Post 704 –by Gautam Shah
This article is compiled from several Internet resources and my own lecture notes on Surface Finishes.
Ryukyuan lacquerware (Ryukyu no Shikki) is the chief craft product of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa Prefecture of Japan). Shikki incidentally, stands for lacquerware. Ryukyuan lacquerware represents a unique form and style distinct from the neighbouring places. These have three distinguishing features: the brilliant red colour of the background, gold patterns and use of inlay of mother of pearl. Many items and techniques of making the lacquerware of Ryukyuan, elsewhere in Japan and China are common. ‘Ryukyuan lacquers, yet, are neither purely Chinese nor purely Japanese’. The craft of making or decorating with lacquer is common in many Asian countries.
The art of Lacquerware came to Japan with Buddhism in mid 6th C from China through Korea. When Okinawa was the Ryukyu Kingdom, the lacquer items also came through trade with China during 14th and 15th C. Ryukyuan artisans over the years while exploiting, both the local and imported materials, matured the lacquerware into an ethnic craft by using Ryukyuan motifs.
Ryukyu, lacquerware have over the years seen several political upheavals, forcing imposition of new styles, but yet the most popular red lacquerware has survived such vagaries. During the 17th and 18th C, following the invasion of Okinawa by Satsuma the Chinese style black lacquerware production was made mandatory. It resulted in mixing up of Ryukyuan and Chinese styles lacquerware in single pieces.
In Ryukyu, lacquerware like cups and bowls were used for offerings in religion rituals, whereas items such as necklaces and decorative utilitarian articles were offered for political gratification. The descendants of Ryukyu samurai and royalty used the lacquerware in formal places in order to forge a connection between people and the Gods. The royal Sho family of the former Ryukyu Kingdom have a set of lacquerware luncheon-basket, leg bowl and wine cups, cherished as the national cultural asset.
Ryukyu lacquerware, over the ages, have seen several modifications. These were, in earlier periods due to the change in patronage by the rulers and also inclusion of new patterns, materials and techniques in the repertoire. In modern times these have been mainly markets driven changes. ‘Chinkin’, the gold inlayed items had traditional vermilion and additional green lacquer. ‘Raden’ the flaked seashells inlayed articles were produced in red lacquer. In later periods Raden pieces were produced with green turban or marine snail shell over black lacquer. From 18th C other techniques were used, such as Hakue (foil lacquering) and Tsuikin (red lacquerware with raised designs). After the annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, Ryukyu lacquerware began to be produced by private workshops and companies.
Hakue consists of painting a design in lacquer with a makizutsu or a kebo brush and then applying gold leaf or gold-silver powder while the lacquer is half dry. Modern method uses gold, silver, copper, brass, lead, aluminum, platinum, and pewter, as well as their alloys. The Maki-e method was initially used to decorate arms like swords, but adopted over lacquered surfaces.
Chinkin (Qiangjin in Chinese) technique is submerging or sinking gold as leaf or powder into carved cinnabar red-lacquered surfaces. This required very fine knife engraving work onto a polished surface. Ryukyu craft-persons preferred a variation of relief building the designs with lacquer putty, called Tsuikin, over the original Chinese method of lacquer (tsuishu) carving. Tsuikin, post 18th C is more common method. Thin sheets of Lacquer mixed with pigments are rolled out. From these various motifs are cut and applied to the craft-item. Due to its easy process, the Tsuikin is very popular process. Hananuri uses the contrast between vermilion and black lacquer. Raden uses seashell flake for inlay work. Mitsudae is a method oil painting (with lead-based pigments) motifs like flowers, birds and skies with white, pink and other bright pastel colours or coloured lacquers (iro-urushie).
In the Heian period (794-1185), when in Japanese history Buddhism, Taoism and other Chinese influences were at their peak, sacred vessels and other articles used by temples of various faiths were of Maki-e style lacquerware. Similarly aristocrats, samurai families, merchants and artisan classes were using Maki-e style items as status symbol and proud possessions.
The lacquerware have evolved with many decorating techniques.
■ Lacquer as a raw material (resinous exudate or secretion of insects flourishing on certain trees), is not local. The material was brought to Okinawa through trade. Exclusive officers were appointed to supervise the production of lacquerware in the Ryukyu Kingdom.
■ Local woods of Okinawa, such as Deigo coral tree, Sendan or bead tree, Egokoki, Gajumaru, with uniform grains are used.
■ Okinawa islands are part of the northern limit of Black sea current which offers the hardest turban shells. Use of wafer-shin shell, prepared by boiling the shell in water for about a week and then pulverizing it (mijingai-nuri) is a local technique. The mix of pulverized shell and lacquer, after applications are rubbed to make a smooth surface (roiro-togidashi).
■ Ryukyu, lacquerware motifs include papaya, plantain, palm trees, hibiscus chrysanthemums, peonies, and other representations of islands’ coastal zone flora. Similarly local and exotic birds and animals, such as long-tailed hens, wagtails (genus Motacilla), chicken, swallows, wagtails, sparrows, mandarin ducks, peacocks and peonies, and a fictional phoenix is found here. Designs that combine and depict flowers and birds are called kachō-zu. Many non local motifs were included to serve the export markets.
Lacquer coating is common in many parts of the world. Thin lacquer coatings or as applied in multiple layers, nominally do not crack or peel off the surface. Lacquers with additives like wax or oil as plasticizing agents can be applied on many surfaces.
Shellacs finishes, were the first true clear coatings. Sankheda (Gujarat India) furniture and Chinese lacquer items are examples of shellac coatings. Shellac is a very effective coating material even in very thin viscosity, as a result its penetration and filling capacity is excellent. It is eminently recoatable so a very level and glossy surface is possible. Modern synthetic version NC (nitro-cellulose) lacquer provides a very clear and superior film compared to a shellac and maleic modified resins. Lacquers are modified with alkyds, other synthetic resins and plasticizer so as to control adhesion, softness, toughness and malleability. At fixed levels of viscosities it is possible to formulate lacquers with variable solid contents by varying the degree of molecular linkages. This property renders lacquer as the most versatile coating material for wood, metal, metal foil, leather, fabrics, fibers, plastics, stones, metals, glass, masonry, paper, ceramics, grasses (cane, bamboo), human hair and skin.
Links to My other articles
446 COROMANDEL LACQUER
LACQUERS or NC LACQUERS
SHELLAC COATINGS and FRENCH POLISHES