Wednesday 27 February 2008

The Mantis by Ataru Maeda

I’ve already introduced Ataru Maeda to you and I’m certain you’ve all had a good look at his creations. This is one that I particularly appreciate. The subject, a mantis, is very common in Japanese art, especially on objects used by the warrior class. The samurai really admired the apparent fearlessness of these delicate insects. If you’ve ever reached out to try and pick one up or merely touch it you’ll have seen how they rear up and lunge out with their fore limbs, almost like a boxer sizing you up. Their Japanese name; kamakiri , refers to those deadly scythe-like weapons. A kama is a Japanese sickle and is usually a short, curved blade attached at right angles to a wooden shaft about the length of a man's forearm. Kiri means “to cut”.

A common pairing in traditional art is of the mantis and a wagon wheel ( sometimes broken ). As far as I know this wheel represents the emperor's carriage, his being the only wheeled vehicle in the land. Our brave little chap is, according to this image, not even cowed by this approach of the most revered and powerful ( in theory anyway ;-) ) personage in the world. There could almost be a suggestion of subversive resistance to authority in this motif.

Ataru has carved his interpretation of these heroic little creatures in stag antler. From what I understand, and from my own limited experience, this material poses quite a few challenges in terms of it’s consistency and how it will ultimately appear. Most work in stag that I’ve seen tends to be stained to enhance the texture inherent in the coarser areas and to a deep glow to the areas that can take a glossy polish. This effect is very appealing , perhaps also because it is familiar, but here we see a piece that defies this “safe” convention.

The overall composition works elegantly, to my eye. The stalk of bamboo is a perfect compliment to the insect and the degree of curve provides just a hint of springiness that seems to enliven the creature.

As I contemplate this work, and I’m well aware that I am able to see only a tiny part of what makes up the whole art work, I am struck, first, by it’s starkness. It feels wintry!…the almost frosty white with only the faint brown mottling to relive the whiteness. Until, that is, I am drawn into those limpid, mysterious eyes.

The use of this translucent, orange material ( what is that Ataru? ) was an inspired touch. The creature still remains somewhat austere but these ambivalent eyes add a hint of warmth that is almost mesmerising. I can almost guess what it’s prey might feel like…ugh!

The mantis has been very faithfully rendered, with a soft, almost plump belly ( abdomen ) the wings cloak the body ever so delicately and I just know the texture on them is so finely carved that they are a delight of patterning. And then there are those fore claws…neatly tucked up and away, almost as though this mantis would like us to overlook them, and the threat they present. The way they are depicted against the body makes me think of the way people sometimes cradle their hands, almost tentatively, in a pensive attitude of refined restraint.

Here on the southern most tip of Africa our indigenous Khoi-san people have long revered the praying mantis. The Afrikaans word for it is Hottentots god. There is a beautiful folk story told by these people about the mantis and the moon too; you can read a version here;
Perhaps a lunar kamakiri would look a little like this one. I think this sculpture has captured something quite essential of the spirit of the mantis and as you may have guessed, I love it.


Lorenzo said...

could that translucent ad orange material be amber?
Ford, have you ever gave a look to the katana eciclopedy? Is a two issue square book in japanese, full of pictures. On the first of the two books, there is a bukezukuri daisho koshirae, and the mekugi appears to be the same material... that is still a mistery to me, because amber is not elastic like bamboo.

Ford Hallam said...

Hi Lorenzo,

could be amber I suppose, although it seemed a bit too solid a colour for such a small piece. We'll see what Ataru has to say. As for the mekugi, I've not seen that encyclopedia yet, sorry I can't offer any suggestions there. Perhaps some kind person will send me a copy for my birthday ;-)

前田中 ( ATARU MAEDA ) said...

Ford, thank you for introducing me ! your deep knowledges and ideas are rather higher than me, and further, contemplation to my works( :-]) Though I'm Japanese, I've studied many things about mantis and Japanese cultures from you. Someday, I may teach you about African native cultures UMM...
This eyes of Mantis are made from the splinters of the moonlight, by the case in Africa, but in japan, I made those by using this material in following.
We call this "Lact" and these are made from Milks. I'm not sure that this material is an universal one, but, in Japan, we often use this material to make a Stamp as a substituted material to an Ivory. Tortoiseshells are better choice, but, if I use it, I could not take my works to the other countries. What you often find something like it inside ancient works of Japan, most of them are this Tortoiseshells. they are more brilliant than Lact, and, both are easy enough to be processed.

Lorenzo said...

Naruhodo.. Maedasan no kamakiri wa hontou ni subarashii desuyo ne!

Ford Hallam said...

Hi Ataru, so you know about shaping moonlight into eyes, I thought that secret was only known to sangomas (witchdoctors or shaman ) here in Africa. ;-)

Thanks for that infomation, it looks quite interesting, I must learn more but I think it is a form of casien, a milk solid.

and Lorenzo is absolutely right, rippa na!

Fred Zweig said...

How fortunate we are to be able to find such pleasure and meaning in such a simple small object. So many spend most of their life seeking and storing treasure of grandure and not having the time to enjoy the true beauty.

Knowledge and happiness found in understanding how to see.

Thank you all for allowing me to share in this.


前田中 ( ATARU MAEDA ) said...

Minasama, arigatou gozaimasu !
( Thank you for all ! )

Donn said...

Ahhhh Ford, you surely be missed.
Have been out and about travelling in the U.S. exhibiting and workshopping. Only just begun to catch up on events in my absense and am still not conversant with such nor feel the need to be. This blog is a promise of sensitivities expressed as nowhere else.
In appreciation..... Donn

Ford Hallam said...

Thanks for the support and show of appreciation Gents, I'm sure Ataru is as grateful as I am.

Good to hear from you Donn. I trust your travels were worth the effort. Thanks for your kind word also. I am actually finding this format to a better window for me than a web-site, it's more immediate and personal. The new forum is slowly getting there too..