There are some moments in life when the stars align so neatly it is hard to attribute them to anything other than fate.
Ever since I started at the Honolulu Museum of Art more than 10 years ago, the idea for an exhibition on Okinawan art had been slowly forming in my mind. Initially, though, I knew little about the subject. In fact, the first time I came across shelves of Okinawan ceramics in the vault I had no idea what they were, other than the fact that they were from Okinawa.
Over the years, though, Okinawa kept coming up. I learned much about this area from our knowledgeable textiles curator Sara Oka even before we started to plan an exhibition. Then, in 2008, University of Hawai‘i Professor John Szostak approached me about working with students to install a mini-exhibition on Mingei (a movement emphasizing Japanese folk art that emerged in the early 20th century to spread around the world, with strong ties to Hawai‘i) in our Japan Gallery, and the class researched and included our Okinawan funerary urns. Other past UH students have expressed interest in HoMA’s series of Hokusai prints depicting Okinawan scenery and titled Eight Views of the Ryūkyū Islands (of which we have a complete set). Lastly, Okinawan museum professionals and scholars have visited several times to survey our collection, including Professor Mori Tatsuya from the Okinawan Prefectural University of Art, who greatly increased the amount of information we have regarding our Okinawan holdings. In particular, Professor Mori’s enthusiasm for an imperial lacquer offering stand made us aware that this was a rare treasure.
With help from all of these people, it finally seemed time to organize a special exhibition celebrating Okinawan art. Lacquer and Clay: Okinawan Art, which opened May 10 of this year and is still on display, has the offering stand installed as the highlight. It has been an honor to witness the significance the artworks have for the local Okinawan community, which has strongly supported our programming. Performing arts troupe Ukwanshin Kabudan not only conducted a moving opening ceremony for the exhibition, but also recently performed in the Doris Duke Theatre, and collaborated over the summer with our Art School to bring contemporary textile artists from Okinawa for a student workshop and other related events.
Even with this remarkable convergence of energies from so many different directions, though, it still felt like something was missing.
It is no secret that my first love is the museum’s stellar Asian paintings; the opportunity to study them was one of my main reasons for coming to Honolulu. However, HoMA did not possess a single Okinawan painting. In my years as a curator, I had never seen one come on the market, and I had started to accept the fact that there might never be an opportunity to address this gap in our collection. (Given the devastation Okinawa was subjected to in the last century, we were lucky to have what we did, and the possibility of ever making another significant acquisition of Okinawan art was remote indeed.)
Imagine my surprise, then, when I was in Japan this spring and a dealer with whom the museum has a long relationship informed me that he had just acquired an Okinawan painting. Since I was working on an exhibition, perhaps I might be interested in seeing it? As he brought it from a back room, opened the box, and gently unrolled it, my heart rate increased, my breath became short, and I could barely contain my excitement. Once again, though, I had no idea what I was looking at, other than that while the subject was the familiar one of a tiger under bamboo, the brushwork was unlike anything I had ever seen in either Chinese or Japanese art.
I rushed back to my hotel room, turned on my computer, and spent the rest of the afternoon doing research. The painting’s signature was in Chinese (Okinawa was equally influenced by China and Japan, and its culture draws from both traditions), reading Zha Pilie (Sa Hiretsu in Japanese pronunciation). This turned out to be an artist better known by his Japanese name, Nakasone Shōzan. Born in 1843, Nakasone was not just any artist; he became an Okinawan imperial court painter at the young age of 22, and continued to serve as a royal artist for over 30 years, until the court was disbanded in 1879 and Okinawa formally became part of Japan. Surviving paintings by him are rare; known examples include only a monumental depiction of Shuri Castle, the main keep in the Okinawan capital, now in the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and an accordion-mounted book portraying Okinawan customs in Hamilton Library at the University of Hawai‘i.
Wait….The University of Hawai‘i? Well, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised; Hamilton Library does have the world’s leading archives of Okinawan manuscripts. Still, this was an almost unimaginable coincidence.
A flurry of emails ensued over the next two days, and I secured permission from the museum to place the painting on hold. Those two days were a painfully long wait. I was the first person to see the work since the dealer had acquired it, but I knew that if anyone else realized what it was, it might get snapped up immediately. My only hope was that no one expected it to be available, so they weren’t looking. Museums often don’t admit the vital role that dealers play in forming their collections, but because this dealer wanted to see the painting come to Hawaii as much as I did, he was incredibly patient while we worked out the logistics.
On the morning of the third day, I was waiting outside the shop when it opened.
“Say, that Okinawan painting you showed me the other day, do you still have it?” I asked sheepishly.
“Yes, I believe so,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye.
“I think the museum might be interested—would you mind putting it on hold while I go back and discuss it with them?”
“Yes, I could do that.”
A few months later the painting was shipped to Hawai‘i, and in August, the Board of Trustees approved its acquisition. I like to imagine that years from now, once all of the exhibitions and programs that I’ve organized are nothing but a faint memory, a future curator might review our collection, and, when encountering the Okinawan section, think, Hmm, I don’t know much about this subject, but we should do an exhibition someday. Then he or she will spot the tiger painting and feel just as astonished and delighted as I was. Perhaps it will help inspire them to find other exciting discoveries to share with the world.