Design Knowledge Intermediary
Met exhibit looks at Japan's fine craft of bamboo basketry

Bamboo is getting attention these days as a versatile and sustainable material for housewares, so the timing is good for a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit that explores Japan's ancient craft of basketry.

"Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection" is devoted to masterworks, including a half dozen works by two artists designated as Living National Treasures in Japan. To highlight the works' virtuosity and context, they have been displayed alongside paintings, ceramics, bronzes, kimonos and other pieces from different genres.

The exhibit also explores other traditional Japanese arts that are entwined with bamboo basketry, such as ikebana flower arranging and tea ceremony. Bamboo is so central to Japanese culture that the Japanese and Chinese character for bamboo is part of over a thousand other characters, including those for many items traditionally made of bamboo, such as flutes, writing brushes, boxes and baskets.

The introductory section shows how bamboo was used for hundreds of years for everyday utensils as well as refined containers. It was a craft generally honed by specific families, with expertise handed down from one generation to the next. Some leading bamboo artisans created their own schools, many still active today.

But it was not until the late 19th century, the exhibit explains, that bamboo craftsmanship began to be recognized as, first, a veritable Japanese decorative art and, later, as a bona fide art form. Later masters such as Iizuka Rokansai created innovative works that were the foundation for contemporary bamboo art.

One takeaway from the show is that the possibilities of bamboo may turn out to be as vast and limitless as the form is ancient.