic family is set to be handed down to future generations. In May, Tanabe’s 6-year-old daughter, Sarara, debuted at a family exhibition with her handcrafted bamboo basket.

“My daughters will possibly feel pressure to succeed in bamboo art, but I feel I am obliged to hand over this culture that has passed through generations to them,” Tanabe said. “I now feel it is the primary meaning of my life.”

Tanabe is set to succeed the artist name of his ancestors to become Tanabe Chikuunsai IV in spring 2017.